Reading 1 - Gen 21:9,10
"But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, 'Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac' " (Gen 21:9,10).
Paul comments on this incident, in Gal 4:29, where he interprets Ishmael's mocking of Isaac as a persecution: "At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now."
The insinuation is that Isaac was the son of the illicit union of Abimelech and Sarah -- conceived while she spent time, unwillingly, in his household the year before.
In a similar fashion, Christ, who was -- like Isaac -- a special seed of promise, was mocked or taunted. Evidently some believed (or at least proclaimed the lie) that Jesus was born of fornication (some rabbis said, with a Roman soldier) while Mary was betrothed to Joseph:
" 'You are doing the things your own father does.' 'We are not illegitimate children,' they protested. 'The only Father we have is God himself'...The Jews answered him, 'Aren't we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?' " (Joh 8:41,48; cp Joh 9:29). (The use of the term "Samaritan" is their thinly-veiled suggestion of illegitimacy, since the Samaritans were a mixed race, part Jew and part Gentile.)
Reading 2 - Psa 23
"The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever" (Psa 23).
"On the roads of Palestine, and on the hills, you see the good shepherd. He comes along at the head of his flock, generally carrying over his shoulders a lamb or an injured sheep.
"A most remarkable thing is the sympathy that exists between him and his flock. He never drives them as our own shepherds drive their sheep. He always walks at their head, leading them along the roads and over the hills to new pasture: and, as he goes, he sometimes talks to them in a loud sing-song voice, using a weird language unlike anything I have ever heard in my life.
"Early one morning I saw an extraordinary sight not far from Bethlehem. Two shepherds had evidently spent the night with their flocks in a cave. The sheep were all mixed together and the time had come for the shepherds to go in different directions. One of the shepherds stood some distance from the sheep and began to call. First one, then another, then four or five animals ran toward him; and so until he had counted his whole flock.
"More interesting than the sight of this was the knowledge that Jesus must have seen exactly the same sight and described it in his own words: 'He calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out. And when he putteth forth his own sheep, he goeth before them, and the sheep follow him: for they know his voice. And a stranger they will not follow...' This parable spake Jesus unto them. 'I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine' " (HV Morton, "In the Steps of the Master" 154).
"I notice that some of the flock keep near the shepherd, and follow whithersoever he goes, without the least hesitation, while others stray about on either side, or loiter far behind; and he often turns round and scolds them in a sharp, stern cry.
"Not unlike the Good Shepherd. Indeed, I never ride over these hills, clothed with flocks, without meditating upon this delightful theme. Our Saviour says that the good shepherd, when he putteth forth his own sheep, goeth before them, and they follow (John 10:4). This is true to the letter. They are so tame and so trained that they follow their keeper with the utmost docility... Any one that wanders is sure to get into trouble.
"Some sheep always keep near the shepherd, and are his special favorites. Each of them has a name, to which it answers joyfully; and the kind shepherd is ever distributing to them choice portions which he gathers for that purpose. These are the contented and happy ones. They are in no danger of getting lost or into mischief, nor do wild beasts and thieves come near them. The great body, however, are mere worldlings, intent upon their own pleasures or selfish interests. They run from bush to bush, searching for variety or delicacies, and only now and then lift their heads to see where the shepherd is...
"Did you ever see a shepherd gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom (Isa 40:11)? Often; and he will gently lead along the mothers, in those times when to overdrive them even for a single day would be fatal (Gen 33:13)" (WM Thomson, "The Land and the Book" 202-205).
The story is told of a Mutual Improvement Class where it was a night for reading practice, and the reading was Psalm 23. Two members of the class were called upon to read the psalm. Each read it faultlessly, but there was a subtle yet significant difference. The older brother was later asked privately about this, and why his rendering was clearly superior to that of the younger brother. The reply was simple yet profound: "He knows the Psalm, but I know the Shepherd."
"Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..."
"We must always stand consciously in the presence of death: not morbidly, but soberly and realistically: the death of those we have known and loved (and inadequately appreciated), the death of Christ, our own inevitable death if the Lord remain away. Sin and death are the present inescapable reality, and we cope with reality by facing it maturely and intelligently. The empty, giddy, unreal mirth of fools that fills the world is an abomination to our holy God. We are always in His presence. Let us ever remember to behave in keeping with that fact" (GV Growcott).
The Psalm Analyzed:
FAITH: The LORD is my shepherd.
ASSURANCE: I shall not be in want.
CONTENTMENT: He makes me lie down in green pastures.
PEACE: He leads me beside quiet waters.
LIFE: He restores my soul.
DIVINE GUIDANCE: He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
CONFIDENCE: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...
COURAGE: I will fear no evil.
COMPANIONSHIP: For you are with me.
COMFORT: Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
PROVIDENCE: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
FAVOR: You anoint my head with oil.
HAPPINESS: My cup overflows.
BLESSINGS: Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.
IMMORTALITY: And I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
Reading 3 - Mat 13:3
"Then he told them many things in parables" (Mat 13:3).
"Parabola" literally means "a setting side by side", a comparison -- in the case of Christ's parables -- between something natural and something spiritual. Such teaching by picture, symbol, or figure has several distinct advantages. Being graphic, it is more easily remembered than dry statements of fact. It is also simple, direct, and emphatic, with the aura of everyday life about it. And finally, it is calculated to overcome prejudice, to circumvent that natural wall of resistance, to throw open the locked doors of the heart. "Thou art the man," was Nathan's bold accusation; the hypocrite was unmasked and condemned outright by a skillful parable.
Christ was a student of nature, of the people and the sights of rural Galilee. In the hand of this master craftsman, the natural and commonplace became spiritual and profound. The temporal and transient was transformed into the eternal and immovable. As God was manifest in a man, so that man's divine teachings were clothed in an earthly dress. He spoke of the simple farm life, the planting and sowing and reaping, the orderly flow of days and seasons and years being the Father's guarantee of order and security in all His arrangements. He spoke of the flocks that grazed the hills of his homeland, and the strong, quiet men who protected them; and his listeners began to comprehend the surpassing love of that Great Shepherd for even one lost sheep. And he spoke of the net and the fishers, the fowls of the air, and the lilies of the field. He spoke of weddings, of marketplace transactions, and of lowly household tasks. And always the point was made, that faith and hope and religion itself was the vital substance of one's daily life, not the brittle form of a Sabbath or a feast day.