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Pastors and bishops, including Pope Francis, are to be like shepherds of their flocks, but what does Psalm 23 mean by talking about the Lord as shepherd? Picture by AP Photo/Osservatore Romano
A farmer who doesn't take care and lets his sheep wander into a neighbour's garden will get a bad name for himself. Those sheep are in trouble, but so is the reputation of their owner.
Jesus Christ leads his followers in practising all that is good, for this glorifies God.
Subsequently Christ's name is mocked when those who profess faith in Him don't follow in His ways. Our hypocrisy brings our religion, and our master, into disrepute.
And so to David's famous 23rd Psalm: "He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name's sake."
The Good Shepherd guides us in all that is pleasing to God, for his glory and for our own benefit and wellbeing.
The original Hebrew word translated as 'righteous' literally means 'straight' - not twisted or crooked or corrupt in any way but clear, direct and running true.
It gives extra meaning to the previous sentence: "He restores my soul."
The shepherd corrects, he brings back into line, those who are straying. He may even have to seek and save those who have wandered badly and got themselves lost and in danger.
This world constantly invites people to leave God's path and trespass into forbidden territory. Jesus Christ, Son of God and the Good Shepherd, brings us back and leads us in paths of righteousness.
Now we shouldn't be surprised that Almighty God desires righteousness in those he has created.
Scientists frequently express wonder at the mathematical precision we can observe in the universe.
Einstein was not conventionally religious but he drew back from professing atheism because of the amazing order he saw in the laws of physics.
It's not surprising that many scientists come to believe in a creator as they spend their lives exploring the evidence of his design.
Nor is it surprising to discover that the same God who created the physical order of galaxies and DNA with such meticulous care has set a moral order for his creation to follow.
His blueprint for human behaviour is set down in the 10 Commandments entrusted to Moses and recorded in the Bible.
We are commanded first and foremost to practise reverence for him in all aspects of life.
Albert Einstein was not conventionally religious "but he drew back from professing atheism because of the amazing order he saw in the laws of physics"
It follows that we should respect our fellow human beings who are 'made in his image'.
So we use his name in worship and prayer, not as a cheap swear word. We treat human life as sacred from conception to natural death.
We uphold marriage and family and sexual fidelity. We respect other people's property. We tell the truth. We live content and grateful lives, rather than lustfully coveting what can never be ours.
These are the paths of righteousness set by our maker. They are paths of life and blessing and happiness for individuals, communities and societies.
Practise these things and all should be well; but this is where the problem arises - because we don't.
Human beings like to proudly imagine we know better than God. We aim to please ourselves before him so we make up our own rules but don't even keep those very well.
The Apostle Paul spends the early chapters of his letter to the Christians in Rome spelling this out - when it comes to failure and guilt before God, we are all in the same boat.
Nor is it surprising to discover that the same God who created the physical order of galaxies and DNA with such meticulous care has set a moral order for his creation to follow
People with some religious experience may have a better knowledge of what God says is right and wrong but just knowing the law doesn't actually make us good people.
"There is no-one righteous, not even one," Paul solemnly declares.
We're all in trouble and this is something we can't fix ourselves. We all need help.
We need more than head knowledge of the rules. We need a relationship with the Good Shepherd to help us practise them.
For those who trust in him, Jesus does three profound things to make us 'righteous' and pleasing to God.
One he did a long time ago, when he took our sins and their penalty on himself at Calvary.
Our sin was atoned for that day so that when someone trusts in him today they are forgiven and cleansed.
There is no condemnation for our past failure and disobedience. We will no longer be called to account for that guilty record.
The second thing he does is to clothe us in his perfect righteousness before God. This is what Paul says he desires in Philippians 3 to be "found in Christ", enveloped and shielded with the righteousness that comes from God.
When someone becomes a Christian they are described as being "justified" - declared righteous and acceptable in his holy presence.
We are given the appropriate dress for the royal court of heaven. God chooses to look on us kindly as we are covered, sheltered, made beautiful in the perfect obedience of his son.
This gives us a radical new status with the creator of the universe and a whole new outlook on life.
Our names are moved from the file marked 'condemned' to the one marked 'passed'. We get to call him "our Father" who was at one time going to be our judge.
This doesn't mean everything becomes easy. Christians are frequently misunderstood, misrepresented and persecuted.
Furthermore, while our past is forgiven and we have a 'righteous' standing before God, in this life we are still tempted to sin.
So the third thing the Good Shepherd does is to accompany us through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
He lives in our hearts. He is with us daily to lead us in paths of practical righteousness and blessing, if we are willing to be led.
As Paul, who knew all about it, says: "Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3: 13).
Rev Andrew Watson is minister of the Presbyterian congregations in Dunfanaghy and Carrigart in Co Donegal and chaplain to Letterkenny Institute of Technology. He blogs at wordsurfers.com
Rev Andrew Watson
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