The Mansion

Friday, December 24, 2010

The leader of my church mentioned in a Christmas devotional earlier this month that each year he read The Christmas Carol, the 2nd chapter of Luke, and a short story, "The Mansion" by Henry van Dyke. I had never heard of the last title, so I decided it would be a good one to read this year.

I've also never heard of Henry van Dyke, so some quick background information for you (courtesy of Wikipedia): He is American, born in Pennsylvania in 1852. He is famous for writing two Christmas short stories: "The Other Wise Man" and "The First Christmas Tree." I haven't read either of these so I guess I know what I will be reading next year! Interesting un-literary fact: he was also the minister to the Netherlands and Luxembourg. OK, that is all Wikipedia has to offer, so I'll get to the story.

"The Mansion" is the tale of a wealthy man who, after refusing to help his son provide for a sick friend, has a dream of visiting heaven and seeing friends and strangers who have lived good lives being rewarded with their mansions in heaven. He learns through this journey that doing good works in order to receive worldly recognition does not ensure a place in heaven - the good works must be inspired by a desire to serve and love and be devoid of selfishness.

I felt a little sorry for John Weightman, the main character. He is so surprised to see his little hut after viewing the elaborate mansions of his companions. He knows he has performed many charitable acts, and he expected to have the largest mansion of all. He pleads with the Guide, "Is this a suitable mansion for one so well known and devoted? why is it so pitifully small and mean? Why have you not built it large and fair, like the others?" The Guide responds sadly, "That is all the material you sent us." However, I feel less sorry for him when I remember his reaction to his son's desire to help the sick man who once saved him from a horrible situation. The doctor has said the man has a "fighting chance" at survival. When the son tells him this, John responds, "A fighting chance may do for a speculation, but it is not a good investment." Ouch.

In the end I really loved this little story. I think it is a good way to evaluate our priorities in life, especially around this season where we focus on family, love, and goodwill. I also connected with the scriptural inspiration, found in Matthew 6:19-20 -

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through and steal.
I have always been interested in that text, and could relate to John Weighthouse in wondering what exactly it meant. The Guide, the angel who takes Weighthouse and the other people being taken to their mansions, tells John that he has not sent them adequate materials to build a large mansion like those of the others accompanying John through his journey through heaven. While he has built hospital wings and donated enormous sums of money, he has done it all through the desire to build up his own name and earthly mansion, not his mansion in heaven. It caused me to really think about the reasons I do service activities. Yes, some of it is because I really want to help people - but some of it is also to pad my resume. Ayn Rand would say nobody helps others except when they have some measure of self-interest.

What do you think? Are you with Ayn Rand, believing that in the end all helpful acts serve a self-interested purpose? Is the idea of "laying up treasure in heaven" in itself a self-interested purpose? I think this is an interesting topic and one that no one has a complete answer to, so if you have some thoughts I'd love to hear them!

Also - I read this for the Holiday Reading Challenge hosted by All About {n}.

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