Last Sunday, to accompany the story of the feeding of the five thousand, we heard Psalm 145. The antiphon was
The hand of the Lord feeds us; he answers all our needs.
Isn't that a remarkable thing to say? He answers all our needs. How, exactly, are we to understand this to be true?
Because -- I am sure there are a lot of people in the pews who could say, honestly, "No -- I am not getting all my needs addressed. I don't get what I need. Or I haven't got it yet, and don't see a way to expect it."
Accepting this strongly probable assertion makes the antiphon more than a little disturbing -- stained by association, maybe, with the heresy of the prosperity gospel. The hand of the Lord feeds us and he answers all our needs -- so if you remain hungry, needy, you aren't one of us. Something's wrong with you. Or else, it opens the singer to mockery: some Lord, eh? He didn't answer when your needs came knocking, did He now?
So let's consider some plausible alternative interpretations of the line, other than "we never perceive a need because God favors us." Because there's some serious issues with certain attitudes that go with that interpretation.
I'll restrict myself to the English antiphon as it appeared in Sunday's psalm, and not fiddle with translation issues here. In other words, I am just going to assume good faith and accuracy on the part of the translator.
Possibility #1: the psalmist is confined to a particular community at a particular time of spiritual fruitfulness and material prosperity. When it was written, it could truly be said "He answers all our needs," even if it is not so here and now.
This might make the reader wonder, "If that's so, then why sing it here and now?" but I think this possibility seems stronger the more experience one has praying the psalms in regular rotation as one does with the Liturgy of the Hours (or, indeed, with the Mass). It is said that whatever your situation, there is a psalm to fit it, but the corollary to this is that at any given time there are many psalms that don't fit at all. You may be feeling on top of the world and wanting to express gratefulness to God for His abundant blessings, but if it's Friday of Week III, you're stuck with "Let my eyes stream with tears day and night, without rest, over the great destruction," and so on. At first it is jarring, but eventually you figure out how to go with the flow, remembering always that this is the prayer of the Church, not the prayer of me, and someone's life somewhere is intimately fed by this psalm, and we can all join in it whatever our situation.
So we can understand this as: God answers someone's needs somewhere, and we can join in acknowledging it.
Possibility #2: We are to understand "needs" more restrictively here; not everything we might think is a "need" really is.
In this case, the antiphon could even be turned around: it isn't really a need unless God meets it. I am not particularly fond of this interpretation because I fear that it could be abused to minimize others' real suffering. But there is some precedent for this, if you allow (first of all) that securing our salvation is the sole true goal in life, and (second) that the people of God who sing this song are aware of, and accept, the primacy of that salvation. Food, clothing, shelter, security, human kindness, can certainly help us along the path to salvation, but the Christian knows that they are not actually prerequisites. The martyrs had none of these at the point of the blade. You could say that the antiphon, interpreted this way, reminds us that the only true need is grace, and that God grants it abundantly.
Caution, though: we should never assume that other people have no true need for food, clothing, shelter, security. The song says God answers all "our" needs. Quite possibly we can serve as the channel of grace to others in need of compassion, by helping to meet others' physical needs. It is much easier to realize that salvation is more important than food when you are not hungry all the time.
Possibility #3: The emphasis is on the word "He." "It's the hand of the Lord who feeds us; it's He who answers all our needs."
I think this is the strongest candidate of all the interpretation. When our needs are met, it is God to whom we owe our thanks and praise. Whatever food we eat, our clothing, our homes, the people who care for us, the powers of our own and others that keep us safe -- all of that is ultimately a gift from God. Sometimes it comes with the cooperation of others, other times without it; sometimes we ought to thank other people, too; but ultimately we owe God thanks for every good gift in our lives.