I’m so wealthy … Watch in awe as I do this!


(Mervin Bitikofer) #1

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.


(Christy Hemphill) #2

Plus, cigars are for Calvinists, and we know you are a good Armenian.

I have often thought about the story of Mary breaking her expensive jar and pouring out her expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet. It has always reminded me that my sense of “waste” and God’s sense of “waste” are not the same thing. And sometimes wastefulness is a “beautiful thing.”

I have thought about this often in the context of “when helping hurts” (an influential book in my corner of the development work world) because that perspective takes a hard line on waste. (Which is good and necessary most of the time.) But I wonder how we couple stewardship and sustainability with giving people a taste of grace, which is often pictured in the Bible as pretty ostentatious and over the top. God invites the poor and the outcast to a feast, not a basic necessities basket distribution. The prodigal son got a party fit for a prince. Maybe it isn’t always a bad idea to treat malnourished orphans to all you can eat hamburgers for one night instead the more sensible choice of lentils and rice for two weeks.

I also think about Mary when I think about the concept of “wasting your life.” I think we all want to be significant somehow or to be doing things that seem like an appropriate match for our skills and gifts and potential. But sometimes the most beautiful thing we can do is let ourselves be “wasted” in the eyes of the world. God’s math is different.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #3

I knew there was a reason I’ve stayed away from that habit.


(Laura) #4

This is interesting because I think many Christians accept the idea that what we consider “boasting” (especially when paired with vanity, conceit, pridefulness, etc.) is sinful and therefore a direct result of the fall of humanity. It seems you’re suggesting (or maybe I’m reading into it) that our desire for admiration is not necessarily evil if it stems initially from being made in the image of God. Perhaps we are too narrow in the ways we try to demarcate the “sin nature” from the “made in the image of God” part. Maybe many attitudes and actions are only sinful because they have become corrupted in some ways, not because they’re “totally depraved.” And that’s why, when you mention things like this, I think “Wow… maybe God is a bit more ‘human’ than I thought” (when it’s actually the other way around).


(Mervin Bitikofer) #5

No, I don’t think you’re misreading my intent though I’m not quite sure what all my intent may be yet.

I’m playing off the double use of boasting in the bible as both a bad and a good things. I think we’re all pretty sold on the typical dark side of boasting as the detestable pride we so easily see in others. But God boasts too, as do people (like Paul) boasting in God.

I do still think boasting is probably more a danger territory for us than a fertile ground, and no less so in the spiritual sense than in the other less noble looking senses. But maybe the main sense to hope for here was that if our envy is so easily inspired to chase after the lesser things, then maybe we can also be provoked to raise our sites to desire higher more lasting things. Would it be right to want to be enviable for spiritual connection or wisdom? Probably any time our sites (raised though they may be) still stop short of looking all the way up to God – the source of it all anyway; we are probably then still in the most dangerously prideful territory of all. (Maybe we should think of Lucifer as having been closest to God, noblest of all … and yet in the end falls so fatally short by that last bit). That total emptying of self so that all desire is finally and purely God-directed is probably our impossibly high Christian aspiration. I know I’m nowhere close to that, so maybe God’s grace just works with us to keep raising our gaze higher than it is. [added: when somebody grows enough to stop chasing money for its own sake, and at least starts using it to “buy” themselves friends … such activity seems to spark Jesus’ commendation that they are at least moving in the right direction … think of the dishonest manager.] Even we never actually achieve our own salvation, it would seem that God is patient and eager for us to orient as best we can anyway.

Your last line:

…may be profound on both counts. I’m still blown away about God being human (even as much as we repeat this “obvious” Christian teaching to ourselves all the time.) To remember that we can actually be God-like has that edgy danger of needing to always remember that “not God” is forever who we are, but then also remember that Jesus didn’t seem to think of himself as some removed example that would be impossible to follow. In fact (contra to those who would conveniently set him entirely apart as an impossibly removed omniscient, omnipotent deity; -nicely excusing us all then from even having to try), he taught instead that his followers should not only be able to do everything he did, but even more! That is I think a very sobering thought, and maybe not the thought you were aiming for, or maybe it was.

[added edit stuck in above.]


(Andrew M. Wolfe) #6

If @Mervin_Bitikofer was a good ArmEnian, wouldn’t his name have to be Bitikoferian? And he would need to be Orthodox, too… :slight_smile:


(Mervin Bitikofer) #7

What do the Orthodox smoke?


(Andrew M. Wolfe) #8

Incense? :slight_smile: haha


(Chris) #9

It’s called Conspicuous Consumption.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #10

Indeed; and rightfully evil it is seen to be.

Perhaps the major difference is between lavishing something on ourselves (and then rubbing it in others’ faces for extra personal satisfaction); or alternatively, lavishing something on others who can never pay you back. One theme that seems to run through the gospels is that Jesus was always up for a good party, and no expense was to be spared. The woman pouring expensive perfume on his feet seemed to be in it. And Jesus himself would casually spend several thousand swine to see one or two madmen set free. It seems that our bridegroom was always at the center of a high-rollers party.

So (with apologies to Billy Joel), I think he got it nearly exactly upside down as he sang that he’d “rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints”. The good may indeed die young, but meanwhile … they’re the ones who really know how to live! How did the church get this so wrong through so much of history so as to lead to this inverted picture? Perhaps we’re having problems identifying enough real saints and Mr. Joel’s sentiments might have a valuable insights for us in that regard.


(Randy) #11

My grandparents on both sides were Dutch Christian Reformed or Reformed. My grandma said the men would stay outside church, smoking; put all their cigarettes on the brick outside, and the first one out would get the longest butt to smoke.


(Mervin Bitikofer) #12

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