I shall not want
For many of us Psalm 23 is very special. We hold it dear: it has been a source of comfort for us in difficult times. In my experience, it is the most commonly requested Psalm for funerals.
Yet it is precisely this familiarity with the words and possibly even our sentimentality about them that makes it difficult to hear just how challenging they are.
Often they come across like just another platitude; words designed to help us feel good when we are feeling down.
The psalm does do this, but when read carefully, it also presents some challenges for us.
The first line of the 23rd psalm starts: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want”
How does this phrase, ‘I shall not want’, strike you?Another way of translating this is “The Lord is my Shepherd, I have all that I need.”
Is this line in the psalm really something we have thought about?
Is this how any of us experience and think about life?
I know that ‘I want’ and I live in a society where my wants are encouraged, and even manipulated. Just think about it for a minute… what do you want? What are you being taught to want?
Psalm 23 begins with the notion that the sheep will not want because the Shepherd will have provided for them with all they need or want for: green pastures, still waters and a safe place.
We live in a consumerist society that thrives, even depends, on teaching us to want. To want more and more and more:
I want a new car.
I want a large flat screen TV and a home movie theatre.
I want the very latest in technology.
I want to win lotto.
I want a bigger house.
I want it all…right now.
But it’s not just that we want possessions either – we also want things of an emotional and spiritual nature as well.
I want a happy life.
I want to live in safety and security.
I want the best for my children and my grandchildren.
I want my husband to be more considerate.
I want my wife to understand me.
I want God to bless me
I want to be recognised for my work.
I want and I want and I want.
All this wanting seems somewhat ironic when you think about how comparatively wealthy and free most of us are in Australia. When you consider the access most of us have to housing, to food, to education, to healthcare, to freedom in worship it could appear to those in other, poorer nations that we spend a lot of time complaining and not enough time being grateful .
One would think that by now we would have realised that we do not really want for much at all, that we pretty much do have all that we need.
There are signs of this wanting everywhere: the increasing size of houses (Sydney’s are the biggest in the first world), people constantly upgrading their technology, a growing proportion of the population with obesity, the increase of anxiety disorders in our Western culture.
Further, we live in a time where we have become almostincapable of being led to rest beside waters. Instead, we are busy about damming up those waters and divertingthem for irrigation, fighting simultaneously with the farmers upstream who we suspect are getting more than their fair share.
The cost of saying “I want” is great. Not just to our culture but also to those places around the world where our Western materialism is propped up by people who earn next to nothing, who could even be considered slaves and sometimes literally are, who live in squalor and poverty to provide us with the things that we want. Are we more likely today to travel through the valley of the shadow of debt rather than the valley of the shadow of death?
So with all of this wanting around us, and in our own lives as well, how do we read those well loved words when we consider the consequences that our wanting brings?
For those of us with faith, continuing to want when we have been provided enough somehow seems at odds with the message: “I shall not want”
Given that we know the good news that God has reconciled and renewed us through Jesus we can begin to understand that life isn’t just about what I think “I want”.
We who have encountered this good news are challenged to think upon our not wanting. Psalm 23 is for us, a counter-cultural and revolutionary statement that could change our world, and should turn our lives upside down.
Jesus, the good shepherd, calls us out of our comfortable homes, away from living off of the lush pastures available to us right here and out to the margins, so all might eat good food, drink clean water, and enjoy the privileges we have such as education, healthcare and the power that comes with them.
“The Lord is my shepherd, and I have all that I need” will only be true when the world lives out the justice and righteousness that the psalmist proclaims, and when all of God’s children can sing with the psalmist in celebration of this line as a present reality rather than a future hope.
Rev. Elizabeth Raine
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