Wednesday, September 16, 2009

GIFTS: Talent-the power of treasure...

Even though this portion of the acronym came easily to me, it presents in many ways the toughest "nut to crack." Partly because when we see "talent" noted in most church literature beyond scripture the meaning ascribed ties it to skill, or ability. Look to the classic stewardship breakdown of ways to give of ourselves to the glory of God: the three "T's" of time, treasure and talent. Of time, we are asked to carve off a portion of our daily/weekly routines in order to render service to, or at the church. Of treasure, we are asked to make donations for the support of the fiscal needs of the church. Of talent, well...there must be something that you either love to do or have a particular aptitude you express. Give of that to the church! If you are a good organizer, consider volunteering in the office. If you love liturgy, consider offering up your skills in public reading/speaking as a lay reader. Do you have a skill in dealing with people in distress? Consider volunteering as a pastoral care visitor. A simple ideal...but one that both downplays and compartmentalizes our offerings to God and our call in God to stewardship in the world as followers of Christ.

So, let's go to scripture and explore the word "talent" and then talk about what talents mean to us in the here and now. Then, I hope to talk a little bit about the last category of the acronym...Service. Perhaps that will bring clarity.

Get yourself into a place where you are willing to sit, read and be (I hope) uncomfortable upon completion of this post.

What is a talent in the Bible? It is a measure of wealth. Actually, it is a measure of an obscene amount of money gathered into one unit. The basic denomination of money in the Hebrew scriptures was the shekel. According to my Bible Dictionary, a silver shekel was the equivalent of about 8.25 grams of the metal. Mesopotamian commerce of the day set a standard that around 3,600 shekels equals 60 minas equals 1 talent. So, one talent equals 3,600 silver shekels...equals approximately 29,700 grams of silver, around 66 pounds of the stuff. Now, the price of silver isn't that great nowadays. So, an Hebrew scripture talent would, extrapolated to today's values equal approximately $18K US.

So, to render a talent to God, go look at your accounts. Can you spare, render, a talent to God this year? Fewer than 2% of humans beings on the planet even make that much money in a year...much less have it sitting around.

To put it into Biblical perspective: In those days, an ox would sell for around 1 gold shekel (about 15 silver) and that would equals just about 2 tons of grain. One ox.

The point I am trying to make about the ideal of rendering a talent to God is not to note how absurd, or irrelevant, it is to elide the two concepts into one-to line up the gift of a talent in Biblical terms to the willingness we have to volunteer our skills to a faith community. It is instead to demonstrate first how incredibly advantaged we really are in this culture, then to have you the reader identify and begin to view critically how you choose to dispense this amazing wealth and then finally to get around to Jesus and an exchange he had with one rich, prominent and young man in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 18.

In a modern, Western world in which oil, food and even the most basic of services humans need in order to survive and thrive cost a lot of our discretionary income, we often forget just how well off we are compared to "the rest" of humanity past and present. Most human beings live on less than a dollar a day. Most people in the ancient world survived on a single Roman Denarius...about 3.64 ozs of silver. We have so much more.

I serve a church in a part of the world in which my salary is of moderate relative value. I don't make a lot by US standards...and have colleagues in the Church that make a lot more and a lot less than I do...but compare my salary to a priestly colleague in, say, Nigeria or Guatemala and I am wealthy indeed. This comparison is not meant to line up apples against oranges. Priests in different parts of the world of course face different costs of living...but here's the rub: my colleagues in Guatemala and Nigeria make "less" than I do but face the same (if not even more) demands on their resources as they serve their people. Fact is, I "have" more. Back to wealth. Am I a rich man? Compared to some of my neighbors, yes...to others, no. Still, it is not so much about saying someone else can afford more in giving, but for me to realize just what advantage I have been given in my life and what responsibilities that wealth create for me with regard to my fellow human beings AND to my God and creator-from whom ALL things come.

God gives us all that we need, and more, in order to live our lives. What do we offer up in return? In the parable of the talents (Mt 25/Lk 19), the master gives a number of talents-in different shares-to his servants. From the one who was given much, much was both expected and returned. From one who was given little and out of fear hid even that, all was taken.

Wealth is a tricky thing. I have found in life that we have more than we are aware of, and possess less than we think. I have seen people attempt (and often succeed) to use their wealth as a weapon and lever in order to express their will over groups and communities-most tragically and often in the Church during the pledging season. I have also seen people use their wealth in ways that, both small and great, accomplish great things for those in need that go far beyond the good they intended in the first place. Truth is, you affect more people with your wealth than you realize. The money you pay to the person who hauls away your trash goes toward feeding her children. The money you tender your babysitter goes into her college fund as she saves up for medical school....and then perhaps she will become a doctor with an aid organization that saves the children of a remote community from a polio outbreak? Or, simply enough, perceive that in each moment when you give over a portion of your wealth you have the opportunity to make the world better for you having been in it.

It is a frightening walk, to wander through life with all this wealth-all these resources-and all this responsibility.

Let's go back to that young ruler in Luke 18.

Here is a man who has come to Jesus and is possessed of both great resources and great virtue. He has what others wish for, both the time and money to be the kind of person we aspire to be-he is Good, and is good at being Good. By his own admission, he has kept the Law his whole life.

What next?

Jesus looks at him, sees him and says this, "Go, give away all that you have and follow me."

When it comes to the talents of our lives, God has a simple solution to dealing with them-give them up. Surrender the temptation to horde wealth. Surrender the tendency we have to want to "make our money count for something" and the temptation to use our talents to control others. Offer up the incredible resources we have been given in this life as being not ours to give but instead as having been all along God's alone-to be released as a blessing to the world.

We can't all be Francis, who gave away not only all his own money, but also all that his family has accumulated (while they were still using it). We have bills to pay, children to care for and educate and the responsibilities of contracts and commitments in our lives. Still, for one moment, sit there and realize just how much you have and then think about all that in light of the grace of God active in your life. You may have just enough to your name to buy only a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter---or less (I have been there)---or you may see in your accounts more money than you have ever seen before in your life (been there two)---or you might be somewhere in between.

In all things, though, realize that God has indeed richly blessed us.

Be aware of the talents around you. Use them for the glory of God.

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