A few years ago I read a classic, skillfully written short story by Henry Van Dyke entitled, The Mansion. This delightful piece of early twentieth century literature, first published in 1910, is about a successful New York banker named John Weightman who lived in a beautiful, yet “reservedly opulent” mansion with his wife and two daughters. He is characterized as “a self-made man,” respected by all, and one who lived irreproachably according to the rules of vocation, society and religion. He was also quite a generous man. However, as the story unfolds, we learn that John Weightman’s generosity is calculated and self-serving. In fact, through conversations with his son Harold, it emerges that his magnanimity is little more than a personal investment in the furthering of his own rank, status and reputation.
As the story progresses, John Weightman, while mulling over his son’s reproving words in his study, begins to feel faint, and a sense of his own passing comes upon him. While in this dreamlike, surreal state, he finds himself sitting upon a rock in a lovely, pristine valley “where the light was diffused without a shadow, as if the spirit of life in all things were luminous.” There he meets and joins some travelers who are eagerly headed to the celestial city to receive the mansion prepared for them. One by one the guide led the redeemed travelers to their eternal mansions, each one a different size but all with distinct charm and beauty. After walking for miles, there were only two travelers left, John Weightman and an old friend of his named Dr. McLean.
Dr. McLean, we learn, was an unassuming country doctor who lived his life in the humble, sacrificial service of others. The narrator writes that “as they were standing in front of one of the largest and fairest of the houses, whose garden glowed softly with radiant flowers, the Guide laid his hand upon the doctor's shoulder [and said], ‘This is for you….Go in; there is no more pain here, no more death, nor sorrow, nor tears; for your old enemies are all conquered. But all the good that you have done for others, all the help that you have given, all the comfort that you have brought, all the strength and love that you have bestowed upon the suffering, are here; for we have built them all into this mansion for you." Overjoyed, Dr. McLean wished his friend well and entered his reward.
Only the Guide (The Keeper of the Gate) and Mr. Weightman remained. With grave solemnity, the guide continued to lead Mr. Weightman to his reward. What happens next is best stated by the author himself:
“It seemed as if they must have walked miles and miles, through the vast city, passing street after street of houses larger and smaller, of gardens richer and poorer, but all full of beauty and delight. They came into a kind of suburb, where there were many small cottages, with plots of flowers, very lowly but bright and fragrant. Finally they reached an open field, bare and lonely-looking. There were two or three little bushes in it, without flowers, and the grass was sparse and thin. In the center of the field was a tiny hut, hardly big enough for a shepherd's shelter. It looked as if it had been built of discarded things, scraps and fragments of other buildings, put together with care and pains, by some one who had tried to make the most of cast-off material. There was something pitiful and shamefaced about the hut. It shrank and drooped and faded in its barren field, and seemed to cling only by sufferance to the edge of the splendid city.”
"This," said the Keeper of the Gate, standing still, and speaking with a low, distinct voice — "this is your mansion, John Weightman." An almost intolerable shock of grieved wonder and indignation choked the man for a moment so that he could not say a word. Then he turned his face away from the poor little hut and began to remonstrate eagerly with his companion. "Surely, sir," he stammered, "you must be in error about this. There is something wrong — some other John Weightman — a confusion of names — the book must be mistaken."
"There is no mistake," said the Keeper of the Gate, very calmly; "here is your name, the record of your title and your possessions in this place."
"But how could such a house be prepared for me," cried the man, with a resentful tremor in his voice, "for me, after my long and faithful service? 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?"
"That is all the material you sent us."
"We have used all the material that you sent us," repeated the Keeper of the Gate.”
All at once, what dawned upon John Weightman was the fact that his life had been a singular effort in amassing earthly, rather than heavenly treasures. Indeed, his benevolence and generosity always weighed the earthly investment rather than the eternal one (the significant of the name Weightman!). This is precisely what his son Harold had been attempting to point out to him earlier that evening.
Soon after John Weightman’s life-changing realization – similar to that of Mr. Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” – the mantle clock struck seven and he again found himself in his library. Without hesitation he hurried to his son Harold’s room and demonstrated his new perspective on life with a generous - no earthly strings attached - gift to his son’s suffering college roommate whom they had spoken of earlier – a heartwarming ending to a marvelous tale.
What comes to mind when reading this instructive prose is Christ’s Sermon on the Mount where He exhorts his listeners to “not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)
If our hearts are consumed with the things of this world and not with God and the health and expansion of His Kingdom (the Church), then we live no differently than those who have rejected the gospel altogether. Beloved Christ Church, may we, motivated by the free and sovereign grace of God, strive to lay up heavenly treasures and not earthly ones. Perhaps then, when one day we arrive at the glorious celestial city and see our loving Savior in His resplendent, resurrected glory, we too will possess great rewards – only to joyfully lay them down at Christ’s nail-scarred feet and, along with the angels, give Him unceasing praise forevermore.
- Pastor Jon