In vivid words, soft and full of strength, Psalm 23 sketches and then shapes the buccolic image of a shepherd. Loyal and attentive, the shepherd faithfully accompanies the sheep. In a world of dangers, the shepherd insures safety, kindness, home. The dangers are ever present; confidence and comfort are the gifts the shepherd brings. Generation after generation has found a compelling intelligence in the acknowledgment of both the shepherd and the frightful journey through the valley of death. Courage is nestled there in the harbor of those words just waiting to be heard, to be lived.
The Psalmist could not have suspected what 2020 would bring to humankind nor the afflictions humans would visit upon one another. And yet, “though I walk through the valley of death…” resonates with the world we are navigating. Odd, really, that phrases so ancient might still capture the weight of the world with such stunning simplicity. But then, perhaps that is the magic of Scripture: it captures the fears and frustrations, the anger and the joys, the triumphs and the tragedies of what it means to be human. It gives words to humn experiences that might otherwise defy description. Instead, exploring the depth and breadth of the Old and New Testaments, their complexities and translations offer windows and mirrors into the human journey.
Like the shepherd, the words of scripture have a dynamic capacity to reflect and break open the realities of what it means to be human for each generation, for each person. In a sense, Scripture offers a common denominator. It is the ultimate reminder that humans are at once gifted and flawed, powerful and weak, humble and arrogant. So much resides in each person, in each circumstance that engulfs each individual: Scripture captures all of it in dramatic exposition through the power of narrative. Its stories capture the intensity of human passion in the triangle of David, Bathsheba and Uriah; the essence of human greed in the book of Exodus, and the wonder of human love and sacrifice in the book of Ruth. Abraham, Moses, Miriam, Esther, Ruth and Judith, David and Solomon, John, Peter, Mary Magdalene and Paul….psalmists and prophets, apostles and evangelists. All hopelessly and wonderfully human.
That is what we are: memories and messages, miracles and mourning, always sorting through what it means to be alive, what it means to be human. In this fractured time filled with so much suffering, we share the common denominator of humanity with all those who have journeyed before us. Psalm 23 whispers to us of that reality, that we are sheep with a shepherd; and the psalmist leaves us to wrestle with the meaning of what that looks like in our lives.
In mathematics, common denominators are gifts; they empower action and determine pathways to problem-solving. Unifying fractions is made possible, a miracle of sorts. Searching for the common denominators is the key to problem-solving. Edging towards the end of the liturgical year, searching for the paths forward and the solutions to problems plaguing society, means determining the common denominators, the shared characteristics. . It means looking realistically at who we are, what we are about, and why this matters. It means deliberately choosing to realize that energy, fortitude and courage are birthed in awareness of what we have in common. Moving forward as one with the convictions, loyalty and integrity of the shepherd, solutions are conceivable, even possible. Scripture, the Psalmist and the evangelists, the prophets and the disciples open the door. Finding that resonance, trusting the fragility and the strength of our humanity and moving forward choices is clearly up to us.