Sunday, November 13, 2011
Turning Our Talent Loose
“When inertia gets the better of you, it is time to telephone the undertaker.” -- Elbert Green Hubbard (1856-1915). As an historical side-note, Hubbard was a writer/editor, who died with his wife, Alice Moore Hubbard, feminist and writer, on the British ocean liner, the Lusitania, which was sunk by a German U-boat, May 7, 1915, off the coast of Ireland. His nephew by adoption was L. Ron Hubbard , of Scientology fame. Luther Burbank, noted botanist/horticulturist/scientist of Santa Rosa fame, contributed to a memorial book in memory of Elbert Hubbard and his wife.
How many people do you and I know who are frozen by apathy and lack of commitment, trapped by being neither for nor against anything? Perhaps many, perhaps even ourselves at times: the person who’s unsuccessfully looking for a job; a parent trying to maintain a relationship with a teenager, or vice versa, but seeing it slip away; spouses trying to remain committed to one another amid seemingly insurmountable problems; champions for peace, trying to raise others’ awareness, but who are shouted down, even shot down; seekers of justice for the poor, the hungry, the homeless, who see their efforts ignored and come to naught.
Faced with such a situation, one can react in two ways: 1) continue making every effort to change it; or 2) quitting, because of understandable disillusionment and hurt. Jesus’ parable in today’s Gospel narrative (Matthew 25:14-30) is essentially a story about a person who shut down. The main focus is the servant who was given one talent. The talent was originally a measure of weight, but later became a monetary unit of the highest denomination. One talent = 6000 denarii. Two denarii could provide a man and his family one day’s adequate living. 730 denarii would provide for a whole year, so the one talent here is a tremendous sum. The word “talent” passed into English usage during the Middle Ages as a synonym for abilities or natural endowments, hence “talents”. Notice that all three servants were assigned their respective sums “each according to their ability”, according to Matthew. So there’s no question that what they were given could have been increased. When the owner returns, the one-talent servant hands back what he was given, reasoning that he knew that the owner was “harsh” and that he feared him. Nevertheless, since the man could have increased what he was given, the master is unmoved by his excuses, and so dispossesses him of even the one talent, and gives it to the guy who has ten talents.
That’s heavy! We might even be tempted to side with the slave: “The poor guy, he hasn’t done anything! Give him a break.” But that’s the point -- he’s done nothing! Jesus here exposes a flawed attitude toward life. Good, held back, is often as great a sin as evil which is perpetrated, maybe more so. It’s one thing to risk using one’s talents and failing. It’s another not to use them at all, by choice. The root of the servant’s fatal attitude was probably fear: fear of failure, fear that, failing, his master would think less of him, or worse. His fear of commitment leads the man to live defensively. Rather than “Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” this servant’s motto becomes “Nothing risked, nothing lost.” So often, fear is at the root of our faithlessness and of bad stewardship of God’s gifts. We lack trust in God’s faithfulness. The lack of initiative in faith distances us from the God who loves us, far more generously than we deserve. “I was afraid, so I went off and hid your money in the ground.”
At the very least, this story is good psychology. Too many of us under-live our human and spiritual potential. The majority of our failings may lie in “leaving undone those things which we ought to have done”, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it. What might happen if we were to get our talent out of the ground and turn it loose?
Bart Giamatti, former president of Yale and later the 7th baseball Commissioner, the one who handled Pete Rose’s unseemly withdrawal from the sport, once told a group of students: “I am concerned that, confronted by problems, many of us have no faith in time or believe we have no time to let faith grow.” If nothing else, each of us has the “talent” of the present, today, the now, with which to serve God and others. Do we discipline ourselves to block out time for others: our spouse, our children, our neighbors, the sick, the elderly, strangers? Do we take time regularly, daily, to devote to God, in quietness, worship, or just for marvelling at the wonders God continually works in our lives?
