When I was in the third grade I memorized the Twenty-third Psalm. Psalm 23 consistently ranks at or near the top of polls of favorite Bible passages. Known as the “funeral psalm” because of its frequent reading at funerals and memorial services, it contains some of the best known phrases in scripture. “The Lord is My Shepherd. I shall not want…” The words of Psalm 23 have brought comfort to countless mourners in their time of need, and for this I am grateful. But they are also words that in their original context speak more to the possibility of living fully as children of God in the here and now than to solace amid death and loss.
Psalm 23 was the first portion of scripture I committed to memory, but my motivation was not religious devotion. It was the lure of Mrs. Walker’s box of goodies. She set up a contest in her Sunday School class – memorize the psalm and pick a prize. After successfully reciting it, I dove into the box and claimed my reward. For decades the irony of my behavior was lost on me. I was so thoroughly immersed in consumer culture that I had not paid attention to the fact that I memorized a testimony to “not wanting” because I wanted a prize!
In another translation of the text, the psalmist declares that God gives us “everything we need,” and the ensuing images indicate this is a decidedly physical proclamation. The psalm speaks of “green pastures,” “still waters,” and “right paths,” which mean food, clean water, and secure shelter. This is a bold promise that the earth has the capacity to sustain life for everyone. But the promise is also a challenge. If God provides everything we need, why do millions with whom we share the planet die from lack of food, clean water, and safe places to live? Why amid the wealth of our Juneau community are there hungry and homeless neighbors among us? God provides everything needed to sustain life, but humans are in charge of the distribution system. An examination of the realities of hunger, homelessness and lack of access to health care indicates we are botching our job. “The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want.” If we have the will, we can find the way to distribute the earth’s bounty so that no one will be in want.
But the psalm is not solely about physical provisions. It also has a spiritual dimension. It asserts that God “restores our soul.” Do we believe that, or in our consumer culture do we search for meaning elsewhere? Whether or not we have everything we need, many of us have been taught to want more, and we have learned our lessons well. We are bombarded with claims that the right clothes, car or smart phones will bring us fulfillment. Most of us, when asked directly, would probably say that money cannot buy happiness. Our behavior, however, often belies our declaration. We succumb to the advertising enticements that life will be better with the latest thing. Yet, it isn’t. The thirst for more is unquenchable.
In his latest book, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, Harvard Philosophy Professor Michael Sandel argues that our civic life has become impoverished because we view most everything through a consumerist lens. When getting more stuff is our ultimate objective, life is reduced to a competition. The common good is forgotten and satisfying individual cravings becomes paramount. The psalmist offers an alternative -- to dwell in the “house of the Lord,” a decidedly communal goal. We don’t live there by ourselves. It is the “house of prayer for all people” (Isaiah 56:7) where all are welcome.
There is a place for wanting. It can be the motivation to improve and the urge to go the extra mile. Wanting is not all bad, but it raises a fundamental question of identity. When it comes down to it, who am I? A consumer? Or a child of God who shall not want?
The Lord is my shepherd. I have everything I need, physically and spiritually. We can receive the gift and organize our common life so that this is indeed true, not just for one but for all. Life in its fullness is as simple and as radical as that. I pray that we don’t wait for a Sunday School contest or a funeral to figure it out.
• Campbell is the pastor of Northern Light United Church