"So you're going to retire? You're lucky. I figure I'll never be able to retire. I've done the math. I'll just have to keep on working until I drop."
The young man is in his mid-30s. He and his wife both work full-time, they have three children at home, and they barely make ends meet.
Unfortunately, they're not all that unique. In a discussion of the various "economic stimulus plans" being floated in Congress, a Canadian economist said on NPR that "everyone knows" about the widening gap in the United States between the highest- and lowest-paid workers. In the two decades following 1979, the income for those in the bottom fifth of U.S. households actually decreased by 0.3 percent, while the income for those in the top fifth more than doubled.
This is sinful! God has created a world of abundance, not scarcity. Why should so few have so much and so many have so little? It's certainly not for lack of enough money or food in the world. There's plenty to go around, but it's hoarded and not shared. Like the Hebrews fleeing Egypt (Exodus 16), most of us have plenty, but we act as though we don't and that makes us greedy.
In January, the Los Angeles Times syndicated an article by a manager who makes more than $100,000 per year in a Fresno, Calif., manufacturing company. "Over the years I have worked hard and earned every dollar of the obscene wealth I am accused of hoarding," he writes. Then he describes how he worked two jobs during college; missed countless birthday parties, special events and family gatherings because he had to work; and skipped spending time with family and friends because he was on business trips.
"I make no apologies for my financial position," he concludes. "I have worked very hard, earned every dollar and hope to continue earning long into the future."
Toward what end? If you can't spend your time and money with your loved ones, then what good is it? He also fails to recognize that others work just as hard at two or three jobs, but for a fraction of his income.
What we have here is the ancient conflict between excessive individualism and the common good. On that the Bible is clear, rife with examples of how God created us to live in community and care for each other.
Problems arise when those of us who "have"—like the manager in Fresno—begin to assume that our privileges are a right and of our own making. With this sense of entitlement we ignore the gifts in our lives that others may not share, for example, good health, housing and education; adequate food and safety; clean air and water. We neglect our responsibility to give back to society and gradually we get greedy.
People's lives are interconnected, though. The actions we take have consequences for others. While executives' salaries and benefits go up, wage earners are taking home less and shareholders' stock is devalued. While cheap flowers from the supermarket may grace my table, a family who harvests them in South America may be poisoned by pesticides or living on a pittance.
Any vision of the common good or of a just society is judged by how the weakest are faring, and right now that is not very well. I'm fortunate that a combination of factors make it possible for me to retire this summer. I hope that in time my son can, too.
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor of the national edition of United Church News.