Thursday, May 20, 2010

You've Got Talent

This past week, I watched – as many of you did – a news story about a group of young girls dancing and girating in provocative costumes to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” I thought it was simply bizarre to watch eight and nine year old girls bumping and grinding in a music video. The parents, of course, were totally fine with it. They'd brought them to this performing arts school to learn how to be triple threats -- how to sing, dance, and act. As far as these parents were concerned, they were just using their talents.

To be “talented” in today’s culture means that you've been recognized as having gifts in a particular area, but in large part the emphasis is upon a select group of people with exceptional abilities. How many of us secretly wish we could be "discovered" on America's Got Talent or American Idol?   It would probably come as a surprise to many that the idea of having "talents" and using them originates with Jesus' two thousand year old Parable of the Talents.  Given the crazy ideas we currently have about what it means to be "talented," I think it would be helpful to take a look at Jesus' story in Matthew 25: 14-30 where he teaches us that every one of us, not a select few, has not only been given a talent but the opportunity to use our talent for the glory of God.

Chapter I: The Great Hand-Over: "For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away" (14-15).

Jesus describes a man who is about to go away on a long journey. Notice that the Traveler first calls his servants…and then returns to check on their service. The Traveler is Jesus who arrived 2000 years ago to call people to follow him, and who left this earth for an unknown time period. It’s a Story about life in the interim period between his two comings…and a preview of what it shall be like when we meet him face to face -- whether at death or at his coming again. That being said, what do we learn about our Master here?

First, our Master is rich – he gives huge sums of money. A talanton was the largest unit of accounting in Greek money, equivalent to 6-10,000 Middle Eastern denarii (a denarii being a day’s wage for skilled labor) – a massive sum. Yet later, he describes what he gave to his servants as only “a few things”! Our Master has tremendous resources at his disposal…far beyond anything we can imagine. Second, our Master is confident in us – in that he “entrusts (lit. ‘hands over’) his property to us.” To underscore this divine trust, Jesus tells us that to one he gives five talents, to another two, and to another one (15). And if you’re feeling like a “one talent” servant today…remember that according to the value of a single talent, even the one talent servant was entrusted with a lifetime of wages! Third, our Master is wise – he gives to teach of us “according to his/her ability” (15): literally, ‘according to his individual or unique power.' There is only one you; which means only you can do what you alone were designed to do! Our Lord knows this, and so he gives customized gifts and responsibilities that suit our unique design, place, and time.

Listen! You don’t need a reality TV show to tell you that you’ve got talent. God gave you talents before you were born…he gave you a body, he gave you a mind. He gave you abilities. He gave you a circle of influence. He gave you possessions. He gave you this planet. He gave you time and opportunity. I don’t care whether you’re from Britain, Bombay, or Beminda…you’ve got talent.

Chapter II: The Two Thrill-Seekers: "The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master” (16-23).

Jesus tells us that when the master left, the servants who received the five and two talents “went at once and traded with them and made more” (16). The word “at once” or "immediately" (Greek: eutheos) is the single most exciting word in Jesus’ Story of the Talents says Dale Bruner (see his brilliant two volume Matthew commentary, The Christbook, and The Churchbook). Think about it.... Eutheos means that this servant takes whatever the Lord gives and goes instantly to work with it. He was so thrilled to have been entrusted with this gift that he couldn’t wait to go out and do something with it!

Eutheos means today. Not tomorrow, not next week or next month, or next year, but today. The fact that these thrill-seeking servants went out immediately reminds us that there is always something we can do today to use what we’ve been given for God’s glory… If you need to take charge of your health…you can start walking today or make changes in your diet. If you need to start taking charge of your professional life, you can begin by writing down some goals and action steps today. If you need to work on a problem relationship, you can begin today with a phone call or letter. If you need to work on your finances, you can begin by working on a budget and make it a priority to give to your church or a charitable ministry. Be a thrill-seeking servant…and begin today.

Notice that when the master returns, the five talent servant says, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; look I have made five more talents!” It’s as if he is shocked at what he was able to achieve with the master’s resources. About two weeks ago, I got an email from someone who was a member of the first church I ever served in. He had found me online and read my blog. In his message he said that I had helped to sow the seeds of Christ’s love in his heart…and I have to say that I was totally unaware of the impact that I had made on his life. I was surprised. I was in awe…at how God had used me to touch his life all these years later. The Lord wants to surprise each of us in the same way.

