The fourth Sunday in Easter is traditionally Good Shepherd Sunday, with readings from Psalm 23 and John 10 especially prominent. Today I found a brief essay that Kenneth E. Bailey wrote on Psalm 23. Dr. Bailey is a voice crying in the wilderness of Christian Middle East studies.
“Dr. Bailey spent 40 years (1955-1995) living and teaching in seminaries and institutes in Egypt, Lebanon, Jerusalem and Cyprus. For 20 of those years Dr. Bailey was Professor of New Testament and Head of the Biblical Department of the Near East School of Theology in Beirut where he also founded and directed the Institute for Middle Eastern New Testament Studies. From September 1985 to June 1995, Dr. Bailey was on the faculty of “The Ecumenical Institute for Theological Research” in Jerusalem, with the title of Research Professor of Middle Eastern New Testament Studies. ”
I first discovered him when I bought a copy of The Cross and the Prodigal: Luke 15 Through the Eyes of Middle Eastern Peasants, Honored in 2006 as a “Year’s Best Book for Preachers” by Preaching magazine. This is a fantastic book, which challenges the Islamic notion that this parable shows that the cross is not necessary to forgiveness.
Dr. Bailey brings that same direct experience to his explanation of Psalm 23, explaining that “In the Holy Land, pastures are green each year for a maximum of two and a half months in the middle of winter. The rest of the year the fields are brown. Sheep are afraid to drink from a moving stream lest it hide deep water into which they could fall and drown. Still waters and green pastures are, for a sheep, the best of all worlds.” (Which makes one wonder where people get the notion that Jesus could not have been born in December because the shepherds would not be in the fields with the sheep. Not that it matters when he was born.)
What I liked best about this article was this:
Scene one opens with the familiar words, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Had David written, “The Lord is my King,” the reader would have looked to a political institution for security. Had he affirmed, “The Lord is my commander,” the military would have been an image for God. Instead he writes, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Shepherds lead their sheep into uninhabited places in open wilderness. With no cell phones, helicopter surveillance, or desert patrols, the appearance of a lion or two, or thieves with heavy sticks, would threaten the flock with great danger. The language David chooses is worthy of serious reflection. It means, at the very least, “I do not rely on police protection for my security.”
If I may make a plug for myself, I said much the same thing last summer in a post about religious freedom. What Dr. Bailey didn’t say, not did I, is that David also did not say “The Lord is my investment manager.” Sometimes it’s hard to trust God when you feel economic uncertainty, but He is our shepherd and we shall not want.