What good is a shepherd?

"The good Shepherd" mosaic - Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
“The Good Shepherd” mosaic – Mausoleum of Galla Placidia

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

    He makes me lie down in green pastures;

he leads me beside still waters;

    he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths

    for his name’s sake.

The 23rd Psalm is so well known for many that the risk is that when we see or hear it, we don’t pay the attention necessary to actually read or hear it – we know how it goes. It’s the one they recite at funerals.

Our appreciation of this psalm is hampered by our familiarity.

On the other hand, hardly any of us have anything to do with sheep or shepherding. Most of us are detached from the agriculture all around us and so we don’t have any personal experience with the pastoral life that is the metaphor under this whole psalm. American’s don’t even eat much lamb!

Our appreciation of this psalm is hampered by our unfamiliarity.

With these deficits in mind, let’s take another look.

As I’ve already noted, this psalm is frequently read by or to mourners at funerals and memorial services. In that context it is a poem of consolation. It is, however, also a regular feature of the Easter season – appointed for reading on the Fourth Sunday of Easter in many churches. In that context, it’s a poem of certitude and celebration. It follows immediately after Psalm 22, the one that Jesus quotes from the cross when he cries out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” and, in that respect, is an answer to that cry and so a fitting accompaniment of our celebration of Christ’s resurrection – the answer of life to the great and problematic question of death.

But there’s even more going on than a happy ending for Jesus’ story. Psalm 23 is a declaration of dependence. 

For people who live in a culture that values and cherishes a “Declaration of Independence,” this might feel like a step backward, but it’s right there in the opening line: “The Lord is my shepherd.”

Augustine, the 4th century African pastor, wrote, “When you say, ‘The Lord is my shepherd,’ no proper grounds are left for you to trust in yourself.” Pastor Augustine isn’t just confessing the story of his own conversion, he’s calling out a fact that would have been widely known in the prevailing culture of his time. Everyone would have known that sheep are absolutely dependent upon their shepherd. Sheep were a big deal in the Roman Empire of which he was a part – their wool, meat and hides were key commodities of trade. Sheep were everywhere.

In his fascinating book, provocatively entitled, The Covenant of the Wild, why animals chose domestication, Stephen Budiansky argues that the domestication of animals and plants, far from an independent human invention born from human ingenuity, is better thought of as a series of changes of behavior and anatomy over time. These changes happen because both sides benefited from an increasingly symbiotic relationship. Both sides had something to gain through increased interaction. 

Of relevance to our reflection here, sheep have the second longest history with human beings. Only the dog has been marked by a longer relationship. What’s more, sheep have so prospered from the relationship with their human companions that they have lost the ability to live independently. Apart from a few (literally) isolated incidents where flocks of sheep have come to live unattended on an island, there are no feral sheep. The species that we call domesticated sheep – ovis aries – are incapable of thriving in the wild.

Preachers, expounding on Psalm 23 and the “Good Shepherd” sayings of Jesus, frequently chalk up ovine dependence to the fact that sheep are hapless and stupid. Budiansky’s analysis suggests something else and his view is borne out by Jesus’ teaching that the sheep of the Good Shepherd know their shepherd’s voice.

In Budiansky’s analysis, domestication offered safety and stability to the wild forebears of domestic sheep. If humans were willing to offer themselves as protectors, then sheep, as a species, were freed from the need to cultivate their own strategies of self-preservation. In this view, sheep – as a whole species – know a good thing when they see it. We might even say that this makes them collectively wise.

As we continue our Easter season celebration of Jesus’ resurrection – a celebration of Jesus’ victory over all that would threaten our alienation and annihilation – it’s good to take a page from sheep who recognize a champion when they see one.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Pr. Jim

April 27, 2022

Pastor Jim and Pastor Kate take turns writing weekly devotions for the Chapel of the Resurrection.