We do indeed have this “good shepherd” in whose presence we may dwell all our days
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary—Year A 2011
By Dennis Ormseth
Reading for Series B: 2011-2012
Fourth Sunday of Easter
1 John 3:16-24
The readings for this Good Shepherd Sunday in year B place the much-beloved Psalm 23 in the context of the conflict that is narrated in third and fourth chapters of Acts, from which the first lesson is drawn again this Sunday. The followers of Jesus, who in the days following the resurrection were still in Jerusalem, were frequently in the temple and ardently engaged the leaders of the temple-state in controversy over the meaning of Jesus’ life and death, in the conviction that he whom the leaders had crucified, “God raised from the dead” (4:10). Thus is the metaphor of the “good shepherd” of Psalm 23 and the Gospel text placed in sharp relief against the image of the gathered authorities who govern in Israel and act out, as it were, the part of the “hired hands” of the Gospel parable. The shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep” contrasts sharply with the “hired hand” who ”does not care for the sheep” (John 10:11, 13)—the one 'who prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (Psalm 23:5) with the “rulers of the people and elders” who question the disciples “because of a good deed done to someone who was sick” and who ask “how this man has been healed (Acts 4:9). On the basis of this comparison, we see that Jesus, in whose name the beggar was healed, is rightly identified with the Shepherd of the Psalm, Yahweh, and “the Father” who knows and loves Jesus, who is to gather one flock under one shepherd (John 10:16).
What especially interests us here, with respect to our concern for creation, is the contrast between the qualities of the good shepherd and those of the temple authorities. The favored status of the Psalm in Christian piety grows out of its basis in the Scriptures. As Walter Breuggeman points out, Psalm 23 is “a full statement of a recurrent metaphor for Yahweh.” As shepherd, Yahweh “is the subject of a series of life-giving verbs: lead, restore, be with, prepare, anoint. Yahweh does everything that must be done so that the trusting sheep may live; Yahweh provided what they cannot secure for themselves” (Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy. Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress, 1997 pp, 260-61). The imagery of the shepherd, Brueggeman emphasizes, “holds potential for a rich variety of reflections and affirmations concerning Israel’s proper relation to Yahweh, Yahweh's inclination toward Israel, and the right ordering of the communal life of Israel” (Brueggeman, p. 61).
At the same time, the metaphor of the shepherd is deeply embedded in images of nature, of a predominantly positive and attractive character. The pastures are green, the waters are still, and the paths are right. A table is prepared, oil soothes skin parched by the sun, and wine flows liberally. One’s soul is restored just in hearing the psalm read. These pastoral images, suggests Arthur Walker-Jones, have shaped reflection in western culture on humanity's relationship with nature: “The pastoral landscape mediates between wilderness and civilization in art and literature. Moreover, this is an image of God who is present and involved, getting hands dirty in the work of creation.” In our context of concern for creation, the metaphor “could help overcome the separation between humanity and nature,“ Walker-Jones suggests, “by focusing on the identification of humans and nature. Nations, like plants, rely on the providential presence of God in creation in order to flourish. Like plants, people and nations are dependent on water, fertile soils, and other natural resources. Human societies are interdependent and interrelated with all of Earth community. The metaphor can speak to God’s involvement in nature and history” (The Green Psalter: Resources for an Ecological Spirituality. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2009, p. 63).
What the Psalm depicts, we suggest, is a human being who is very much “at home” in the landscape. Sheep in the company of this shepherd, human beings with this God, are accordingly very much “at home” in the creation. The natural world around us is, in Norman Wirzba's felicitous phrase (which he would join others in substituting for the word “environment”), our “home place.” As he comments,
A home place more clearly communicates that the memberships of life do not merely surround us (as the word environment indicates), but inspire and interpenetrate with our being on numerous levels. Creation is our Home, the abiding place of nurture and sustenance, but also responsibility and celebration. As our sustaining home, it more readily calls forth our affection and care. Unlike a roadside motel, a place we merely use for a while for our benefit, homes are places we cannot do without because they are the places where the roots of our living go deep (Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating. New York, Cambridge University Press, p. 60).
The Psalmist has caught this reality exactly: the creation he has envisioned for us is clearly his “home place,” where he expects to come to table without fear of enemies, and where he yearns to “dwell my whole life long.” And as we have seen the previous two Sundays, eating and dwelling with Jesus is the heart of the Christian experience of the resurrection and, indeed, of the heaven that resurrection anticipates.
Alternately, of course, “the house of the Lord” suggests the temple in Jerusalem. Compare, for example, Psalm 27:4: “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” But on this Sunday, that reading is excluded, on the basis of the disciple’s experience with the temple authorities, who hold the disciples prisoner and bring them to trial. The rulers’ preoccupation with relationships of power and privilege render impossible the experience of “home place” in the very location where it should be expected to prevail.
Reading the Psalm alongside the lesson from the book of Acts thus reminds us that exactly such preoccupation as the leaders of the temple-state exhibit promotes the careless and destructive manner with which we regard the creation around us. Wirzba is acutely on target when, in summing up a survey of '”ecological degradation,” he suggests that
. . . “people by providing for themselves often work against the very memberships that sustain them. In our often thoughtless and aggressive hoarding of the gifts of God we demonstrate again and again the anxiety of membership. We act as though we can thrive while the habitats and organisms that feed us can languish and die. In a fit of ecological amnesia, we have forsaken our natural neighborhoods and abdicated our responsibility to care for them. Having forfeited the opportunity to share in God’s delight in a world wonderfully and beautifully made, we now find ourselves eating through a sick and poisoned world. This state of affairs did not just happen. It has been a planned and well-funded development reflected in political priorities, social institutions, and economic patterns that facilitate and reinforce the conditions of exile (Wirzba, p 89.)
Sharing in the meal Jesus has prepared for us this day of new creation reminds us that we do indeed have this “good shepherd,” in whose presence we may dwell all our days, both here on earth and in heaven.