Words like privilege, entitlement and equal access have suddenly taken on enormous significance in our culture. Until recently, I viewed myself as very egalitarian. But on board a recent commercial flight, I learned something disturbing about myself: Maybe I’m not as committed to equality as I thought I was.
It had been one of those noon-to-noon conferences, but because of travel to and from, the event devoured two calendar days. Exhausted and ready to get home, I made my way to my seat on the plane. “Let’s see — 23A. Oh, wow. The back row! By the toilet. I’ll be the last one off when we land. What’s more, if the cabin attendants run out of time on this short flight, I may not get served coffee.”
I sat there feeling pretty sorry for myself. What did I do to deserve this? Why do they have to have a first-class section anyway? Why don’t they just make all the seats large and everyone’s leg room spacious? One size for all.
Really, I’m just thinking about others who will come after me. After all, weren’t Moses, Jesus and Abraham Lincoln all about equality?
As the airline staff was doing their final boarding routine, an attendant pointed at me and said, “I need you to sit closer to the front; come with me.” Startled, I said, “Really? What’s this all about?” She replied, “We need to balance the plane’s weight.”
Before I could think, I blurted out, “Are you calling me fat?” The other passengers laughed, but the poor attendant looked at me in panic, as if she expected to hear from my attorney by morning. When I assured her I was only teasing, she led me forward down the aisle, closer and closer to the front. Wait for it…first class, the front row! Right behind the cockpit!
What followed was an all-too-brief flight home. Plenty of legroom, a comfortable seat and coffee out of a real mug (and I was served before everyone else!). And the snack was my choice of several options versus the usual dog biscuit.
OK, so now I’m rethinking this whole equality thing. Maybe there is value in having a first-class section.
My rationalization muscles started working overtime. After all, I’ve flown lots of miles over the years, and all of them were in the obscurity of seats with names like 49B and 19C. And usually, the people on either side of me had already claimed the arm rests because they got there first.
So maybe I am due. Maybe I’m entitled.
Have you ever noticed that the more privileges that are bestowed on us, the more we begin to feel like they are our rights rather than gifts of grace? When we are on the back row of life’s airline flight, we cry, “I don’t deserve this,” but when God blesses us with a throne-like seat right behind the pilot, we forget to once again say, “I don’t deserve this.”
Many of us live in social, economic and racial first-class seats and have forgotten (or never knew) what it was like to sit in the back of the plane. After all, the airplane’s first-class seats always face forward, so privileged passengers don’t have to look at “the rest of us.” The airlines even provide a handy curtain to pull between the sections, lest anyone forget his or her place.
Jesus once told a story, recorded in Matthew 20, about a farmer who went into town and found some field hands. He and the workers agreed on a wage for a full day’s labor. Later in the day, others came and worked a shorter time, but were all paid the same as the daylong laborers. The all-day workers were incensed. Like them, our focus is often on a perceived sense of entitlement. Jesus’ focus is always on grace.
The next time I flew after this “first-class surprise,” I was jolted back to reality. While boarding, I passed by the huge armchairs in the front of the plane. I leaned over to one lady and explained I was working on this column for publication. Would she like to participate in this grand theological experiment by trading seats with me?
You guessed it. I landed in 34C. But at least I got a biscuit and a few drops of coffee. It’s all grace.
Doyle Sager is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo.