It is sometimes seen (at least in movies I suppose) people so rich that they strive to be seen lighting cigars with burning hundred dollar bills. And of course there are many forms of this same behavior that you don’t need any movie screen to observe: “Watch in awe at how big a vehicle I can afford to drive just for myself alone wherever I care to go!” (Or maybe with a trophy spouse riding shotgun). “Look at how huge a mansion (with a huge kitchen I rarely use) and large lawn (I never play in) that I can maintain just for show purposes.” And lest we think all such boasting is limited to only a certain select few revelers in mammon, let’s bring this a bit closer to home: “Look at how far into unreachable obscurity my published theories can range, far beyond what anyone now can conceive any use for! I’m so smart that I don’t need to worry about actual bread-and-butter; I can spend my time exploring mental frontiers forever unavailable to the commoners who must scrabble about chasing after practical things.” (I’ve heard it said, though I can’t any site sources beyond ‘they say’, that the ultimately useless theorem is a bit of a ‘holy grail’ for mathematicians who have striven to come up with an idea so far out there that nobody could possibly make any practical use of it. And time and time again, they have failed.) Well, okay, so maybe this still isn’t at all close to home for the 99% of the rest of us. But my point is, a lot of us commoners still find a way to get onto some boasting train of one kind or another. We all strive to carve out our niche, right? “Watch me spin out all these words and thoughts here on an early Saturday morning, turning out run-on paragraphs and sentences right up there with Apostle Paul and the best of them!” [and you can stop that snickering right now. I’m reaching for what I’ve got – okay?]
But here is my point (yes – I did start this with one of those in mind). God doesn’t seem to be above the desire for admiration. Maybe the opening title of this post could be attributed originally to divine authorship. God creates people who, unlike all other inert matter, can contemplate the rest of creation around them and even build relationships. And God effectively tells us, “check out that vast cosmos around you that you’re still trying to even just glimpse the edge of! So far as you know right now, it appears it’s all there just for you! You think that is profligately wasteful? You don’t even know the small fraction of it yet!”
It isn’t just individuals that boast. Societies and nations can (and do) boast as well. A nation’s opulent wealth can be shown in how they are able to care for their poor and disenfranchised. “We’re so rich and have so much wherewithal to spare that we lavishly take care of those who, for whatever emotional or physically crippling reasons, can’t or won’t completely take care of themselves!” Less wealthy and less powerful nations of course fall down on this a bit, looking more like the “commoners” with their more impoverished mentality: “I’m barely able to muster my own survival right now … don’t expect me to have anything left over to give you. And certainly don’t expect us to have any room in our culture for immigrants or other strangers.” That personal poverty is what is on display when we grumble about taxes or insurance premiums or anything else that helps to subsidize others in any way or form. [But even if we here in the U.S. must come to terms with our commoner status, there are fortunately truly great and wealthy nations we can still look up to - north of here, and in other parts of the world.]
And then God steps in … the same God, whose retirement nest egg consisted of a single cloak – but who instead had a whole lot of devoted followers and family. “I’ve got so much extra love, that I can afford to chase down every one of you, even if you were the last one with all the 99 others safe in the fold. You burn mere hundred-dollar bills? I spent an entire life to be with all of you –because there is so much more life where that one came from.”
Of course, God can seem much more miserly if we were to single out some other passages like this one: Broad is the road the many trod to destruction, and narrow is the gate to life – only a few find it. Perhaps this is one of those teachings meant to provoke envy and desire more than to be an actual reflection of God’s will. To think that God engineers a difficult salvation just to keep the larger masses of commoners out flies in the face of nearly all the rest of scripture, so I feel confident in taking this passage more along the lines of an “I bet you can’t do this” challenge that is to goad us to go on and do exactly that. God is not above satire. “Send them prophets? Why would I do that! They might hear and repent and be saved!”
My wife dragged me to a block party last night (in another town!). To my credit, I didn’t put up much of a fuss, though I’m more attracted to just relaxing at home rather than getting to know strangers. I’m glad I went, but on reflection wonder if I wasn’t still too stingy with my willingness to reach out and build relationships with others. I spent the whole evening mostly visiting with only one or two – it’s a compromise, right? So miserly Merv was there lighting up my cigars with one-dollar bills. But hey, it’s a start! [For you literalists, those last couple of sentences were metaphorical – I don’t smoke. I’m not nearly that interesting.]
In contrast, we have such an opulent God, who I think is flattered by anyone who imitates his opulently loving son. May we all be granted such lavish wealth from which we feel secure enough to profligately revel in things like relationships with other people, revel in the “useless” minutiae of God’s creation, in observation and even education even just for its own sake. Now that’s a boasting train I’d like to be seen on.