By Mandy Smith
The front page of The New York Times carried the headline “The Millionaires Who Don’t Feel Rich.” The article told of millionaires in the Silicon Valley who, because they’re surrounded by multimillionaires and billionaires, don’t consider themselves wealthy.
One multimillionaire admitted, “Everyone around here looks at the people above them.”
Another added, “Here, the top 1 percent chases the top one-tenth of 1 percent, and the top one-tenth of 1 percent chases the top one-one hundredth of 1 percent.”1
We may roll our eyes, but don’t we do the same? If we rank in the 50th percentile for national average salary we almost invariably are chasing those who rank above us—is that so different? Because our daily lives don’t intersect with the lives of the world’s poor, it is easy to forget that we, too, are rich. Because we don’t see many who go hungry, we don’t consider it a luxury to have a pantry full of food. Because we don’t know many who are bedridden due to lack of basic health care, we don’t consider it a luxury to have affordable over-the-counter medication.
But we, in the developed world—even those on modest incomes—are rich. We’re too busy keeping up with the Joneses—our next-door neighbors—to consider the Rodriguezes and Lees and Singhs—our global neighbors2—who are trying to keep up with us.
What We Have: Much
Immediately after Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Fool (“Don’t store up things for yourself”) and the “Consider the lilies” passage (“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”), Luke records another parable about wealth.
Jesus tells the story of a manager who is left in charge of the household while the master is away. He warns that a manager who abuses the servants and gets drunk in the master’s absence will receive severe punishment on the master’s return. Jesus ends the parable with the weighty statement, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).
When Jesus refers to “the one trusted with much,” do we hear him speaking to us? As Gregg Easterbrook writes in The Progress Paradox,
It seems almost a matter of human nature that most people reject the idea they are prosperous. Surveys show that the majority of Americans think only the rich are “well-off,” despite the fact that most Americans live quite well compared to more than 99 percent of the human beings who have ever existed.3
To whom do we compare ourselves to establish whether we have much and if we are rich? If, like the Silicon Valley multimillionaires, we only consider the people on our street, few of us would feel rich. But if we consider our global neighbors, it’s a different story.
Not long ago I visited a large church holding a special missions event where international students were invited to help demonstrate the distribution of food around the world. The students from different nations stood at the front of the sanctuary, and loaves of bread were distributed to them according to the ratio by which food is distributed to their nations.
Students from Afghanistan and Zambia received one or two slices of bread each. The Thai and Albanian representatives were given a loaf or two. Those from Great Britain got about five loaves. And then came the representative for the United States, wheeling a shopping cart, heaped with loaves of bread. It was a very effective illustration.
But the most poignant part came the next day when I went to visit the house where these international students lived. In their kitchen, one student was making himself a sandwich. And piled beside him on the table were about 50 loaves of slightly squished bread, donated from the previous day’s demonstration.
Even when we’re trying to be conscious of our wealth, we still have the luxury of seeing bread as a prop! We have so much we have lost touch with how the poor see bread. We don’t understand how the poor see us. And they see us as the ones with much.
What We Have: Opportunity
In today’s global economy, we must consider the world when deciding if we have much, or we become like those spoiled and insular millionaires of Silicon Valley who are oblivious to their privileged lives. To make this comparison in real, measurable terms, consider the chart above, contrasting three of the world’s wealthiest nations (the United States, Italy, and New Zealand) with those from four of the world’s poorest.4
Not only is there a huge disparity between incomes for those in poor and wealthy nations, but there is also a glaring correlation between those incomes and other factors such as longevity/health and access to information/communication. In this very small sampling of statistics, we get a sense of how very much we have in terms of finances, but also in terms of opportunities, health, convenience, and comfort.
What We Have: a Trust
It’s natural, in light of such contrasts, to ask why we have so much and others have so little. We could debate the political and climactic causes. We could ask how a just God could allow such disparity. But God has given the world what it needs.5 Our master has laid it in our hands and, with a sobering look, left us to it.
This “much” is not a gift but a trust. We are its managers, not its owners. With this humbling and weighty reality firmly in mind, we’ll be driven to ask how others live and how we should live. We’ll make grateful, humble, moral, responsible, and generous choices.
And, knowing we have much, we’ll be ready when much is asked of us.
1Gary Rivlin, “In Silicon Valley, Millionaires Who Don’t Feel Rich” The New York Times, 5 August 2007.
2It’s interesting to note that, when Jesus is asked, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29), he answers by telling a story of people from different cultures (the Good Samaritan). It would seem his sense of neighbors stretched beyond borders.
3Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox (New York: Random House, 2006), 119.
4From UNESCO’s most recent figures (most reflect 2004-05 statistics), http://www.unstats.un.org/.
5For example: We’re starting to hear a debate once again about the predictions by 18th-century demographer Thomas Malthus—that the world’s population will outgrow its food supply. But U.S. officials brush off such talk. World Food Program executive director Josette Sheeran also remains optimistic. “I have not yet met an expert who doesn’t believe the world can produce more food,” she says. “And so, I am a long-term optimist—i.e., over the next 5 or 10 years, we will figure this out.” From National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” report, “Aid Groups Target Poor Nations as Food Prices Soar,” 14 April 2008.
How to Remember You Have Much
The language we choose can have a powerful influence on our sense of entitlement. When you order a burger and fries, do you say, “I need” or “I would like”? Purposefully use language to communicate that most of what we have is a preference, not a need.
Get your church and/or family involved in Operation Christmas Child’s annual gift drive. It allows individuals and churches to pack shoe boxes with Christmas gifts for children in the poorest countries of the world. Shop through the eyes of the child who will receive the box, and you will become aware of how far beyond need we have come. Go to www.samaritanspurse.org and follow the links to Operation Christmas Child.
Say the words, “I am rich.” Why does it feel awkward? Do we feel it’s the same as saying, “I am better”?
Limit or learn to critique advertising, since it is designed to make us believe we need more. Creators of fashion, car, and home magazine advertisements spend their days and millions of dollars to make your clothes, car, and house seem less than enough.
Make a habit of gratitude. List what you have as an individual, as a family, and as a church. Determine to fill a whole sheet of paper.
Dig deeper into the realities of wealth distribution around the world. Invest in a copy of Material World: A Global Family Portrait, which records in beautiful photographs the lives and material possessions of 30 families across the world. Share it with your church and family.
Read various Bible passages that mention “the rich” (e.g., Luke 18:18-24) and put yourself (and all members of the developed world) in the position of the rich.
Mandy Smith is international student services coordinator at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.