Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Smallest Package in the World

A wry question-and-answer has stuck in my mind from my youth. At least, this is how I remember hearing it: What is the smallest package in the world? A man all wrapped up in himself. (Of course in the contemporary age of gender-neutral language, the answer might be recast as “Anyone all wrapped up in themselves.”) The image of a person turning more and more attention on his or her own interests while working feverishly to make the outside seem like a pretty package has always spoken to me. I’ve seen many such tiny packages, most of them readily recognized by everyone but the person wrapped up in themselves.

I decided to research the original source for the clever observation. Numerous reference works attribute the idea to John Ruskin, a 19th English art critic and social commentator. Ruskin wrote: “When a man is wrapped up in himself he makes a pretty small package.” I did not locate a Q&A version matching my recollection, but I was pleased to find the image used by a prominent 20th century preacher. William Sloan Coffin was chaplain at Yale University, pastor of Riverside Church in Manhattan, and an outspoken advocate for civil rights and protester of the War in Viet Nam in the 1960s. Credo, a book compiling material from Coffin’s sermons, writings, and speeches published in 2003 includes this version: “Love measures our stature: the more we love, the bigger we are. There is no smaller

package in all the world than that of a man all wrapped up in himself.” I appreciate Coffin connecting the image with clear teaching from scripture.

A person all wrapped up in himself is epitomized in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the publican praying in the Temple: “[Jesus] gave this illustration to certain people who were confident of their own goodness and looked down on others: ‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one was a Pharisee, the other was a tax-collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed like this with himself, “O God, I do thank you that I am not like the rest of mankind, greedy, dishonest, impure, or even like that tax-collector over there. I fast twice every week; I give away a tenth-part of all my income..”‘ [Jesus observed] ‘For everyone who sets himself up as somebody will become a nobody, and the man who makes himself nobody will become somebody.'” (Luke 18:9-12, 14 J.B. Phillips) Certainly, the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable would have been a very small package. Unfortunately, many people may itemize different self-lauding characteristics, but echo the diminutive spirit of his prayer. Note that he “prayed with himself” and how many times he says “I.”

William Sloan Coffin spotlighted the antidote for shrinking personhood in God’s kind of love taught consistently in scripture. Paul encouraged followers of Jesus in Philippi to keep their focus turned outward rather than turning their attention inward toward satisfying only themselves: “When you do things, do not let selfishness or pride be your guide. Instead, be humble and give more honor to others than to yourselves. {4} Do not be interested only in your own life, but be interested in the lives of others. {5} In your lives you must think and act like Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:3-5 NCV) As Paul turned from his theological explanation to readers in Rome of salvation through faith in Jesus to practical matters of how that saving faith should cause a believer’s life to be changed, he again pointed them to Jesus’ example of giving oneself for others’ benefit: “Each one of us needs to look after the good of the people around us, asking ourselves, ‘How can I help?’ 3 That’s exactly what Jesus did. He didn’t make it easy for himself by avoiding people’s troubles, but waded right in and helped out. ‘I took on the troubles of the troubled,’ is the way Scripture puts it.” (Romans 15:1-3 MSG)

Jesus is the most expansive character on the entire cosmic stage. He claims that role by his unfailing self-sacrificial love for you and me and every person in all times. He never wraps up in his own self-serving drives, but continually gives forgiveness and loving care to others. If we are to expand our personas anything like Jesus does, we must turn outside ourselves to love others as Jesus loves. Paul generalized this approach to life: People should be concerned about others and not just about themselves. (1 Corinthians 10:24 GWT)

Another memory from early years goes hand in hand with the image I recall as the Q&A. A hymn that I have not heard sung in quite awhile expresses how we can truly “live large:

Lord, help me live from day to day In such a self-forgetful way

That even when I kneel to pray My prayer shall be for-Others.

Refrain

“Others, Lord, yes others,” Let this my motto be,

Help me to live for others, That I may live like Thee.

(Others, Words: Charles D. Meigs; Music: Elizabeth M. Shields, 1917)

How small are you? Expand your package. The wrapping may not be as pretty and pristine, but giving yourself in love for others will make your personal package look more like Jesus.

– J. Edward Culpepper

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