You have spread a table before me, in the presence of my enemies. (Psalm 23:5)
The Twenty-third Psalm is perhaps one psalm with which we are all familiar. Most of us have recited or sung it, or we have recalled its words during periods of fears or tears. It embraces both times of joy and certainty as well as periods of loss, isolation and sadness, reminding us that God’s presence is evident in every area of our lives.
This phrase “spread a table” resonates with a far deeper meaning than is evident at a surface level as it causes us to ponder its message and ask the question, “Who are those who would need to be fed?” But before we attempt to answer this question let us define the word “enemies” — a term which encompasses those any who are not acting as our friends, for these people are hostile, and would harm or oppose us. Which people fall into these categories, in our own lives and in the lives of individuals and nations across the globe?
Applied globally, this second question becomes an accusation against many nations in the developed — or first — world. We refer to nations with a wealth of technology, medicines and other goods they are not prepared to share with nations in third world countries — countries ravished by floods, famine, disease and warfare. Are the richer nations frightened into hoarding their reserves in case one day they too suffer deprivation? What is it that causes not only governments, but also individuals, to be blind to the needs of others? Is it because as Christians we are assured that in God’s realm there will be plenty for all, that currently we hold fast to all we call our own? God loves and God gives freely, so it is not surprising that we, the hands and feet of the Risen Christ, are called to love and give freely. Perhaps on a national level we need to be very sure about the credentials of those we elect to power, so that they may hear our petitions on behalf of others.
Since in David’s time I doubt much thought had been given to provision for other nations, I believe that this psalm resonates more clearly when we relate it to individual lives and experiences. To do so we need to address the first question raised, “Who are those who need to be fed?” Among these are all Jesus instructed us to care for — the sick, those in prison, the hungry, thirsty or homeless, strangers among us and those needing clothing or other material assistance. To this number we could add those who hunger for spiritual food or for the infilling of the Holy Spirit, for forgiveness or friendship, all who long for recognition by their own families or spiritual communities, those who ache for peace within violent relationships and those that seek a work that will give meaning to their lives.
How can this diversity of human hungers be satisfied? Why do we have so many people who are searching for answers to life’s questions and why are there many who have given up the quest in despair? I am not sure that any one of us can answer for such a varied assortment of people. Instead, I would like to address the situation of just a few of the above people. Those for whom Jesus holds you and me personally responsible can have many of their surface needs attended to as we share our own resources and the knowledge of further sources of assistance.
However when we consider those whose hunger can be satisfied only by emotional and spiritual food, where are the resources that will satisfy them? I believe that many who hunger have been seeking aid from the wrong quarters. They could be likened to the woman who Jesus cured of a long-standing hemorrhage. She had spent twelve years and all her money seeking help from doctors to no avail. But as soon as she touched Jesus her hunger for health was satisfied as she was healed. No more an outcast from family and spiritual gatherings her healing embraced three aspects of her life — physical health together with spiritual and emotional wholeness. So often each of us make wrong choices and end up fruitlessly seeking to satisfy our needs. We are like the disciples, exhausted after an night spent seeking a catch. It was not until Jesus directed them that their efforts were met with success.
Many of our community have experienced rejection from their families, or had church doors slammed in their faces, perhaps have had their membership cancelled or have lost their jobs. We hunger to belong to a family where we are loved just as we are. Our spiritual life within a Christian community has withered and shriveled for we cannot find a church where we are truly welcomed. Our hunger for an infilling of the Spirit goes unsatisfied for we are too fragmented by the barriers erected by those who would separate us from God’s love. And it is in this vacuum left by the collapse of community that our fears and uncertainties breed and grow to enormous proportions. In our pain and confusion we seek answers and assistance for life’s journey from a variety of inappropriate sources, to no avail.
In our search for means to appease our various hungers we tend to flick through pages of Scripture, or abandon it altogether, rather than being aware that Someone stands at our elbow, inviting us to claim the promises already given to us. Echoing the theme of psalm twenty-three, Jesus declares himself to be the bread of life, and promises that all who feed on this bread will have eternal life.
God causes us to pause in our quest for whatever will appease our hunger, and urges us to re-read this familiar psalm. Here we find words that speak of rest and refreshment and of serenity and safety no matter what trials we may encounter. Here too is an anointing of oil — and perhaps of the Spirit — and the promise of God’s unchanging love for us, now and through eternity. No matter who would close us out from family and spiritual community, who would slander or defame us or would insist our lives reflect their narrow interpretations rather than accept God’s freedom. No matter who would close the doors of employment, financial security or education — God has spread a table for us. Even in the presence of all those who would rob us of happiness and God’s blessings is a table spread — just for us.
Rev. Vera I. Bourne of Lismore, N.S.W., Australia, served as Outreach Clergy at Christs Community Church.