The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


My Shepherd?

Is there any such thing as individual salvation?

by Russell Rathbun

Psalm Reading: Psalm 23

For Sunday, April 29, 2012—Easter 4

There are some scriptures that will for ever be in the King James translation in the minds of the world.

There is John 3:16 with its, who so ever beliveth and there is Psalm 23. Any other translation seems to weaken it. The Lord is my shepherd so I don’t need anything else is not the same as The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.

Going Medieval

The pastoral imagery of Psalm 23 in the KJV seems so—medieval. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.

I have always pictured an English banquet in a castle type thing—like with goblets. I am holding a goblet and toasting the Lord. But the strange thing is when I picture me at the banquet table with the goblet I am alone.

Narcissistic Perplexities

This psalm is so weirdly narcissistic. “The Lord is my shepherd.” Why not, the Lord is our shepherd?

I have this crazy image of a Sunday school filmstrip that plays every time I read this psalm. The Lord (picture Jesus the good shepherd—I know, what is Jesus doing in the psalms) is walking beside a little blonde haired kid with short pants and a cap.

Then he gestures to the green grass and the kid lays down on it for a nap. The kid gets up and the shepherd takes him down by the still waters, he has his rod and his staff to protect the kid.

But when I stop the filmstrip and think about it, I am perplexed. Why do I want to sleep in the grass? What is so great about being beside still water? What is the difference between a rod and a staff? Does the Lord need both? Is, like, one in each hand? What does he do with them when he is preparest-ing the banquet for me?

Valet God

The image of this personal Lord following an individual around, attending to their needs—a place to sleep, food, water, protection—seems more like a dog than God. More like a servant than a shepherd.

This idea of a personal assistant Lord is clearly the result of recontextulizing the interpretation. The result of hundreds of years of cultural conditioning, making it nearly impossible to recover anything close to what the original audience heard.

What is as interesting as how our culture has read this text is the way this text reads us. It reflects back to us our self-obsession that would paint God as our Valet.

The Hardest Question

What does it say about our culture that we would find the notion of a personal attendant Lord even appealing?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Paul Sundberg says:

    Perhaps, a new paraphrase

    The Lord is my personal-shopper; I will have many fashionable choices

    He makes me lie down on high thread count Egyptian cotton; he brings me still water not sparkling

    He restores my credit scores. He turns traffic lights green to prove he’s with me.

    Even though my commute is horrible, I don’t fear texting drivers; for you are with me; your management of traffic lights and parking spaces – they comfort me.

    You make sure I can still overeat, even when there are images of starving children on my flat screen; my oil stocks rise, my wine cellar overflows.

    Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in a gated community my whole life long.

    Not such a hard question really…

    It seems to me we really do get the shepherd thing…if from nowhere else, then, from James Cromwell’s or the pig’s role in “Babe”. The tough metaphor in our culture is “Lord”.

  2. Rev. Russell says:

    Paul, I love the paraphrase–it is as much confessional as comical.

  3. Emily says:

    Paul, you made me laugh out loud! May I quote you in my sermon this Sunday?

  4. Carl Wilton says:

    Great article – and a splendidly amusing comment!

    The key, I think, is to wrench ourselves away from the beloved “poetic” KJV language and truly ponder the implications of replacing “the paths of righteousness” with the more literal “the right paths.” Unlike the KJV, more modern translations like the NRSV don’t flounder in a sea of bizarrely-mixed metaphors; a possible sitz im leben emerges.

    Based solely on the KJV, you’d think the dominant metaphor in the psalm is that of a lost sheep who, later in the psalm, inexplicably takes on human qualities and is subsequently found to be reclining at a banqueting-table rather than grazing on grass from green pastures. The more literal NRSV translation leads us to see the psalm’s narrator to be not a metaphorical sheep, but rather an actual lost traveler, who’s mighty glad to see a shepherd turn up just as the sun is going down. A shepherd – familiar with the back-country and accustomed to thriving in it – is precisely the one who can offer traditional hospitality and protection in his tent, and promise to guide the traveler safely home.

    By the same token, “the valley of the shadow of death” becomes simply “the dark valley” – maybe not the grandly existential poetic image we’ve come to know and love, but a more literally-accurate vision of a desert wadi, darkened by the sinking sun, in which the traveler’s fears run amok before the shepherd comes to the rescue.

    God, in this more literally-accurate understanding, then becomes not our narcissistic fantasy-figure of a personal Jeeves, but rather the one who rescues us from peril, much as a typical Middle Eastern shepherd, following time-honored laws of hospitality, would pluck a lost traveler from that dark valley, and convey him to a place of safety in his tent, so he doesn’t become jackal fodder.

    The rod and staff, BTW, are the shepherd’s standard gear: his credentials as someone truly equipped to lead a traveler out of the wilderness. The rod is a stout club for clobbering predators, and the staff is both walking-stick and an instrument for guiding the sheep. The comfort comes not from these instruments being used on us, as though we were sheep, but in knowing that this person knows the territory, and will bring us home in due course.

    That’s the direction I chose, anyway, in a sermon series a few years back, one installment of which can be found here (others nearby on the same site):

How do you read?