When people get together to celebrate, food is usually involved. Thanksgiving feasts and Super Bowl Sunday nachos; birthday dinners and wedding banquets. If you think about it for a minute, I’m sure you can come up with a whole list of special occasions that just wouldn’t be the same without food.
I grew up with the tradition of Chinese banquets held in restaurants. The feast might be for a wedding reception, or perhaps someone’s 70th or 80th birthday. Guests would gather at large round tables, each with a lazy Susan in the middle. Courses would appear one at a time from the kitchen, and a steaming or sizzling plate would be set on the turntable for all to share (elders first!). You knew how well off (or how generous, or how eager to impress) the host family was by the quality of the spread. The rule of thumb was, the more seafood on the table, the more expensive (and worthy of good gossip) the meal. But whether the family ordered shellfish or chicken, for some occasions, a banquet was required.
I think of such occasions when I read the 23rd psalm: “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over” (vs. 5, KJV). The psalmist has moved away from the metaphor of sheep and shepherds (assuming, of course, that in that world as in ours, sheep do not typically gather around tables), and envisions a celebratory banquet instead.
Guests are anointed with oil. Here, we might remember the story in Luke 7:36-50, where a “sinful woman” comes before Jesus as he reclines at a dinner table as the guest of honor. She kisses his feet, bathes them with her tears, and extravagantly anoints them with expensive ointment. Jesus’ host, Simon the Pharisee, is horrified. In his private thoughts, he labels Jesus an impostor: No real prophet would allow such scandalous behavior; no truly righteous person would allow himself to be touched by a woman like her!
There is, however, no keeping secrets from Jesus. He calls Simon on his hypocrisy: for all his self-righteous condemnation of the woman, Simon himself has not done Jesus the courtesy owed a guest. He has not given Jesus a kiss of greeting; he has not provided water to bathe his feet; he has not given him oil to anoint his head.
By contrast, the psalmist says, God does what a good host should do. He sets a banquet table and invites us to come. He rubs luxuriant oil on our heads. He keeps the wine flowing.
I don’t know what a modern-day cultural equivalent of the anointing would be; I don’t think I’d fully appreciate having olive oil rubbed into my scalp (though that might be great for keeping my hair in place and dandruff at bay). But think for a moment how far we’ve come from the image of a sheep following a shepherd through a dark valley. God doesn’t just look after our survival. He invites us to a banquet and treats us like honored guests.
Is that how you think of your relationship to God?
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One more element to note. Not only does God set a table for us, he does so “in the presence of mine enemies.” Why would that matter?
The psalmist lives in an honor-shame culture in which there is not only a contest between people but a contest between deities: whose god is the most powerful? Put differently, from the standpoint of a people still learning the meaning of monotheism, the question would be, “Whose god is the one and only true God, the only one worthy of the name?”
Throughout the psalms, there are pleas not only for rescue, but vindication. In a sense, the psalmist prays, “Don’t let my enemies make fun of me for worshiping you. Show them who’s boss!” Psalm 23 is an answer to that longing. God does more than save the psalmist from calamity; God visibly honors those who honor God, shutting the mouths of those who would mock.
Again, let that sink in for a moment. God. Honors. Us.
No wonder the psalmist’s praise reaches an enthusiastic crescendo at the end: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever” (vs. 6). The psalmist envisions a lifetime of staying close to God in the temple, a lifetime filled with good things and God’s “mercy”; the word in Hebrew is hesed, often translated as “steadfast love.”
The psalmist begins with the humble posture of a sheep relying on a trustworthy shepherd. By the end of the psalm, however, he is God’s honored guest. The words are full of wonder and worship; I imagine them being recited in the temple, where the psalmist or worshiping community feels the presence of God.
The psalm may be familiar to us, memorized as a child. But I hope we never lose the psalmist’s wonder as we ponder it. May we share the psalmist’s gratitude and amazement for a God who leads us where we need to be, comforts us with his presence, and invites us to the banquet.