5Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
The wine flows freely at God’s banquet.
And it is good wine.
The poet switches metaphors in the middle of his psalm, but both are royal images: God as shepherd and God as banquet host. They are themes that weave throughout the scriptures going back to the exodus when God led the people out from slavery and provided them food in the wilderness.
The leaders of the nation are condemned through the prophets because they feed off the people rather than protect and provide for them.
2Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. (Ezekiel 34:2-3)
And in the face of such worthless shepherds God promises both that God will raise up a righteous shepherd and that God himself will be our shepherd. Promises that get woven together in Christ who declares: “I am the good shepherd.”
The message of Jesus was that the reign of God was at hand, and in him we see and hear that reign. The sick are healed. The outcasts are gathered in. Sins are forgiven. Grace abounds. All are fed at God’s bounteous table. Five thousand from five small “loaves” (it’s hard to call a flat bread the size of your hand a “loaf”) and two small dried fish – with twelve baskets left over. Water is turned to overflowing wine, wine strained clear.
It is what the prophet declared:
6On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make
for all peoples
a feast of rich food,
a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow,
of well-aged wines strained clear.
7And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
8Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 25:6-8)
And we hear it in the Gospel this Sunday: “He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things…”
He began to teach them, because it is not just about bread; it is about joy and deliverance and the way of being human. It is about living the compassion of God. It is about forgiving one another and loving our neighbor and having the burden of humanity’s shame lifted away. We who are all created in the image of God have lived war and greed and cruelty. We have ben Cain rising against Abel. We have been Abraham protecting himself rather than his hosts. We have been Sodom and Gomorrah, abusing others in our power. We have been Job’s self-righteous friends. We have been Jonah fleeing from our mission. We have been the man building bigger barns rather than sharing God’s bounty. We have been Peter denying. And this incomprehensible burden of shame, our dishonoring of God, has been carried away by a royal pardon, a king who bears it all.
“He began to teach them,” teach them about God’s mercy, God’s abundance, and our true path. He is indeed our shepherd. And he invites us to his table where grace abounds like wine, and all are fed, and goodness and steadfast love don’t just follow us – the Hebrew word means to pursue – God’s goodness keeps chasing us. Forever.