Psalm 23; Genesis 42; Matthew 14:25–15:9

Originally posted 2/13/2016—revised and updated 2/13/2018

Psalm 23: What possibly can be said about this most beloved of Psalms that hasn’t been said or written already? The metaphor of God as shepherd occurs in many other psalms, but here there is a powerful simplicity and tenderness that captures our hearts. I am unsure as to why this psalm is read mostly at funerals because it is entirely life-affirming and really has far more to do with how God guides and shepherds us through the vicissitudes of our lives than as a benediction at life’s end.

If we’re willing to see ourselves as God’s sheep, the psalmist highlights the various events and trials that we encounter during our life and describes in this greatest of metaphors how God aids us.

  • It is God who ensures that I will not lack for the necessities of life: “I shall not want.” (1b)
  • God brings us rest and reflection when we’re exhausted and discouraged: “In grass meadows He makes me lie down/ by quiet waters he guides me.” (2)
  • God brings healing from emotional and physical disease: “My life He brings back.” (3a)
  • God guides us away for  evil and toward righteousness: “He leads me on the  pathways of justice/ for His name’s sake.” (3b)
  • God is our protector in dangerous times and places: “Though I walk in the vale of death’s shadow,/ I fear no harm/ for You are with me.” (4a)
  • God is our guide and comfort in the darkest of times, directing our life with both gentleness and vigor: “Your rod and Your staff—/ it is they that console me.” (4b)
  • God protects us from our enemies: “You set out a table before me/ in the face of my foes.” (5a)
  • God generously supplies us with our physical and spiritual needs—even to the point of excess: “You moisten my head with oil,/ my cup overflows.” (5b)

In short, this psalm addresses just about every way in which God is faithfully at our side in our quotidian lives. This psalm is no benediction, but a celebration of God’s presence in every aspect of our life—and a beautiful reminder of how much richer and blessed our lives are with God alongside us than without him. After reading this psalm it’s difficult to imagine the emptiness of a life that has intentionally rejected God and believes we humans are simply an accident of evolution.

Genesis 42: In one of the most dramatic stories in the Bible, all of Joseph’s brothers except Benjamin travel to Egypt to buy food. “`” (8) Joseph accuses them of being spies, which they vehemently deny. He locks them in prison for three days [once again that three-day theme of metaphorical burial we see again and again in these stories.]. He releases them but demands one brother remains as a hostage until they return with their youngest brother.

What we never heard in Sunday school is the remorse of the brothers for how they have wronged Joseph and their father: “They said to one another, “Alas, we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother; we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this anguish has come upon us.” (21) Which leads to internecine sniping: “Then Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to wrong the boy? But you would not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” (22) The drama is intensified because this conversation occurs in front of Joseph, who understands every word spoken. The brother’s words affect him so deeply that “He turned away from them and wept.” (24)

What were Joseph’s feelings here? Was he angry? Did he feel a satisfying sense of justice? In his tears I think he realized that despite the evil his brothers had committed against him, he longed for his family and his father. And his order for them to return to him with Benjamin certainly suggests he wanted desperately to meet his youngest brother. In short, I think Joseph wanted to forgive them for the wrongs they had committed and he is feeling intense compassion for them, which he cannot yet reveal.

The brothers return to Canaan and to Jacob with sacks of wheat and unknown to them, sacks of money, which understandably causes great distress lest they be accused of stealing it. Jacob accuses the brothers, “I am the one you have bereaved of children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has happened to me!” (36). Reuben promises to kill his own two sons should they not carry out their mission to return with Benjamin. But Jacob refuses, telling the brothers, “If harm should come to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.” (38) At this point things seem to be at an impasse.

In addition to its compelling drama, we see that Joseph is an archetype of Jesus, who comes to earth among brothers (us) and is rejected. The scene between brothers and Joseph reveals the deep compassion that Jesus feels for each of us. And like the sacks full of money, he brings us unexpected rewards. As we know that the brothers’ lives ultimately will be transformed by Joseph, so too our lives are transformed by Jesus.

Matthew 14:25–15:9: Jesus walks on water out to the disciples’ boat, creating enormous fear, which he quickly disperses with the famous words, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (14:27) Which of course is Jesus’ word for all of us. Ever impetuous, Peter volunteers to walk on water, which he does successfully until he actually realizes what he is doing, becomes afraid, and begins sinking. Jesus immediately rescues him. This of course is a dramatic illustration of the crucial importance of trusting God. It is also a wonderful illustration of the theme of today’s psalm, which speaks of the reassuring protection God brings to every aspect of our lives. This incident cements the faith of the disciples that Jesus is who he says he is: “And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (14:33) Matthew then presents us proof of Jesus’ bona fides in the scene at Gennesaret of healing all—even those who “[touched] even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” (14:36)

In what appears to be an official delegation sent by temple officials, “Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem.” (15:1) What’s interesting here is that they do not accuse Jesus directly of breaking the law (probably because they had no evidence), but rather to accuse his disciples on what seems to be a rather trivial offense: “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” (15:2)

In a marvelous rebuff, Jesus neither explains nor makes excuses but reverses the charges, asking them “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (15:3) Instead he cites the commandments, “‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’” (14:4) He then points out that rather than support their own parents, the Pharisees effectively dismiss their personal responsibilities when say to them, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is given to God,’ (15:5) Worse, they believe that absolves them from honoring their parents. Then, Jesus really lays it on them: “So, for the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God. You hypocrites! ” (15:6, 7). As icing on the rebuttal cake, Jesus quotes Isaiah, “‘This people honors me with their lips,/ but their hearts are far from me.” (15:8)

This story should be read frequently in church, which frequently stands rightly accused of being filled with rule-bound hypocrites, who too often use their twisted interpretation of Scripture to escape responsibility to  exclude those they deem unworthy or to serve the poor and be an effective presence in the community. These “country club churches” prove that the habits and attitudes of Pharisees and scribes are still very much with us.

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