Why does this particular psalm have so much of an impact on us? I remember it was one that my grandmother made me memorize as a kid and like most of you who may have been in a similar situation, there was no translation of this particular psalm that captured the spirit quite like the King James Version.
Nevertheless, this psalm comes up a few times each year in the lectionary. Coming up every year on the fourth Sunday of Easter, it highlights Christ as the Good Shepherd. This time of year, which is called the time after Pentecost, it comes up with some other readings focused on a great feast. Here's an excerpt from the Isaiah reading:
"On this mountain the LORD of hosts
will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of
of rich food filled with marrow, of
well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all
the sheet that is spread over all
he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord GOD will wipe away
the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he
will take away from all
for the LORD has spoken."
One of the most valuable lessons that I have learned when it comes to studying the Bible or trying to understand scripture for a certain context is to study the Bible with the Bible. For instance, if we read Psalm 23 with this Isaiah text in mind, we get a completely different look at "You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies," and "my cup overflows," and the oft referenced "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..."
In light of this Isaiah reading, our perspective of feasting and of death as it is presented in Psalm 23 is shaken up a little bit. Notice who Isaiah says is included in the feast that the LORD of hosts (heavenly armies) is throwing -- all peoples. In case there is any doubt about who is included in this, we see a further unveiling of a shroud that is cast over all peoples that divides all nations -- and this shroud, this sheet will not only be removed, but it will be "destroyed."
Is psalm 23 this inclusive? Perhaps. The psalm says that the table is prepared in the presence of "my enemies." Now, it's likely that the psalmist could mean that this abundance is a display of victory over our enemies and it is to their everlasting shame that they must watch as we enjoy the spoils of victory, the feast of abundance. OR, if we look at it in light of our Isaiah reading, could it be that our enemies, in front of whom this victory meal is prepared, are sharing in this feast? Again, I think that it is contextually irresponsible to interpret this psalm exclusively in this way, but it does give us food for thought (pardon the pun).
Lutherans aren't universalists, though we're not terribly concerned with the fate of individual souls either. What we do preach and constantly so is the mystery of the cross and resurrection of Jesus that makes all things new. This being made new includes God, through Jesus, acting as judge making what was wrong right, what was crooked straight, what was dark light. We call this reconciliation. When we say that all things are reconciled to God through Jesus, we mean that all things are made new and that through Jesus, the world is judged and the wrong is made right again, as it was intended to be. This is the feast that we are invited to.
The feast, as Isaiah puts it, is one that will put an end to division. Ending division, though we can work toward it, is an act of judgement that only God can bring about. This is justice. Perhaps if we look toward the feast, it will affect our understanding of who's at the table. If we know that there is no division, that our wants are satisfied to overflowing, doesn't that affect the way we look at people today? If I know that the world is being reconciled through Christ and his cross, if I know that he makes all things new and that all divisions are broken down, then why do I hold a grudge? Why am I weirded out about people that stand in stark contrast to everything I believe? Maybe it's because I am the one that's trying to do the reconciling. "How can they be invited to the feast?"
It is God that does the reconciling through Jesus and we see that the imagery of the poet, Isaiah, is that the shroud is destroyed. The feast is ready and all are invited. How do we behave like all people are invited?
This even affects our perspective of evil in the world. How does God reconcile this? Through Jesus. How could anyone as evil as ____ be invited to the table? I don't know. Really, I don't. But, I believe that God is reconciling all things through the cross and resurrection of Jesus. (Again with Jesus!) A practical way of looking at it, to get through the "I just don't understand" part of the challenge is to pray. I find that when I am angry with the evil or injustice in the world, I pray. Often these are prayers that can't form words, but there is something profoundly rewarding about pausing and realizing that through God's abundant mercy he is making all things new, making all things right.
Lord, have mercy.