Vander Laan makes a powerful point about “green pastures” in Ps 23. In the video, his class is sitting in the wilderness — the desert. He says, “This is green pasture!”
You can’t easily see it in the video, but as he explains in the CDs, although it rarely rains in the wilderness, each morning there is dew from the sea breezes — and a very small amount of vegetation grows, just a little each day.
In Israel, the sheep are “pastured” in the desert, not the farmlands. Farmland was too precious to spend on sheep. Rather, the shepherd leads the sheep to an area with one-day’s growth — just enough for one day’s food.
Therefore, “green pastures” is not a reference to acres of alfalfa. It’s just barely enough food for today — food that sheep cannot find without the help of a shepherd.
This gives an entirely different perspective on God’s promises.
(Mat 6:34) Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
For a desert people, this saying made perfect sense. We want pasture and barns and tall grass — enough for years and years. Jesus says God will take care of today today. Tomorrow will be dealt with tomorrow.
The same thought is found in Deuteronomy regarding manna —
(Deu 8:2-3) Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. 3 He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. …
(Deu 8:10-18) When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you. 11 Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day.
12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 15 He led you through the vast and dreadful desert, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock.
16 He gave you manna to eat in the desert, something your fathers had never known, to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.
God led the Israelites through the desert, feeding them only one day’s supply of manna per day, to keep them humble, so that they’d know they had to rely on God for their sustenance. “Man does not live by bread alone …” means, in this context, that man lives not just by bread, but by the word of God, which provides the bread. It’s not about Bible study but about recognizing the hand of God in what we receive — and being thankful and humble.
It’s an extraordinarily difficult passage for Westerners to accept.
The 99 — if a sheep loses track of the shepherd, he can die from starvation or falling off a cliff.
Now in Matthew, the parable is speaking of children. Consider —
(Mat 18:2-14) He called a little child and had him stand among them. 3 And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
5 “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. 6 But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
7 “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come! 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.
10 “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.
11 12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.
In Luke 15, Jesus uses the same image to refer to a sinner who repents, which more than justifies “lost sheep” ministries for members who’ve left the church — although it better justifies ministries designed to prevent lost sheep, such as small group ministries.
But in Matthew, it’s about children. You see, the church dies if we lose our children — and we’re losing our children.
In Churches of Christ, from 2000 to 2006, the number of adherents (members plus children) declined. In states where the church is strongest (and often most conservative), the losses were in the thousands.
And these are net figures — taking into account those who leave and later come back. The trend is for children in the conservative churches to leave the faith altogether, whereas children in more progressive churches often remain in the faith but leave the Churches of Christ.
Again, as important as it is to rescue those who’ve gone away, the research shows that those who leave rarely come back. It’s much better to close the back door.
How do we do that?
In the deserts, wadis can quickly kill. In fact, in that part of the world, more people die in the desert from floods than from starvation or dehydration. When it rains in the hills, water rushes through the wadis, creating flash floods that can’t be seen or heard until it’s too late to escape.
Sheep without a shepherd go to the wadis to find fresh water and have no hope of escaping the floods. It’s the shepherd’s job to find “still water,” that is, water that doesn’t risk death.
What are modern-day equivalents of wadis (water that isn’t still) for the church?