To under-live life by choice, humanly or spiritual, you need only take what you have, your potential, and hold it tightly all to yourself and bury it. Stick only with what you know. Stay close only to the friends you already have. Close off your mind to any new insights or creative vision. Never dare to break loose or launch out into the deep. “I was afraid, so I went off, and hid your money in the ground.”
You and I are quite aware, in our nation today, of the countless, sometimes overwhelming fears gripping us and causing us to hide. Robert Bellah and his co-authors of the book Habits of the Heart speak of the fearfulness of community, of intimacy, and of commitment which our historically radical American individualism has honed almost to perfection and brought upon us today. Perhaps the ugliest and most damaging current form it has taken is the myth of any semblance of genuine bipartisanship in the U.S. Congress. Back in the 1830’s Alexis de Tocqueville, noted French political philosopher, in his book Democracy in America, warned that this individualistic spirit might eventually isolate Americans from one another and from others, and thereby undermine the conditions of freedom.
Studies show that many of us today, in this country and worldwide, especially children, frequently live in fear: of hunger, of inadequate or no lodging, of any hope of getting a job, of financial collapse, or of a severely worsening global ecological situation. We fear other nations: allies who compete with us economically and enemies who threaten our borders through violence and terrorism. As a nation, because of fear, we’ve so often given up on the effort to do the right thing to resolve our problems in the interest of the common good of all, and simply buried our talents.
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, in his Nobel lecture, gave us much to ponder. As a Russian author and exile in the notorious Gulag, he had an appreciation for freedom which many of us don’t really comprehend because, so far, we’ve never technically been without it. He was very aware, from personal experience, of what can happen in a society where people, personally or as a nation fearful of others, turn to their own “successing”, and forego concern for life about them. That, he said, “is an illness of will of prosperous people. It is the daily state of those who have given themselves over to the thirst for well-being at no matter what cost, to material prosperity as the principal goal of life on earth. Such people...choose passivity and retreat, anything so that their accustomed life should continue undisturbed, anything so as not to have to cross over into hardship today, while tomorrow, they hope, will take care of itself.” “I was afraid, so I went off and hid your money in the ground.”
Jesus taught from this parable shortly before he left his disciples. Just as the owner went on a long journey, so Jesus is about to depart. The message seems clear: the servants aren’t simply to mark time in the interim, but to take the talents given them, invest them, and utilize the increased fruits generously to the benefit of those around them. Today we call that “stewardship”, in the broadest sense of the word. The Church is called to release what it has. Faith must never become a dead-end for us. We’re not called to be “catch-basins” for God’s grace, but conduits of God’s loving presence and compassion and hope to others. The Good News by which we’ve been saved, through God’s grace alone, needs to be carried to new hearers. God’s Spirit is ever on the lookout for new dwelling places.
Whether on the national, diocesan, or parish level, you and I often fret and lament over the Church’s, or the parish’s, problems and crises. It’s easy for us not to recognize that, in fact, most of the trouble and strife comes from the inside: from withheld initiatives inside us, from talents stashed away, hidden, in the ground, from paralyzing fear of making mistakes or of not pleasing others, from having to sacrifice oneself for someone else. “If I don’t like it, why should I be involved?” “My ministry.” “What can Jesus do for me?”
Robert Bellah says: “The capacity of the Church to think about the needs of the world depends on the ability of the individuals to move away from their preoccupations with self.” Whatever your talent or mine is, let’s turn it loose! By our life and attitude let’s say something about God’s incredible love in all of our relationships, to the people we meet, in the way we treat our family and fellow-parishioners.
“I was afraid, so I went off and hid your money in the ground.” This is not what God wants of you and me as God’s unique individual creation. This is not what our country needs or can endure from us as citizens. And it certainly isn’t what Jesus expects of us who claim to be his followers. Elbert Green Hubbard, mentioned earlier, made another wise observation, when he wrote: “The only real neutral in this game of life is a dead one.”