Sunday, October 09, 2005

Needs And Wants

My new 60 degree wedge.

(Twenty-eighth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on October 9, 2005 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Philippians 4: 12-20.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-eighth Sunday 2005]

A few days ago I came across this little reflection, written by a Protestant minister, Max Lucado, not long after Hurricane Katrina hit:

“As you’ve listened to evacuees and survivors, have you noticed their words? No one laments a lost plasma television or submerged SUV. No one runs through the streets yelling, ‘My cordless drill is missing’ or ‘My golf clubs have washed away.’ If they mourn, it is for people lost. If they rejoice, it is for people found.

“Could Jesus be reminding us that people matter more than possessions? In a land where we have more malls than high schools, more debt than credit, more clothes to wear than we can wear, could Christ be saying: ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions’ (Luke 12:15)?

“We see an entire riverboat casino washed up three blocks and placed on top of a house in a neighborhood. You see demolished $40,000 cars that will never be driven again, hidden in debris. And in the background of our minds we hear the quiet echoes of Jesus saying, ‘What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?’ (Matthew 16:26).

“Raging hurricanes and broken levees have a way of prying our fingers off the stuff we love. What was once most precious now means little; what we once ignored is now of eternal significance.”

This minister, I would say, is absolutely correct in his observations, although I would add one insight to his: Disasters like Hurricane Katrina—and Hurricane Rita—help us to distinguish our needs from our wants.

And that’s good, because under ordinary circumstances it can be rather difficult for us to differentiate between the two.

In fact, I would say that all too often people use the expression, “I need” when they really should be saying, “I want”.

A couple of weeks ago, for example, I went into Golfers Warehouse in Cranston and I said to the salesperson, “I need a new 60 degree wedge.”

I did not NEED a new 60 degree wedge!—I wanted one. It was a desire, not a need. I could have survived without it. I wouldn’t have died if I didn’t get it. My golf game might have been a little worse, but that’s another story.

How often have you said, “I need another pair of shoes”—or another shirt, or another pair of pants—when you already had plenty of shoes and shirts and pants in your closet?

How often have you said “I need” with respect to another human person, when it really was not the case?

On that note, what do the Pointer Sisters, Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Marc Anthony, Elton John, Rod Stewart and the Beatles have in common (besides the fact that they’re all singers)?

Answer: All of them have either written or sung songs which have the words “I need you” in the titles, referring to other human beings.

But it’s not true, is it? Other people are not like air and water.

Believe it or not, you can survive without a boyfriend or a girlfriend or a spouse for an extended period of time. Some people, in fact, do quite well without them. But don’t try to go without air or water for very long—or you will need an undertaker.

I mention this today because of the beautiful promise St. Paul makes to us in our second reading, taken from Philippians, chapter 4. This promise, obviously, is true—but unfortunately it’s often misunderstood and misinterpreted.

Paul says, “My God will fully supply whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”

The problem here should be obvious: If you mistakenly believe that your wants are actually your needs, you’ll be expecting God to give you things in your life that he really hasn’t promised to give.

As I reflected on it earlier this week, I came to realize that when it comes to needs and wants, there are really 3 categories that items and people can fall into:

The first category is what might be called our “absolute needs”. An absolute need is something we literally can’t do without; we must have it.

Now when you sit down and really give it some serious thought, what you come to realize is that your absolute needs are relatively few in number. Some of the more obvious ones are: air, water, food and shelter.

Other people can sometimes fall into this category, but only for brief periods of time. For example, if you’re having a heart attack, an emergency room doctor can be an absolute need—and so can a priest (for the sacrament of Anointing).

Speaking of priests, I think it’s important to mention that a number of our absolute needs are spiritual and not physical (that’s something we may not think of too often). For example, sufficient grace is an absolute need! We need sufficient grace from God to fulfill our duties in life, to make the right choices, and to resist temptation.

We also have an absolute need of forgiveness, when it comes to mortal sin. Without forgiveness for a mortal sin, you go to hell when you die! That means it’s not optional!

This first category, incidentally, is the only one to which the promise of Philippians 4 applies. But even this point needs to be qualified a little bit. Some of these absolute needs, for example, will only be supplied by God if we ask. I mentioned mortal sin a few moments ago. If you want to be forgiven for such a sin, you have to ask (under normal circumstances, of course, that asking happens in the confessional).

Other absolute needs will be supplied only under certain conditions. For example, if it’s your time to go home to the Lord, the emergency room doctor will not be successful in reviving you from cardiac arrest. However, if it’s not your time to die, God will supply the need and the doctor will be successful).

That’s the first category.

The second category is what I would call our “partial needs”. These are not a part of the Philippians 4 promise, although we can sometimes be tempted to think that they are.

I’ll give you an example of a partial need of mine: my computer. I use my computer a lot; it helps me tremendously in my ministry. In a certain sense I can legitimately say, “I need my computer.”

But it is not an absolute need; it’s only a partial need! I know that because there was a time when I didn’t have one, and in spite of that I somehow managed to get all my work done.

So, if I had to, I could live without a computer again—although I’d rather not be put in that situation.

The same is true of my car. Do I absolutely need it? No. I could take a cab, or I could ask to borrow someone else’s vehicle to get around. Or I could do a lot more walking. But, quite frankly, I’d rather not have to resort to any of those options! My car does help me to fulfill my duties as a priest much more quickly and efficiently. Consequently, it does qualify as a partial need—but it’s definitely not an absolute one.

And finally, there are the many “wants” of our lives—wants that sometimes get mislabeled as “needs”. Here the list is really long, so I won’t mention too many particulars. However, I will say that my personal list includes my new 60 degree wedge; in fact, it includes all my golf clubs!

Your personal list includes your ipod (if you own one); your television set; the latest video games you’ve purchased; and even your cell phone (if you use it for recreational purposes only!).

Children, I would ask you to remember this when you ask your parents for gifts this Christmas—or at any other time of the year, for that matter.

Don’t say, “Mom, I need this great new video game that all my friends have”; “Dad, I need another snowboard; mine’s two years old.”

Say, “Mom, dad, I would like these things. May I have them—please?” Please don’t forget the “please”. And please don’t complain if they say No to your request—because you really don’t need any of these items (even though you might think you do!). Trust me, you won’t die without them. You may suffer a little emotional distress for a short period of time, but that’s about it.

I’ll conclude today with a homework assignment for everyone:

Sometime this week, sit down with a piece of paper and a pen. Draw three columns on the paper: label the first “absolute needs”; label the second “partial needs”; and the third “wants”.

Then fill in the columns with respect to your own life. If you do it correctly, column 3 will definitely be the longest; column 1 the shortest. And if you’re really honest, you may put some things in column 2 initially, and then realize that you really should have put them in column 3.

When you’re done, call to mind the promise of Philippians 4: “My God will fully supply whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”

And end the assignment by thanking God from the bottom of your heart for being faithful to that promise in your life.