When my daughters were little, every now and then they’d come down with “want-itis.” Want-itis was what we called the affliction of wanting too much. “I want an American Girl Doll. I want another American Girl Doll. I want sparkly Dorothy shoes. I want a Beanie Baby. I want, I want, I want…” Want-itis. Few of us are completely immune from want-itis. So when I hear in the King James Version of Psalm 23, “I shall not want,” my first thought is, “Everybody wants something.”
But the psalmist isn’t saying he’ll never desire anything. As much as we’re attached to the King James Version of this psalm, a better translation of this verse is, “I lack nothing,” or, as Eugene Peterson translates it, “I don’t need a thing.” “I have everything I need to live a healthy, peaceful life.”
What do we need, really, for a healthy, peaceful life? In 1943, Abraham Maslow created a pyramid with fives levels of human need. The theory is that our needs at a lower level have to be met before we even can begin to think about the next level. Maslow put our most basic physical needs at the bottom of the pyramid: air to breathe, food, water, sleep. If these physical needs are met, then the need for safety and security kicks in. Then belonging and relationship, then the need for respect, and finally, if all these other needs are met, a person can begin to tackle the peak of the pyramid – what Maslow calls “self-actualization”: the desire to become everything that we’re capable of becoming.
Needs, wants, self-actualization – these are pretty hard to tease apart in our culture, where wealth equals success. An American businessman took a quick vacation in a coastal village in Mexico. He went down to the pier to buy fresh fish. There, on a small boat, he saw a weathered fisherman with several large yellow fin tuna. The businessman complimented the man on the quality of his fish, and asked how long it took him to catch them. The man replied, “Just a little while.” The businessman asked why he didn’t stay out longer to catch more fish. “I have enough to support my family’s needs.”
“What do you do with the rest of your time?” the businessman asked. The fisherman answered, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, write a little poetry, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play the guitar with my friends. I have a full and busy life.” “You should spend more time fishing,” said the businessman. “You could make more money and buy a bigger boat. With the profit from the fish you could fit into a bigger boat, you could buy several boats. Eventually you’d have a fleet, and you could even open your own cannery. Then you could leave this little village and move to Mexico City, where you’d make more connections and expand your enterprise.”
The fisherman asked, “How long would all this take?” The businessman calculated. “You could do it in fifteen, maybe twenty years.” “Then what?” asked the fisherman. The businessman beamed. “That’s the best part. When the time is right you’ll announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public, and you’d be very rich. You’ll make millions!” “Millions?” marveled the fisherman. “Then what?” The businessman smiled. “Then you could retire, move to a small coastal village where you could sleep late, fish a little, play with your grandchildren, take siestas with your wife, write poetry and stroll to the village in the evenings where you’ll sip wine and play guitar with your friends.”
Now, this is a cute story; it has some insights about what we need and want and what it means to be self-actualized, but it doesn’t really address the complexities of meeting the needs of the world in our global economy. Amazingly enough, this morning’s beloved, several thousand-year-old psalm does.
“God is my shepherd. I have everything I need.” Not everyone can say this truthfully. Last Tuesday night, about 300 folks, including 20 or so from our congregation, gathered at a vigil and press conference to consider what’s next for our friends who use the Friday night REST shelter, because the REST program comes to an end this week. We know people who don’t have what they need in terms of food, shelter, safety, and security. And it’s not just folks who use the shelter. Every Sunday we sit alongside people who are looking for work or on a fixed income, one paycheck or one relative away from being on the street.
So is there a way that this verse – “I have everything I need” – can be true for everyone? Because if there isn’t, this psalm might feel like a cruel joke to those at the first couple of levels of Maslow’s pyramid, including the half of humanity that lives on less than $2.50 a day