Scripture informs us that the poor we will have with us always. Therefore, I think the logical flip side of that coin is that we must come to grips with the notion we will always have the rich with us as well. That fact was abundantly clear at the fundraising gala I recently attended.
The event took place in a Beverly Hills hotel ballroom, and as I waited for festivities to begin I was mesmerized by the parade of luxury cars pulling up to the valet.
It was as close to a Hollywood version of extravagant wealth you were ever going to see, with a cavalcade of people getting out of cars holding Rodeo Drive shopping bags, wearing shoes that cost more than a monthly payment on a Honda Civic, with many accompanied by little dogs with sparkly collars.
I felt like an imposter, and it was a strange dichotomy of seeing one person holding a Maltese Poodle with a diamond dog collar enter the hotel and another woman of probably greater wealth walking into the fundraising gala and donating money in a reserved and almost anonymous manner.
At the gala I felt humbled, seeing so many wealthy men and women eagerly parting with substantial amounts of their own treasure for the sake of others.
This is not a diatribe against the rich. It is a diatribe of sorts though, about a culture that idolizes the pursuit of wealth and its flaunting. There was a lot of flaunting going on in that hotel valet line, but like just about everything else under the sun, this is not new.
People pursued ostentatious wealth in the court of Nebuchadnezzar and they do the same on reality television shows. The thing that is new is that during the time of Babylonian potentates all the way up through the Industrial Revolution, wealth was a very restricted commodity.
Granted, we have all heard about the 1 percent, the kind of people I saw the other night at the Beverly Hills hotel getting out of their Rolls Royces, Aston Martins, and Bentleys, but due to technology and economic and political innovations, wealth has become a much more relative term, especially in LA, where the entertainment industry holds so much sway and has the ability to create instant millionaires out of people with little or no discernible talent.
How relative a term wealth has become was made even more clear to me several years ago when I accompanied some flying doctors down to Mexico. This was a group of medical professionals who also loved to fly, so they combined those twin passions and in turn provided much needed medical care to very poor people in a remote Mexican town called El Fuerte.
Disclaimer: I was just a passenger working on a magazine article about this group of flying doctors, so I can claim no personal philanthropic currency.
Nevertheless, it was a trip that was good for my soul. These doctors (all rich enough to have their own airplanes) did not have to do what they were doing. These doctors were not showing off their wealth for others to see.
Instead, they used substantial parts of it to take care of others. And trust me, the people in El Fuerte were poor in a way no one in Los Angeles or America in general can come close to duplicating.
It was by seeing how really poor people live, I came to know how materially well off I am, even if I can’t buy an Aston Martin, and wealthy not just in some ethereal way with blessings I need to be thankful to God that don’t have a monetary value.
I am certainly blessed in abundances with undeserved graces I could never, ever repay, but I also know I am wealthy in material things and I need to do more with them.
It’s our natural state that our culture is obsessed with wealth. Every culture known to man has had the same affliction. If there was cable TV in 598 B.C., I’m sure we would have had a show called “Keeping Up with the Babylonians.” And as a more modern, but long ago for us, a movie actress of the last century quipped, “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor … rich is better.”
Rich is better — if we use it to hold up others more than ourselves. Since God is so good at providing for us everything we need rather than everything we want, the question is probably figuring out how much wealth we really need.
Robert Brennan is director of communications at The Salvation Army California South Division in Van Nuys, California.
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