Years ago someone asked my father what his favorite verses from the Bible were. He quickly responded, “The Twenty-third Psalm.” I was stunned that my father came up with an answer at all and even more amazed that he got the number of the psalm correct. The Kileys were a good mid-century Roman Catholic family. We never read the Bible. My mother’s Father Lasance prayer book and my father’s Maryknoll missal were sufficient spiritual guidance for my parents. The oft-told lives of the saints at my local Catholic grammar school energized my pursuit of religious excellence. The only Bible in the house came from my mother’s grandparents, Patrick and Mary Ann O’Brien, who carefully recorded their marriage in 1860 and the subsequent births of their five children in Indian Orchard, Massachusetts during the 1860s and 70s. This cherished possession was kept in a bureau bottom drawer. It was a prized legacy from the past, not a reference book for the present. In spite of our Scriptural deficiencies, the Kileys managed to live most of our lives in the state of grace and are enjoying — or expect to enjoy — the eternal happiness of heaven.
The 23rd Psalm, of course, is the much cited and pleasantly rustic celebration of God the Father as shepherd and provider for his people Israel: “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.” Christians early applied the agreeable pastoral image to Jesus Christ as ancient religious art attests. The memory of the ever-popular king David who was snatched from his flock to assume the leadership of the people of God gave added vigor to the notion that both the Father and his Divine Son are indeed shepherds. And even after two thousand years the word “pastor,” Latin for shepherd, is still as integral to Catholic life as ever. Shepherds, ironically, were not held in great esteem in the ancient world. Often they were ne’er-do-wells who could not hold a job in the city and took refuge among the animals in the countryside. St. Luke, who greatly favored the poor, probably had their low estate in mind when he allowed shepherds to be the first to worship the newborn Christ.
The good shepherd will of course provide “green pastures” and “restful waters” for the flock entrusted to his care. This is a task fairly easily accomplished in lush, verdant Galilee but a much greater challenge in Judea’s sandy wilderness. Pasture lands and water reservoirs are still at a premium in much of the Middle East so the good shepherd clearly had to work for the refreshment of his charges. The good shepherd knew all the “right paths” and was extra careful in any “dark valley.” The shepherd’s handy “rod and staff” were visible signs of his care and concern. The crooked staff could draw any wayward sheep back from a precipice or away from a thorny bush. The staff could also fight off any animal that might threaten the flock.
With a slight change of metaphor, the Lord has now become an abundant provider under challenging circumstance. “I will fear no evil, for you are with me” In the midst of battle, the provident Lord spreads out a “banquet,” a lavish picnic with “overflowing” cup, clearly in the “sight of the enemy,” daring the foe to advance toward the Lord’s protected charge. The solicitous Lord “anoints” the head of his charge with oil, truly a soothing refreshment in the intense heat of the desert wilderness.
Both as shepherd and as provident Lord, God will guarantee his charges his perennial mercy, the “goodness and kindness” of God promised in the Hebrew Scriptures and fulfilled in the Christian Scriptures through the advent of Jesus Christ. Such “goodness and kindness” will assure the believer of a comfortable dwelling place “in the house of the Lord” for all eternity — “for years to come.” St. Paul celebrated this Divine goodness and kindness when he wrote to Titus: “But when the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.” St. Paul’s phrases are a bit more theological than the bucolic expressions of the Psalmist. But the message is the same. God is indeed the good shepherd, the provident pastor, the solicitous father, intent on the conversion, protection and deliverance of his sons and daughters. Christ assumed this pastoral ministry both figuratively and literally in his preaching — “I am the Good Shepherd” — and in his death —I will lay down my life for the sheep.” With an eye on Jesus Christ, the words of the ancient psalmist — “I shall not want” — can be uttered again and again with full confidence.