The 23rd Psalm is the reading for the 4th Sunday of Lent.
This Psalm is so familiar that we have a hard time hearing it as though for the first time. One verse that jars a little is the one that says the Lord prepares a table for me in the presence of my enemies. My cup overflows(v. 5). I have tried to use this in a communion meditation. But many people do not feel they have any real enemies, so they can’t relate.
Presumably the Psalmist is a warrior or is putting himself in the position of King David, who was a warrior (or, just possibly, he was King David). So the soldier is encamped on what will be the scene of a battle. He is going to eat what may well be his last meal. What blessing do you say over that meal?
Over at the Australian site, laughingbird.net, they do intriguing paraphrases of the lectionary passages. Often they use Australian vernacular. For this verse, they have:
You cook up a feast for me,
……..as those who wanted to feed on me watch, frustrated.
You pamper me like an honoured guest
……..and constantly top up my glass.
In this interpretation, the meal is an act of defiance. I am eating and drinking in the presence of my enemies to show that I have no respect for them. Instead of being in training before the battle, I am having a feast and drinking more than might be prudent. I show my enemies that I don’t care.
How can I be relaxed enough to do this? Because I have given my fate in battle over to God. The outcome does not depend on my being in training: it depends on God fighting for me. It is God who prepares the feast. It is God who keeps filling my cup. So it is actually God who taunts my foes.
This might be useful as a way to psych out the enemy. But how many of us actually could be that unconcerned. Think of an NCAA team in the big dance acting like they are not in training, partying before the big game. Yeah, that might disconcert their competitors. On the other hand, it might be just the kind of arrogance that would get them beat.
Most of us agonize before an important contest. Far from eating and drinking our fill, we have butterflies in our stomachs. We may even vomit. The bravado and defiance of the 23rd Psalm somehow seem inhuman. It is not that easy to just rely upon God.
I note that on the night before his crucifixion, Jesus sweat blood and cried out to God to change his fate. That seems to be understandably human. As the author of Hebrews says, he approached God with loud cries and tears (Hebrews 5:7). In this passage Hebrews is arguing that Jesus identified with us and represented us by his humiliation and suffering.
But Jesus did have a meal the night before his trial and death. A table was prepared for him and he did drink from a cup. If we stick to Psalm 23, where God prepared the table and God filled the cup, there is no real contradiction between the humanity of Jesus and divine action. Jesus did not see the cup as part of a party. He prayed that God would take this cup away from him (Mark 14:36). He agonized about the confrontation that was approaching.
On the other hand, we could say in retrospect that God, by preparing a table and a cup for him, was defying and taunting his enemies. Even though we, like Jesus, find ourselves emptied of divinity and truly sweating our fates, that does not mean that God does not exist and is not in control.
(Since I wrote this someone pointed out to me that I was thinking of those who crucified Jesus as his enemies, but there were enemies sitting at table with Jesus, too. Peter, whom he once called Satan (the enemy). And Judas, of course.
Perhaps, when God prepares for Jesus a table, I am the enemy in whose presence he prepares it. But then a theme of the gospel is that Jesus eats and drinks with sinners.)