Now listen to the master’s commendation: “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Here’s proof that there is no retirement plan in the kingdom of God. The reward for faithfulness is not an eternal nap, but a never-ending infinitely creative collaboration with God in the advancement of his kingdom on earth and beyond.

One more thing to notice (courtesy of Dale Bruner): the master doesn’t say, “Well done good and flashy servant!” but “Well done good and faithful servant!” He isn’t looking for super stars; but faithful servants. To be faithful has nothing to do with titles, position, quantities or appearances. Believe me when I say that the Lord sees your faithful care of an ailing spouse, child, or elderly parent...and that you will hear Jesus’ “Well done!”

Chapter III: The Biggest Loser: "Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents" (24-28).

After the five and two talent servants go on their way, we’re told that the one talent servant goes away, digs a hole, and buries his talent in the ground. Notice that when he is confronted by the master for his laziness that he immediately begins to make excuses. Like the one talent servant, there are all kinds of clever ways we try to escape responsibility for the talent we’ve been given…. I’m too tired. I’m afraid I might fail. I don’t have the time. I’m not as talented as so and so. Most often, we seem to play the super humility card. “I don’t really have any talent. There’s nothing little ol’ me can give. Sorry.” Phillip Brooks once said that "it’s as arrogant to think you can do nothing as to think you can do everything." Every one of us has something to contribute to the kingdom; that we acknowledge our God-given talents, and use them. Churches today can be so consumer oriented, that we tend to think of it mainly as a place to get our needs met. But the church is also a place where we come to discover and use our God-given gifts to serve others.

Notice that this servants’ major excuse for doing nothing with his master’s money seems to be his fear of the master’s harshness (24)” But is this a reasonable fear? Remember, the master never asked or required them to make him a profit, he simply asked them to do business with it, to take a risk with the gift of a lifetime. God does not require us to earn his approval, he asks us to take his gifts and attempt something for the sake of his kingdom. The major fault of the one talent servant is he didn’t try.

The other day I was at the gym again…and was I discouraged. You see there’s a guy there who won’t look me in the eye…he seems to be annoyed with me and I have no idea why. It began more than four months ago now when I sat down next to him to stretch and he got up and moved to the other side of the room.  Though it could be a racial issue I’ve spoken with other African American friends of mine at the gym, and none of them can make any sense of it. I feel certain now that it is at the root a spiritual or psychological problem. Every time I see him, I pray for him…hoping I can break through this barrier. Nothing. A week ago, I saw him again and thought, “This is going to be the day.” I tried to find ways of approaching him, but again he wouldn’t look at my face. I was discouraged. I wanted to have a testimony. I wanted to see God work…but I felt like a failure. Then, downcast and dejected I walked out past the front desk on my way home…when all at once the manager cut me off. I turned, and he looked at me with his hand outstretched. “When I see you, I want to shake your hand, because you’re a good man.” I have to tell you that I wept when I stepped outside… because I was feeling like a failure. It was like Jesus himself had spoken to me and said… I see what you’re trying to do, and that’s all I ask… keep on trying and trusting me to work through you. That's all that Jesus requires from his servants...

In Jesus' parable, the returning master’s final words are both a sobering and hopeful epilogue: for "to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away...." (29). In other words we either use what we've been given or we'll lose it. In fact it’s more serious than that: the person who buries his talent is really burying himself. Jesus does not speak out of anger here but out of love for us and a desire to save us from messed up priorities, messed up lives, and messed up eternities.
To sum up, "talent" is not the domain of a select few, it's the miraculous potential of every human life; it's the gifts, opportunities, and resources that God has given you and me for the sake of his kingdom. No, the Lord is not asking you or me to be a triple threat, just willing to try. He’s not asking us to be superstars, just willing servants. He’s not asking us to be flashy, just faithful!

Jesus our Master and Savior, we thank you for calling us to be your servants and for entrusting each of us with a generous supply of gifts and abilities, wealth and material possessions, relationships and circles of influence, time and opportunity. Deliver us from that which would keep our talent buried in the ground, and from poor excuses like, “I have nothing to offer. I’m too tired. I’m not as gifted as he is…or she is…or they are. I’m afraid of failure. I just don’t have the time.” Forgive us for failing to encourage others to use and develop their God-given gifts; or for eying their talents with envy in our hearts. Instead, help us to celebrate our unique creation and that of others as we work together for the sake of your kingdom. Fill us with a holy boldness that is willing to risk and fail rather than never try at all; and to know that by your grace and power we may hear…even now, “Well done good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.” Amen!

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