Long before they understand the meaning of the prayer, adolescents internalize that Psalm 23 is comforting to adults under duress. They know that by His cross and Resurrection, Jesus has set us free from the bondage of sin and death. In the epic battle of good versus evil, good has and always will ultimately triumph. “Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me (Ps 23:4). Evil is something foreign to ourselves, our family, and our friends. The God of Psalm 23 is a courageous and omnipotent God who uses that rod to directly crush or clear away evil from one’s path.
The sting of experiencing deep injustice takes such a heart by surprise. How could God allow this happen to me? Gradually, the realization that evil not only exists, but can apparently thrive, threatens to ice over the human heart. Each of us must wrestle with the question, “How will I choose to live in a world where evil can flourish?”
I remember a conversation I had with a senior. His anger had somewhat abated. He shared that his friend had deeply hurt him. He said, “I will never forgive him.” He was shocked to hear me say that granting or withholding forgiveness was his choice.
We were seated below my framed picture puzzle of Jesus’ parables. I asked the senior to consider the Prodigal Son parable (Lk 15: 11-32). On one level, the parable spoke of a sinner’s conversion. He returned to the loving arms of God the Father. That embrace symbolized the paradise of heaven. Yet the mystery of the parable also spoke to us about life on earth.
If we have lived long enough, we have had life experiences of being the one who hurt others (prodigal son), and the one hurt by unkindness (brother and/or father). The senior said, “The only thing dumber than the father’s stupid smile is the look on the other brother’s face.” Interestingly, although the human mind is invested in the view that strength is in revenge, there is something within that initiates the journey to find a different and better answer.
The artist had portrayed the prodigal son with the swine and then his home coming. I shared that I thought the artist had left out a key image. Namely, the day-to-day continuance of life after the son’s disrespect and departure. The brother remained trapped. He stewed in anger, unforgivingness, and hate. However, the father awoke each day in hope.
The father lived his life within the reality that reconciliation is relational. Reconciliation exists only when all participants seek it. Paul Boese said, “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.” Forgiveness allowed the father to continue to live in hope — even if the son never returned.
Each day, living in hope, the father’s face radiated that smile of unconditional love and joy. As Emily Dickinson says, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without words, and never stops at all.” Strength is certainly found in battling injustice, but strength is also found in peacefully continuing one’s journey regardless of the world’s imperfections.
I told the senior that I believe Jesus gave us the parable for reflection because in deciding our call on forgiveness, we decide who we wish to be. The senior’s gut reaction to the image of the other brother was his immediate response to God’s gentle whisper. Forgiveness would heal his own heart a very long time before it might even possibly touch the friend who had hurt him.
Prayerfully reflecting upon the times we have hurt, or have been hurt, brings our image of God into sharper focus. The courageous God of Psalm 23 is a loving God who stands with one even as one endures the aftermath of someone’s evil actions. The God of Psalm 23 is a kind and gentle God who gives one that hand after evil has knocked one flat out. The God of Psalm 23 is a provident God who initiates that fresh start.
I remember my friend Sister Claire telling me, “They intended to hurt. They meant their actions for evil. But God can write straight with crooked lines. God can use those very same actions to bring forth good. Like waiting and watching for the good that will blossom.” The God of Psalm 23 uses even the most painful of life’s experiences to sculpt our being. Remember that the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23 has both a rod and a staff. Living in hope ensures a spirit ready to explore where the Shepherd’s staff guides. The open heart allows one to fully experience and share the joy of living within God’s unconditional love each and every step of the journey.
Anchor columnist Dr. Helen J. Flavin, Ph.D., is a Catholic scientist, educator and writer.