Sunday, October 09, 2011

I shall not be afraid

Psalm 23, Matthew 22.1-14


The Twenty-third Psalm was written for people facing a challenging situation. They were probably returning exiles, going home to Palestine from Babylon after their liberation by the Persian Emperor Cyrus. The journey home will be difficult and dangerous for them, but they need not be afraid. The Lord God will be their shepherd, guiding them home just as a Palestinian shepherd leads his flock through the wilderness.


The Psalmist seems to insist that they shall lack nothing. That’s a strong statement, which might not match our own experience of hard times, although there are plenty of Christians who would argue that - if we show enough faith in God and are seeking to do his will - he will always provide for our needs.


That’s still not quite the same thing, of course, as saying we shall lack nothing. The New Revised Standard Version opts for a slightly softer translation, ‘I shall not want.’ Not being in want is quite different from lacking nothing. It means having enough, but not necessarily any more than enough. It means being able to get by.


There is also the question as to whether the Psalmist is describing the pilgrims’ physical experience or their spiritual experience. Will they never be tired, or hungry or thirsty? Or will they never be spiritually exhausted if they trust in God?


Are the green pastures and still waters actual oases which the Lord God will lead his pilgrims to on their journey, like up-market motorway service stations on a modern journey? Or are they a state of mind? The Psalm certainly talks about reviving the traveller’s spirit or soul, rather than the body. But then physical and spiritual refreshment sometime belong together.


The middle section of the psalm poses an awkward question. If the Lord God guides his pilgrims along right paths, how do they come to find themselves walking through the valley of the shadow of death or the valley of deepest darkness? Is this because dark times are unavoidable in life, even when we are being guided by the Good Shepherd? Is it also because nothing worth doing is ever easy? To win the race, do we have to break through the pain barrier on the way?


The Psalmist doesn’t say that the pilgrim will come to no harm, only that he or she should fear no harm or evil. Moods and tenses aren’t normally very important in English, are they? In every day speech, and also in writing, we slip easily from one tense or mood to another without even noticing. But the translators here opt quite deliberately for different moods and tenses when they set out to interpret what the Psalmist is saying. In practice that means the pilgrim should fear no harm, or will fear no evil, or fears no evil, depending on which version we read. But those are very different statements!


If I should fear no harm it doesn’t mean I won’t be worried when I go out on a very dark night. It just means that I am worrying unnecessarily, like elderly people living in a country village who are terrified of being attacked by muggers on their way back from the chapel. If God is with us we should laugh at danger, because even when we are attacked, or do face real risk, evil cannot harm the core of our being. The spiritual part of us is safe with God.


If, however, I will fear no evil, or I fear no evil, that means the true believer should never be afraid. Even when he or she is being wheeled into an operating theatre, the true believer looks on the bright side of life. Even when he or she is staring over the abyss, the true believer whistles a happy tune.


Well, maybe not. Maybe the Psalmist is just trying to encourage us, to bolster our spirits, to help us face down our fears. So even when we are afraid we can tell ourselves, ‘I will not fear!’ - like the children’s song, ‘I will not be afraid, for God has said he’ll be with me, so I will not be afraid’.


And telling ourselves that we will not fear isn’t simply a case of singing in the dark to keep our spirits up. We can derive real comfort from God’s presence with us. Even when we are in danger, his rod and staff are symbols of his protective power and his final authority over evil and death.


Here the Revised English Bible over-translates the psalm by saying ‘your shepherd’s staff and crook’ whereas the Psalmist has undoubtedly widened his horizons by now, to think about God as king as well as shepherd. In the ancient Near-East the rod and staff had become symbols of the king’s ability to protect his people, as well as symbols of the shepherd’s trade. So the promise of God’s presence gives the pilgrims a very real sense of God’s power to save them from ultimate harm.


Finally, of course, we have the symbol of God’s hospitality, which is like the welcome always offered by the Bedouin and other Near-Eastern people to travellers in need of somewhere to stay. The visitor can be assured of a warm welcome even when he or she is a stranger being pursued by enemies. The host will feel compelled first to anoint the guest with sweet-smelling oil, and bring out something good to eat, before asking awkward questions. It is the height of bad manners to turn someone away, and refuse to protect them, without hearing their side of the story. And when God is the host this is true even if enemies are prowling right around the perimeter of the camp. How much more, then, will God offer us his protection if we are pilgrims on the way to his Holy Land?


