“Jacob,” the old schoolmaster had said as he pulled him aside that evening, “I want you to know something. You have a gift, young Jacob. Numbers seem to be a native tongue to you. I urge you to further develop this talent and ready yourself to use the skill in some capacity of service to your fellow man.”
Jacob blushed and looked at the ground, stammering out a “thank you.” At this one point, the episode might have contributed to Jacob’s fulfilling what had been his destiny in life: to take his brilliance with calculation and use it to upgrade the human condition. Indeed, virtuous endeavors great and small awaited his contribution. He would have made Marley a household word, in the warmest of terms. Had he but bid thanks and run home to tell his parents, which they always encouraged (“’tis not boasting to tell Mum and Dad!”), he might not have found his way into this story and the one that preceded its telling. It was what happened in the next few seconds that changed the very course of his existence. It would not be an exaggeration to imagine that heaven and hell watched the event, each wrestling for the future of the young man. At this sad moment, some errant germ, a mere fleck of an insidious influence, found its way into the virtuous turn of Marley’s earth.
“Young Marley,” said the schoolteacher, apparently not having felt he had achieved the desired effect with his compliment, “you are, without a doubt, the single best mathematician I have ever taught.”
Of those thirteen words, there was one that held Jacob’s attention. He knew them all and had used the sum of them in sentences for many years. But it was the particular arrangement of the thirteen, specifically in the way this one word would betray the other twelve. The word was best.
Marley had been no stranger to compliments, having been a boy of greater than average character. He had shown virtues in many areas, which is not to say he did not suffer at times the foibles of youth.
Yet this word, this word! “Best!” Though it seems quite unlikely, Jacob had never thought of his own accomplishments in relation to those of his peers. He had only considered what ought to have been done and whether he did it well. But now he was given a yardstick with which to measure himself against others. And in the first taking of that measure, he was found by this revered teacher to be unequaled. He was the best—and he liked it very much.
Do not think he walked out of that school a totally corrupted young man. To the outward eye, he had not changed. But deep within, by reviewing over and over the pleasure that came with those words, he had planted and was starting to cultivate a vine that would in time, from its roots in his ego, reach to entwine and suffocate his very soul.
The warning is given us all that there are seven things which are an abomination to the Lord. One school of thought would suggest that the more of these possessed by one person, the more gnashing there will be at his day of reckoning. However, this makes no account for extreme proficiency in one area. In six of these seven, Marley had no interest, other than the degree to which his one solid vice spilled over into the others. But the seventh—first both in his heart and in the Maker’s warning—-he had acquired to a level of excellence unrivaled by any man.
It was pride.
Indeed, there is reasonable argument that pride is itself the seedbed of all other sins. Whether that is true or not is perhaps for a different analysis, but certainly Marley’s field of pride was a spectacular crop without comparison. This one vice he nurtured to be of more weight than the seven combined in most men, if not seventy times seven.