Have you ever flown in a commercial airplane and had the experience of passing through the first class cabin while you make your way back to the cheap seats? You have to walk right through the aisle while the hoity-toity people get settled into their wide leather seats, waiting for their free drinks and all the other fancy amenities that come with traveling first class. It’s interesting to see how the aristocracy will completely ignore the peasants who come wandering through their space. As I have passed through first class I’ve always been a little disgusted by the elite people who think they’re so much better than the rest of us.
On a few occasions in the past, I traveled with a friend who flew a lot for business, so that he had preferred flyer status. And sometimes, even though we bought the cheap seats for a flight, if they hadn’t sold out the first class seats, they would want to fill all the seats on the plane, so they’d put us in first class. It’s really helping the airline out to do this, and it’s out of pity for US Air that I allowed myself to take a first class seat.
Well, it was wonderful. Except for that moment when the economy class people boarded the plane and came wandering through the first class cabin. I tried hard not to make eye contact with them. Not because I wanted to ignore them, but because I felt guilty. And I wondered if they were as judgmental of me as I was of the people in first class when I was boarding the plane and heading back to the cheap seats. There are some planes that you enter from the center so everyone doesn’t have to walk through the first class cabin. I prefer that if I’m sitting in first class because then I don’t have to think about the special privileges I am enjoying while they’re crammed into a cattle car. It was really hard for me to enjoy living the high life when I knew other people were living the low life.
Over the past year, we’ve heard a lot about the 99% and the 1% in our country. The gap between the salary of corporate executives and their workers is greater in the United States than it is in any other industrialized nation in the world. It’s about 325 to 1, and widening more with each passing day. We in the 99% have every reason to shake our fists at the 1% with righteous indignation. It’s disgusting. It’s unjust. It’s an affront to our God who always sides with the poor.
Well, before we get too carried away, pointing an accusing finger at the 1%, we need to expand our field of vision. Because when we go beyond our nation’s borders, it’s a different story. When we look at the global picture, we see that majority of the 99% in America are among the world’s wealthiest people.
It’s like the difference between first class and the cheap seats on an airplane. Yes, there’s a gap, but we’re still all on the airplane! What about the people who can’t even afford a bus ticket to get to the airport? We’re so busy stowing our stuff under the seat in front of us that the existence of such people doesn’t even cross our minds.
I’ve been thinking lately about a couple of the places where I’ve gone to serve on mission trips. I remember when I went to Haiti we visited several schools. It was amazing to see a classroom of children who were sitting in a room without electricity, so there were no lights on. They didn’t have paper and pencils and there was one textbook, which the teacher used. They made do with what they had because they didn’t have a choice. And I sit in my well lit office surrounded by shelves filled with books, behind a desk scattered with papers, and I think I’m having a crisis when my internet connection goes down.
Another mission trip I took was to Mexico on the Baja peninsula. I was with a campus ministry group and we were serving in a small town where water was a real problem. It hadn’t rained in years and every drop of water they used had to be delivered by truck. Can you imagine how expensive that was for these people?
You didn’t do laundry very often. You didn’t let the water in the faucet run when you were brushing your teeth. You didn’t flush the toilet unless it was absolutely necessary. Needless to say, you also didn’t stand under the shower for 20 minutes. Showers were few and far between, and when you took them, there was a procedure you went through. First of all, the showers were all cold because it would take too much water to wait until it got hot. You got into the shower and quickly got yourself wet. Then you turned the water off. You soaped up. Then you turned the shower on and rinsed off. All together the shower water probably ran for about one minute.
It’s always an eye-opener to go on a mission trip and experience something like that. And then, when the trip is over, I get to go home; the people in that town are still living there.
I think of them whenever we’re short on water in Charlotte and I hear the people in our community complaining about not being able to water their lawns. That’s what we call a drought. It’s a crisis for us when we can’t water our grass. The people I spent time with in the small town in Baja wouldn’t even believe it.
What if, all of a sudden, God switched everything around and we were living in that tiny little dessert village and they were living here? They would think they had died and gone to heaven. And for us, we would surely think we were in hell.
A big theme in Luke’s gospel is the Reversal of Fortune. It’s the idea that in the Kingdom of God, everything gets turned upside down. We first hear about this theme from Mary when she sings in the second chapter of Luke “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
The greatest problem we face when we have wealth may be that we start to believe we are entitled to our privileged status. We actually think that we’re more valuable than other people are, because we have more valuables. But God didn’t make the world this way, with this huge gap separating rich from poor. That’s something we did. And those of us who have more, have a sacred, God-given responsibility to those who have less. That’s the way it is in the Kingdom of God. As easy as it is to point an accusing finger at Wall Street big-wigs, it’s even easier for us to ignore the plight of the poor and hungry in the world around us. But in the Kingdom of God there is a great reversal coming. If we fail to see the gap now, and respond to the disparity in our world, one day it will be clear to us.