Jesus often compared God’s future reign to a great banquet at which all would be welcome if they chose to accept the invitation, and at the banquet in the Psalm the pilgrim’s cup overflows with goodness and mercy. Is this the heavenly banquet which lasts for ever? Or is it an earthly banquet whose promised bounty lasts only our whole life long, or ‘throughout the years to come’ as the Revised English Bible puts it? These more modern translations probably get closer to the Psalmist’s point of view, because he would not have believed in life after death.


The story of the great feast is also told in Luke’s Gospel, but Matthew’s version is much stranger and darker. In Luke’s account it isn’t a wedding banquet, and the excuses offered by the guests are all quite reasonable. Their only fate is to miss out on a cracking party and instead the banqueting hall is filled with the poor and the needy.


In contrast, Matthew ups the ante from the very beginning of his version, where the feast becomes a wedding banquet so that refusing the invitation is an even greater insult to the host. What’s more the guests don’t even bother to offer any excuses, even when they are twice invited to attend. They just get on with their lives as if nothing is happening, and - inexplicably - some of them even seize the messengers sent by the host and murder them.


Clearly we are no longer just in the realm of the parable. Matthew is comparing the ungrateful people on the guest list to the people of Israel, who had ignored or killed God’s prophets and put to death his anointed Messiah. Now they have been punished by the Romans who - acting as God’s avengers - have sent troops to put those murderers to death and burn their capital city. Now, instead, the Gentiles are being invited to the wedding, to take the places which should have belonged, by right, to the Jewish people had they been prepared to listen.


And what are we to make of the man who comes dressed in the wrong clothes? Is this a dreadful warning about wearing our Sunday best to church?


In the context of the story singling one guest out to be tied up and ejected from the banquet simply doesn’t make sense, because everyone there seems to have been collected in off the streets without any notice at all, and good and bad people alike have been invited, so surely none of them are dressed in wedding finery and many of them do not really deserve to be there at all. They are there just because they said, ‘Yes to the invitation’.


Perhaps we are meant to imagine that the host offered the guests a complete change of clothes, or a wash and brush up, as they entered his home - an equivalent of the anointing with oil described by the Psalmist. If so, this particular guest has had the temerity to refuse the offer. He has stayed in his ordinary, everyday clothes.


Matthew, is I think, already well on the way to turning Jesus’ story into a sermon. He wants us to understand that all are welcome at God’s end-time banquet, but only if we are willing to be changed by God’s grace into a new creation, putting on righteousness like a garment in obedience to God’s will.


So what do these two passages have to say to us? Like the pilgrims who first heard the Twenty-third Psalm we live in challenging times, and like the guests in the wedding story we may think this is not the right moment for frivolity or partying, or that we can’t afford a new suit of clothes. The guests who rudely refused the original invitations to the wedding were more concerned with making a living than celebrating someone else’s good fortune.


I think that whatever Matthew may have made of it, the message of Jesus’ original parable is about getting our priorities right. No matter how tough things might get, or how busy we might become, putting God first is still the absolute priority. And, if we are prepared to let go and let God, we shall still find there is much to celebrate even in the darkest times.


The psalm is about trust, but whether we think it promises to keep us totally safe from harm, and even from death or other threats to our happiness, or whether we think it offers us the spiritual strength and comfort to endure adversity and overcome it with God as our companion, will depend on our interpretation. There is lots of adversity out there at the moment, isn’t there? Shrinking pensions, rising unemployment, personal stresses and strains, and all the normal challenges that are part and parcel of life, such as ill health, or relationship problems. And believers overseas face much bigger stresses and strains than we do - from warfare, pestilence, famine and flood.


With the good shepherd alongside us we can journey on without fear. The right paths along which the Good Shepherd must lead us do not take us around trouble and danger - but he is with us whatever may befall, and we can be sure that the paths he bids us take with him are necessary and unavoidable. Wherever our pilgrimage takes us we can know that he will comfort and sustain us in this life, and - at journey’s end - we shall sit at his banqueting table.

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