My mom used to take me to K-Mart for clothes shopping, which was brilliant because K-Mart had the circular clothes rails. Circular clothes rails made great “rebel bases” in which to hide from Darth Vader and the “evil Galactic Empire.” (Which was not my mom, by the way!) Despite how much I despised looking at clothes and how much I would get in trouble for “hiding” in the clothes rails, I wasn’t hiding from Mom. At least not intentionally. I was just playing, hiding from the Empire. I always tried to keep Mom in sight. She wore a brown cardigan with a hood (very Jedi-like!) with an orange and cream patterned trim woven into it. No one else had a cardigan like it.
But occasionally I would lose sight of my mom, just for a second. I would stop playing, find that cardigan again, see her and know that I was safe.
That cardigan was my “rod and staff” like we find in Psalm 23. I saw the cardigan, and I knew my Mom was there. Because my Mom was there, I knew I was safe, looked after, and loved.
This is the first image we see in Psalm 23 in verses 1-4. God as the shepherd, the one who leads His people to safety, to fresh water, to food. God who defends and protects from anything that would harm us – no matter what is going on in our lives. Even when things are really pants, God is with us, guiding us through.
The second image we see (verses 5-6) is God as the host, inviting us to His house, to feast with Him.
In my recent trip to India, I spent time in the red-light district of one of the cities, working with a local charity who helps victims of trafficking. We walked around the area, down tiny walkways through the one-room homes, and meet a woman (who I won’t name for her safety and her privacy). It was a room with bare walls, a metal stand for a hot plate for cooking on, and a metal bed that was high enough off the floor for her children to sleep under if necessary while she worked. A room very much like every other “home” in that community. The only other thing she owned was a green plastic garden chair. She had nothing, yet she invited us into her home.
I had experienced this kind generosity and welcome all throughout my trip in India in many different ways, but I had not expected to find it down that alley and in that house. Make no mistake, a lot of evil would have happened to this woman to make her a prostitute. It was not her choice. I expected the evil done to her to make her closed off. But instead, she smiled and offered me the only seat she had.
I nearly cried.
Such was her desire to welcome me – a stranger.
How much more so would God be welcoming? The God who saw future disciples in prostitutes?
I’ve been preparing to lead a Bible study on Psalm 23, and I used to just see Psalm 23 as “the funeral hymn” and never really noticed it before. Just kind of recited it and felt better. But something greater than mere comfort in grief is happening in Psalm 23. This Psalm reminds us of the two great images of God that appear throughout the Bible – God as shepherd and God as the host of the banquet. Images that kept the Israelites sane during time of occupation and exile, when they were trafficked to other lands and forced into work. Images that gave them hope to cling to when the beatings started, when food was withheld, their children threatened, or the little they had was taken away – again. This Psalm reminds them of God’s promises to renew their community and to restore what was taken or lost.
And in the gospels, we see Jesus interpreting these images to speak of Himself. Jesus embodies the Good Shepherd (John 10), He becomes both food at the feast (John 6) and the host of God’s banquet (Luke 14). Jesus calls those who follow Him to take this seriously. To go out and invite those who need this banquet (Luke 14:21). And it isn’t only about salvation – Jesus started his ministry by reading from Isaiah – Luke 4:17-21. This good news must be good news for the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. If it isn’t good news for them, then it isn’t the full gospel of Jesus Christ.
The hope God gives is not partial, and it is not fake. It’s not a carrot on the end of a stick. It’s got to be real. Made real by people who have caught God’s vision for how this world was meant to be in the first place. Made real by God working through us by His Holy Spirit, empowering change, reconciliation, community transformation wherever we go. Hope that walks the streets of the red-light district, helping with food, medical care and retraining as people want. Hope that “sets the oppressed free.” (Luke 4:18, Isaiah 61:1).