The 23rd psalm appears in our lectionary only a handful of times—but every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter, there it is. Yesterday, the fourth Sunday of Easter, is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. The readings in all three years of the lectionary focus on images of God and Jesus as shepherd, taking care of the flock. And every year we are presented with the 23rd psalm.
It’s a powerful psalm, not just in its imagery, but in the emotional pull it has over many of us. It was the first piece of scripture that I memorized. My pastor at the time offered a trip to Dairy Queen for any kids who could recite the whole thing—and I got my Blizzard about a week after that first announcement. Maybe it would have happened anyway, but once I memorized the psalm, I started to see it everywhere.
From TV shows, to movies, to music, Psalm 23 appears in a lot of different places. Artists, ranging from U2 to Marilyn Manson to Jay-Z, have alluded to this piece of scripture; it’s been recited in movies like Titanic, War Horse, and True Grit. If we asked people what their favorite passage of scripture is, a lot would probably answer Psalm 23 (sometimes because that’s the only reference they know of!).
In the twentieth century, it came to be associated with funerals—perhaps this is because of its widespread popularity in general, since the psalm itself has little to do with death or dying. It is a great comfort, however, for those who are grieving, reminding them of the protection of the Lord through any struggle.
What really struck me yesterday, though, was the very first verse: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” It’s a simple enough statement, but just for a second think about how counter-cultural it is. I shall not want. In a society designed to keep us constantly wanting, with commercials and ads that promise happiness and wholeness if we just had more, what does it mean that yesterday, our church stood together and said, “I shall not want”? (Really we sat and chanted it, but it’s not as powerful to say that.)
What a statement we made yesterday! Of course, in the time since we chanted that wonderful line and my writing this post, I’ve wanted dozens of things: a nicer car, a DVR, a larger bathroom. The ads that appear along the side of my browser tell me that if I only used the right shampoo, or had the right furniture, my true worth as a person might finally be realized. And sometimes, I must admit, I take the bait.
Now, nothing in the psalm says anything about not needing anything. Of course we have needs. I need shampoo in my life. With the job I have, I need a reliable method of transportation. We all need shelter, and food. And some of the wants are things we can really enjoy. The trouble comes when we start to let the wants shape our identity. Instead of being a tool in doing my job effectively or a method to visit family and friends, a car can become linked to my self-worth. And if it’s not good enough, then I’m not good enough. It’s easy for it to happen with any possession, really.
And that’s what I think that first verse of the psalm is really trying to get at. I am God’s. The Lord is my shepherd, and so I am enough. The most important piece of my identity is tied to belonging to the Lord. Since my identity is grounded in that, I shall not want. I shall not struggle to define myself by what I have or what I accomplish. Of course I will still have things and accomplish various things—they just aren’t the things that give me worth as a person.
I’ll close with the first verse of my favorite hymn setting of Psalm 23. It’s “The King of Love My Shepherd Is” written by Henry W. Baker (#502 in the ELW):
The King of love my shepherd is,
whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am his
and he is mine forever.