Did you know that over 80% of the US population now lives in urban areas? This means that the vast majority of us do not see fields or flocks around us on a regular basis. We have no natural frame of reference for the agrarian life, which also means that we are increasingly disconnected from many of the images used in the Bible.
As I’ve said before, Jesus came from a tiny town in a rural area of Galilee. Herds of goats, flocks of sheep, and fields of grain, grapes, and olives would have surrounded the village of Nazareth. Naturally, these provided many of the images that Jesus used to illustrate his spiritual teachings and ground his parables in a world his listeners could understand.
This also means it can be more challenging for us to connect with those teachings, parables, and images. Fortunately, there are modern teachers and researchers who can dig into that agrarian history and interpret those images for us. There are also people who still live that agrarian lifestyle, in the holy land, and they also can contribute to our understanding.
Take, for example, the concept of the “path of righteousness” that is mentioned a handful of times in Hebrew Scripture. Proverbs 12:28 (NRSV) tells us that “in the path of righteousness there is life, in walking its path there is no death.” Proverbs 2:20 instructs us to “walk in the way of the good, and keep to the paths of the just.” Now, when I envisioned this path as a child, I found myself thinking of a single, narrow path, wending its way through dense forest, similar to the one I imagined Little Red Riding Hood traversing on her way to Grandma’s house.
While in Israel last month, I learned that my childhood vision couldn’t have been further from the truth. Rather than being a guiding way through dense forest, the paths of righteousness are a bunch of well-worn, often parallel paths that sheep and goats have worn into steep, barren hillsides. Once these paths are tramped down by many hooves (and a few shepherds’ feet), it is possible for the entire herd to safely walk along steep mountainsides without falling—literally—into the valley of the shadow of death.
You see, the path of righteousness is not something to be sought out and carefully followed because you might otherwise lose your way—as in a dense European forest. Instead, the lesson is about following the way of those who have trod it before you because it provides a narrow, stable surface upon which you can walk without twisting your ankle or falling down the mountainside.
Spiritually speaking, then, The Way (which was also the earliest name for the Christian path) is a path which Jesus and his disciples have walked, a path that safely leads to spiritual sustenance and growth: green grass, pure water, a safe haven. It involves paying attention to the traditional ways in which your spiritual mothers and fathers have walked, and following the path they have laid down as they walked their own journey.
Lent, which begins this Wednesday, is one such spiritual path. I invite you to ponder how you might tap into the legacy of the paths of righteousness, in Scripture and your own religious tradition, as you determine how you will observe this season of sustenance and growth in your spiritual life.