Rod and Staff

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Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 23*; 149, Exodus 13:17-14:4, 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10, Mark 12:18-27

*per the lectionary, one of the evening psalms


Psalm 23 is arguably the most recognized psalm in the psalter. It chronicles the typical day in the life of a shepherd and flock, through danger and safely home again. The metaphor of Christians as sheep may seem less than flattering; author Russell Banks once noted sheep were slightly more intelligent than lawn furniture. Critics of the faith have said it accurately describes mindless followers, but the metaphor is not so much about following as about the relationship binding a shepherd and his flock.

At the end of the day, a shepherd uses a rod to count and inspect each sheep for injuries, a practice known as passing “under the rod.” The rod can also be thrown in front of a sheep to startle it back on course. Although current images of rods, such as “spare the rod and spoil the child” do not elicit comfort, the audience of this psalm knew the rod was not used to strike, but to tend.

Impulsive pursuits may leave us stranded in a spiritual bramble. We get caught up following other sheep and find ourselves in unfamiliar or even hostile territory. We tangle ourselves in gossip at work or church. We feel pressure to overspend in order to keep up appearances with friends and neighbors. As a result, we feel lost, overwhelmed, or out of control. At these times, depending on our relationship to our shepherd can literally save us.

To Jesus’ contemporaries the rod and staff were symbols of loving authority. When he called himself the Good Shepherd, Jesus was telling his listeners, “I have your best interests at heart, and sometimes that requires a course correction.” Are we challenged when trying to integrate the ideas of “love” and “authority” into a unified whole? Have we learned to picture the rod in Jesus’ hand as an instrument of punishment or nurture?

We may not be immediately comfortable accepting the humility necessary to admit we need shepherding, but eventually we realize it is a true blessing that our God does not send us alone into the wilderness. Following Christ will always lead us home.

Comfort: Christ seeks to rescue every sheep, no matter how lost.

Challenge: If possible, visit a meditation labyrinth (or use a finger labyrinth). As you move to the center, meditate on a problem that has you feeling lost. On the way out, ask God to lead you home, and give thanks for Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

Prayer: Merciful and loving God, always lead me home to you.

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