A couple of summers ago I booked an airline ticket from Seattle to London, a nine-hour flight. I fly enough to know that, to get a good seat in the economy section, you’re wise to book early and to reserve an aisle seat in the exit row. It’s the next best thing to business-class. I had booked just such a ticket – aisle seat, exit row.
I was comfortably settling in for the flight when I made an uncomfortable discovery. Beside me was a couple with a young child, a little boy just young enough so that they didn’t have to buy a seat for him and just old enough to need one for such a long flight. The plane wasn’t full and I could easily have given my seat to this child and, graciously, taken another. But all the good seats were already taken. What remained was a sorry selection of bad ones, seats that hemmed you in and left you no room to stretch or move about. And this was a nine-hour flight!
The couple was too polite to ask me to move, though I could tell that they very much wanted me to do the noble thing. I didn’t do it. All that’s unredeemed and selfish in me stubbornly resisted doing the right thing. I had, after all, had the foresight to book that good seat and I’d paid for it. It was owed me.
About an half-hour into the flight, just after the seat-belt sign had been turned off, an airline attendant, assessing the situation, approached and asked whether I would be willing to give up my seat for the young child. There were, after all, open seats on the plane. How could I refuse? The implied question was really; “Do you want to be selfish or do you want to do the right thing?” Pride, not virtue, dictated my decision. I did the noble thing, but not without resentment. I gave up my seat and took another which for obvious reasons (it was a bad seat) was not occupied. I sat in it for the next nine hours, pouting like a spoiled child. I should have felt good. I’d just done virtuous thing, given up something to help someone else, but there was no grace in it for me at all. I was bitter as a slave. Not exactly a proud moment in my life!
More recently I was flying from Toronto to Rome when a similar situation ensued. Toronto to Rome is a long flight, I’d had the foresight to book an aisle seat in the exit row, and I was looking forward to the extra comfort that this seat afforded. I boarded the plane and took my seat. Shortly before take-off, the man beside apologetically explained to me that he and his wife had booked their tickets late, had been unable to get seats together, and so his wife was sitting in a different section of the plane. I surmised what was coming next: “Would I be so kind as to exchange seats with her?” He pointed to where his wife was sitting, in the middle seat of a middle section, the last place you want to be for a long flight. But I’d learned something from my sorry flight a few years earlier, something biblical, Christological.
So I replied that I’d happily exchange seats with his wife and, leaning on further grace, refrained from pointing out that, given the difference in the seats, this was hardly a fair trade. I moved, gave his wife my seat, and, for the next eight hours, sat in a lousy seat and felt wonderful, having just done a godly thing, however minute that might appear in the great schema of things.
But it was the great schema of things Jesus was referring to when he stood before Pontius Pilate and refused to be moved by the threat: “Don’t you know that I have power over you! I can put you to death or set you free!” Jesus’ answer: “Nobody takes my life, I choose to lay it down freely! Nobody has that power over me!” Nobody can take by force what has already been freely given out of love. Love can make a preemptive strike.
And it is this preemptive strike that we are daily invited to make when duty calls. Our families, friends, communities, churches, and the poor are going to ask for our lives. We may as well give them over freely. The choice is not between giving our lives over or not giving them over, but rather between giving them over conscriptively in resentment or giving them over freely in love. They will be taken from us in any case.
Like Jesus, we should stand before noble duty and the endless conscriptive demands of living with others and say: “Nobody takes my life from me – I give it over freely.” That’s also true for seats on airplanes.