Daily Proverbial, 18 November 2011

Better a poor man whose walk is blameless than a rich man whose ways are perverse. Proverbs 28, verse 6.

Let’s get something on the table here and get it clearly understood: Scripture is not endorsing poverty. The proverb does not say “it’s better to be poor than rich.” It does talk about the attitude and actions of someone in a particular category of wealth, though. It is the blameless walk (and the heart that keeps it blameless) of the poor man that differentiates him from the perverse rich man (whose heart drives his perversity).

Mind you, wealth can be a sly devil. Remember Christ’s observation that it’s easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. That is a case where the Creator Himself warns that wealth can lead someone astray. But what is it that’s led astray? You got it: we’re back to the heart.

We are all perverse; none of us is blameless. Thus, the contrast is even heavier, that because we’re perverse and chock full of blame whether we are poor or rich, famous or unknown. It is the heart that makes the difference. Let me recount an incident from yesterday’s flight back from Chicago. Yet again I let airborne selfishness bother me. In my work as a traveling consultant I get to, well, travel. I travel quite a lot. I think I’m getting cranky in my middle age because this type of behavior bothers me more and more as I see it more and more.

We were boarding and I put my bag in the overhead bin. I was in coach in a scrunched up seat that American Airlines calls “comfortable.” I call it “expensive.” As I was sitting there, wolfing down my cold Big Mac – didn’t have time for a sit-down lunch – another traveler came on board. He was toting a rollerboard bag, one of those suitcases that holds a week’s worth of clothes if you roll them and pack it tight. He looked at my laptop bag and had the audacity to say, “this will need to go under somebody’s seat because I need to put my bag up.” Really?

Yes, I got steamed but I didn’t immediately say anything; I’ll tell you why in a moment. He looked around and started hemming and hawing, and the man next to me (across the aisle) politely and quietly told him, “you might get a better response from people if you asked them more nicely.” It was well-spoken but oblivious to Hemming Guy, who kept gruffing around (and holding up the long boarding line). Me, I was perturbed, not just because it was my bag he wanted to move. What kind of nerve does someone have to demand someone else be inconvenienced just so they can have their selfish way? I had been thinking about what I would write in this Proverbial, and clearly this man was in the far-from-blameless category.

And then I realized that I was right there with him. His selfish attitude was on display. Mine was self-righteously hidden but only just barely and only just barely contained. After all, he had a point. I could put my bag under my seat. Someone else could use that space, especially if they brought on two bags, something I often do myself but didn’t yesterday. I was no better than Hemming Guy: I was just being more subdued. I was like the rich but perverse man just as much as my grousing fellow passenger.

That didn’t last long. I had listened to the softspoken man across the aisle who, while being upright, also politely, firmly, and carefully both instructed and chided Hemming Guy in his error. His was the better example. Me being me, though, I got up, looked at Hemming Guy, and said to him, “Sure, I’ll put my bag under my seat so you can put yours up.”: I even said “you’re welcome” before he had a chance to say ‘thank you’ (which he never did; I probably turned him off). A minute later, while shoving his other bag under his seat, he then started looking for a place to put his overcoat. This, too, needed to go overhead. So, I tapped him on the arm and said, “hey mac,” and I opened the bin above my head.

For the rest of the flight, Hemming Guy sat in his exit row seat, reclining into the soft-spoken man behind him (who, like me, sat there in a reduced space; there’s a reason why AA has never gone bankrupt: they jam people onto planes like sardines). Hemming Guy didn’t say anything to anyone, but neither did he cause more trouble. When I wrote this on the plane (which is no easy task when the seat in front of you is compressed up into your chin), it hit me again that neither Hemming Guy nor I were blameless. Our attitudes were perverse, him in his selfish display and me in my crass and somewhat rude response.

What would Jesus want me to do? I’m betting better, something different, something kinder. After all, 200 people crammed onto an airplane need to be kind to each other if they’re going to co-habitate for a few hours. Perverse attitudes paint us as the sinners we are when Christ wants us to act blameless. Indeed, if you’re going to ride on an airplane these days, you need a modicum of wealth to do so. It isn’t cheap to fly anymore, even when you’re shuttled like cattle. And both Hemming Guy didn’t act nearly as nice as those cattle!

As I sat there in my $800 coach seat I contemplated how, for someone aspiring to be richer in spirit, I had acted poorly. Who knows what Hemming Guy thought; it’s not my business. He might have had a bad day, or wasn’t feeling good, or could be enduring something terrible other than some trivial plane ride. But I did find myself at one point closing my eyes and praying for him on that same flight. He’s a sinner just like me. It’s not God who makes us sin, or puts us on crowded airplanes, or designs our lives to live in poverty or hurt. God destines all of us for heaven, but along the way we embrace the perversity of our sins and that puts the whole arrangement out of whack. Thanks be to Him that He also made them right again with that eternal second on Calvary when one man’s death meant life everlasting for all who would believe, including perverse people like you, me and Hemming Guy.

Here’s to hoping Hemming Guy is in that population of believers.

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