The One Talent that Matters

Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

The interactive reality-talent show “America’s Got Talent” just wrapped up its sixth season in September. The show is part of the global British “Got Talent” franchise that features singers, dancers, musicians, magicians, comedians and other performers competing for the US$ 1 million top prize. And beginning with the third season, the winner also gets to headline a Las Vegas show. I’ve seen the program a couple of times, usually after it gets mentioned in the evening news. Besides this show, there are several with a similar format: “American Idol,” “So You Think You Can Dance?,” “Last Comic Standing,” “The Voice,” “America’s Next Top Model,” “The Apprentice,” “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Iron Chef,” “Top Chef,” “Project Runway,” to name a few. I know they’re not all the same. In some, the TV audience gets to vote. I don’t always understand what the judges are looking for exactly, but they all seem to know what they are doing. Okay, most of them are self-explanatory, but I get philosophical and ask why, and who gets to decide what constitutes good TV programming. But don’t mind me. I’ve only actually seen the very first three I mentioned.

Since the show “America’s Got Talent” is primarily a talent show, a really, really flashy talent show, the judges are indeed looking for something specific – not just some fresh new face or act, not just some flash-in-the-pan phenom with a down-home swag and a heartwarming back story, but truly a potential money-maker to rake in the profits, perhaps to help recoup the million dollar top prize they just gave away. The audience gets to participate in the final round, but otherwise, each performer’s fate lies in the hands of the celebrity judges, among whom are usually a performing artist of some notoriety, a business-savvy industry executive, and someone snarky, one or two of whom preferably speaks with a British accent.

But I have a strong suspicion Jesus was not in the least bit concerned that there were not enough stage performers on Broadway, the Grand Old Opry, or Las Vegas. And lest we limit our understanding of the gospel parable to a story encouraging the discovery and nurturing in ourselves of some innate skill or ability such as singing, dancing or playing a musical instrument, we have to remember that Jesus came among us primarily to fulfill his Father’s will, to preach the Good News of salvation, and to announce the Kingdom of God.  So we need to expand the symbolism of the talents given by the master of the household to three of his servants from simply meaning some innate skill or ability. A talent is sometimes described by scripture scholars to be equivalent to several years’ wages, or easily an insanely outrageous amount of money.  And if we want to come up with a current dollar equivalent, adjusting for inflation, it would still be an insanely outrageous amount of money, like maybe a brick of pure gold. Now remember that the master of the household handed one, two and five of these to three of his servants. We are not told whether he gave specific instructions for their use, only that each servant acted immediately after leaving the master’s presence, two to invest what they had received, one to bury it in the ground.

What Jesus tells us we have received that can compare in value to the talents in the gospel parable are the new life we received at baptism, the forgiveness of our sins, our Christian faith, our membership in his body the church, and the gift of his own living Spirit dwelling within our hearts. It is without a doubt a tremendous act of confidence on God’s part to give us such remarkable treasures, valuable beyond measure to himself, and he hopes, valuable beyond measure to us as well. The servants who recognized the value of what they had received did not hesitate to increase what was entrusted to them, all but one. The one servant who dug a hole and hid what he had received seemed only concerned that he not lose it, knowing his master was a demanding person. He was more concerned he did not diminish his standing in the sight of his master. So acting as he did, he hoped at least not to decrease the value of the talent in his keeping. If he took a risk and lost all, how could he ever face his master? In his mind, doing nothing was a safe and smart option. But his master did not agree. If he was willing to hand over such insanely outrageous amounts of money to his servants, would it make sense that was all he owned? Did he not perhaps already consider the possibility he might lose all that he gave them, knowing such a loss would be a mere drop in his insanely outrageous bucket of wealth?

So it is with the talents we are entrusted at our baptism – faith, the life of grace, forgiveness for our sins, membership into his body, his own Holy Spirit to dwell in our hearts. The Divine Master has entrusted to each of us treasures valuable beyond measure. Will he be pleased upon his return to know what we have done with them? God will not be concerned whether I made a couple million dollars, nor whether I owned valuable real estate; not whether I am rich and famous by human standards, nor whether I got first place in some reality-talent show. The one talent that matters in God’s eyes, the one talent that expresses God’s tremendous confidence in me by choosing me and entrusting it to me, that talent I decided not to pay attention to still sits on the dining room table, or worse yet, in a hole in the ground behind the house. Instead of investing that valuable treasure by sharing God’s mercy and compassion with those who have offended me, by reaching out to my sisters and brothers who are burdened by poverty and injustice, by extending to the lost, the confused, the vulnerable, and the stranger the same joy and welcome I have received, I have chosen instead to dig a hole and bury my faith, the life of grace, the forgiveness I have received for my sins, my membership in the body of his Son, and his own Holy Spirit sent to dwell in my heart. And on the day the Master returns, I will hand it back to him in the same condition I received it. Do I expect he will be pleased?

In the book of Proverbs, the ode to the worthy wife highlights her tremendous value to her husband and her family. She is concerned primarily for their welfare, not her own. And when she brings honor to herself, she reflects it back to those for whom she has dedicated her life and service. Similarly, the disciple whose highest concern is God’s will brings great honor to the Master. Everything else pales in importance.

So the next time you tune in to “America’s Got Talent” or any one of those flashy talent competitions, stop to consider the treasures of faith and grace entrusted to you at baptism that sit neglected and unused. Will you be content to hand it back to God still in its original packaging? Hope not.