The essential quality of a good shepherd is that he can lead the sheep. If the sheep do not respond to the shepherd’s voice, he cannot lead them anywhere.
Sheep are not known for their astuteness when it comes to anticipating threats and dangers, but the shepherd knows all too well what is lurking around his sheep, looking for an opportunity to seize one. Sheep are known for going astray. Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep works thematically precisely because sheep are prone to going astray. The prophet Isaiah, when writing one of the servant songs (which prefigured Jesus) wrote:
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
We, like sheep, are prone to waywardness and we, also like sheep, are typically unaware of the dangers that beset us, often as temptations to go the wrong way. This is why we have to repent daily: to repent means to stop going further along the wrong path, and turn back to rejoin the right one. It’s necessary for a life lived in shalom that the Lord leads us; this means we don’t get ahead of him or try and look too far ahead, instead walking closely behind him so we can hear his voice as he says to each one of us, “Follow me.”
The sheep hear his voice
As we set out in the first reflection, to live a life in shalom we need to be led by the Lord who is my shepherd. Jesus reveals himself as the Good Shepherd and says to us,
“He who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.
A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him,
for they do not know the voice of strangers.”
If we are to respond to the shepherd’s voice, and not listen to the voice of strangers (ours included), we need to be in a right relationship with him. This is how we can best understand the word “righteousness” — being in a right relationship.
Paths of righteousness
In the first reflection we established that shalom means that everything is in the right place and nothing is in the wrong place. Shalom is therefore the perfect expression of righteousness where everyone and everything is in a right relationship. If I have any relationships that are broken or not ‘right,’ we might say that they are not in the right place, or even in the wrong place. This is not shalom.
The Psalm tells us that the Lord who is my shepherd “leads me in paths of righteousness.” The paths that he leads us in include those that lead to ‘still waters’, as we considered in an earlier reflection. Stillness is part of how we have a right relationship with ourselves, becoming less about ‘doing’ and more about ‘being’. In the stillness we discover more about who we really are. It’s also part of how we have a right relationship with the Lord, as we are being obedient to his commandment that we
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”
Apart from these paths that lead to ‘still waters’, the Lord leads us in other paths. For example, the remaining six of the ten commandments after remembering the Sabbath all concern living in right relationship with our parents, our communities and wider society. And the essence of Jesus’ teaching is right relationship. The new commandment he gives his disciples is that we love one another as he loves us — relationship.
The paths that the Lord leads me in are not ways to a specific destination; they are ways into right relationships of all kinds, with all of creation, and an essential part of the journey of my life lived in shalom. I cannot live in shalom if I am not in right relationships, and the one who shows me how to be in a right relationship, the one who leads me, is the Lord who is my shepherd.
Therefore, he leads me in paths of righteousness.
A new name, a new family
The final part of this line of the Psalm tells us that the Lord leads us in these paths of righteousness “for his name’s sake.” At first glance, it’s not apparent as to why the shepherd leads me for the sake of his name. Yet when we consider what we have already discovered about shalom, it becomes clear that this is the best and only reason he leads us along these paths.
In the previous reflection, we saw that the key to knowing who I am is knowing whose I am. If I know I belong to the Lord then I can know who I really am. Being ‘his’ means knowing my identity as a child of the Lord. If I am his child, then I am part of his family and I carry his name. At our baptism, we were baptised into the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — in that moment we became part of the family of God, and in a very real way we experienced being ‘born again,’ this time with a clear identity of who our Heavenly Father is. Like Jesus, we too can now hear the words spoken from heaven, “You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased” (see Mark 1:11 & parallels).
As a child of God, baptised into his name, I also carry his name, and this is why “he leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” The characteristic that defines this family is righteousness — right relationships. Indeed Jesus says to his disciples,
“By this all people will know that you are my disciples,
if you have love for one another”
This is Jesus’ version of the Lord leading us in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. His name means something, and his name has real power; the power to change hearts; the power to set people free; the power to give new life; the power to live in right relationships; the power to live in shalom.
Therefore, he leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
May you live in Shalom, and know that the Lord will lead you into right relationships.
May you hear the Good Shepherd as he calls you saying, “Follow me.”
May you know that as a child of God you bear his name — ‘the Lord our righteousness.’