Chapter 1: the quest for fulfillment

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The One-Talent Man

In Jesus’ powerful story, three servants were given money. One received five talents, another two, and the other one.a Feel sorry for the one who received so little? I used to. It seems grossly unfair, though I’m forced to admit it’s true to life. God has distributed his gifts unequally. Moreover, relative to others, I’m that one-talent man.

After years of feeling hard done by, a light flashed that should forever banish my self-pity. In the currency of the day, a talent was worth 6,000 denarii.41 Still mystified? Well, according to another parable, the going casual rate for an eleven-or-twelve-hour day was just one denarius.b My mind splutters into action. Multiply your daily wage by 6,000 and see if you despise the figure. You could immediately go on holiday for twenty or thirty years,c or, in Jesus’ day, you could invest in many slaves (who each would earn far beyond their minimal keep) and spend the rest of your life in idle luxury.

A talent was worth three-quarters of a million widow’s mites.42 At that time it would cover a full year’s rent on fifty houses,43 or buy quarter of a million sparrowsd (with bulk discount you could probably buy every sparrow on the planet!). Judas sold his Savior for just two per cent of this sum.44 With these riches you could gain full access to Rome’s magnificent public baths all day every day for a hundred years45 and have enough in reserve to buy a liter of wheat, or three of barley, every day for two life-times.46

I can pity no longer that ‘unfortunate’ who received the least. He was rich. And he had the potential to double his wealth.e

Your Father, in the divine extravagance of infinite love, showers his riches upon other people. Yet that cannot diminish the magnitude of your own gift. And your investment potential is phenomenal.

Who can complain when the wisest Person in the universe does what he wants with his own wealth? Instead of resenting God for his kindness to others, or cringing before those who seem to have more, you have every reason to delight in the enormity of your own gift. In joyful thanksgiving to God, stretch that precious talent so that when the king returns you can lay at his feet a gift that has doubled in value.

There is another side to this matter. Did you know . . .

¶ Most actors wanting the role of Long John Silver are hopelessly inadequate? They have too many legs.

¶ Most people look like ridiculously overdressed, non-Japanese, anorexic sumo wrestlers?

¶ When I was younger I could run faster than Carl Lewis? Over the years my superiority gradually waned, especially after baby Carl learned to walk.

I know what you’re thinking: I’ve finally blown a fuse upstairs. It was all a misunderstanding. They said success was just around the corner, so I went around the bend. Before you start sending get-well cards, however, let me assure you I’m as sane as anyone else here in the psychiatric ward. My point is this: whether you see yourself as gifted or queer, indispensable or inadequate, depends entirely on the frame of reference you choose. From God’s frame of reference – the life’s work he has chosen for you – no one is as perfectly endowed as you.

If that seems like soppy idealism, you have not thought it through. Do so, and it will become a treasured source of strength and comfort. You could choose any individual and fill volumes with what he or she cannot do or is hopeless at, but that’s of no more concern than the fact that a cell phone cannot fly, wash dishes, quench thirst, tie shoelaces, and prevent tooth decay. Besides the endless list of things a cell phone cannot do, many of the things it can do, it does poorly. It’s an inferior paperweight, straightedge, and bookend. You could use it as a fly-swatter – once. Such lists miss the critical point: anything skillfully designed is ideally equipped – and usually solely equipped – for the specific and commendable purpose for which it was made.

Did you hear about the man who inherited an old violin and an oil painting? Excitedly, he took it to a dealer for evaluation and to his amazement discovered he was the proud owner of a Stradivarius and a Rembrandt. Unfortunately, Stradivarius was an atrocious painter and Rembrandt’s violin was worthless.

An exceptionally attractive woman heard wedding bells whenever she thought of a brilliant composer. ‘With your brains and my looks,’ she told him, ‘what wonderful children we would have!’

Replied the composer, ‘Have you considered a child with my looks and your brains?’
Of course you cannot do everything – that was never your Designer’s intention – but to imagine that your Creator and Savior will not fashion you with perfection for your reason for existence, is to accuse your Maker of impotence and incompetence. Face facts: everything God does is impressive. For the exact role that he created you, you are superbly endowed.

A Normal Ministry?

If you think you are called to a ‘normal’ ministry, think again.

Our Leader’s behavior shocked the religious establishment. Christ partied with crooks, drunks and sluts.a A prostitute kissed his feet. He did things on the Sabbath he wasn’t supposed to. He insulted dignitaries, calling them vipers, blind fools, whitewashed tombs and other endearing names.b Those closest to him usually had no idea what he was talking about – he’s warning them about the Pharisees and they think he’s complaining about leaving the bread behindc – but to those outside his inner circle, Christ wasn’t nearly so intelligible. ‘Eat my flesh and drink my blood,’ he demanded. Multitudes left in disgust.d He was hailed by demons and spurned by theologians. He spoke to a fever, a tree, even a storm.e He fed 5,000 people and almost starved in the desert. Before long, Jesus’ sanity was called into question and at one stage his family came to take charge of him.f He was forever messing up funerals, wrecking beggars’ only source of income – their infirmities – and outraging religious leaders. He made goo with spit and smeared it on a beggar’s eyes.g He stuck his fingers in a man’s ears, spat, and grabbed the man’s tongue.h How many churches would tolerate such ludicrous behavior? He took a short-cut across the lake – without a boat.i He sent two thousand swine hurtling to their death.j He physically assaulted temple workers.k No one – whether friends, family, admirers; devout, legalistic or lax – could agree with him for long.

Are you sure you want to be Christ-like?

Being the embodiment of divine perfection made our Savior such an oddity that no one knew what to do with him. Yet our fallibility will not pave an easier road. Christ pledged us his Spirit and if we dare follow his orders we can expect to be regularly jarring people’s sense of propriety and intelligence, just as he did. That’s the way it has always been.

Sunday after Sunday, the works and lives of Scripture’s heroes are reverently read in pulpits across the land. But if the Bible’s motley crew revisited this planet, would they be honored in our churches? Even the Pharisees revered dead prophets. It’s the live ones that make us squirm. There’s Jesus, who drank, and the Nazarites who abstained even from grapes.a Solomon wore extravagant finery. Equally holy men wore rags. Paul’s dress would get even an apostle blacklisted in most churches. (Well, if it wasn’t exactly a dress that he wore, what was it? A nightie?) Some lived in palaces and some in caves. Some were free-thinkers in the realm of personal hygiene. Many were in public disgrace, some were even outlaws, yet they refused to conform. Whether they had ice in their veins or permafrost in their brains, you can decide, but they established new frontiers in outlandish behavior.

If you want to stand out like iridescent acne, have the spirit of an Old Testament prophet. Zany publicity stunts were their specialty. You’d think Ezekiel was vying for the weirdest entry in the Guinness Book of Records, lying on just one side for more than a year, fuelling his fire with dung to cook needlessly-rationed food. (God wanted him to use human feces, but Ezekiel was too straight for that.b) He dug through a wall, built make-believe siegeworks against a brick he called ‘Jerusalem’, and attacked shavings of his hair.c Isaiah sauntered around nearly nude for three years.d Hosea got involved with a woman. Pious eyebrows must have shot through the roof. Yet these were not the hare-brained schemes of religious nuts. Men of God were obeying the holy leadings of the Almighty.

See Samson, flat on his face – tripped over his hair again. Nearby is a Nazarite, desperately trying to suppress his laughter (laugh at Samson and you laugh all the way to hospital). Under divine direction, the Nazarite has shaved his entire head.e Here we have two men led of the Spirit. One we’d reject because his hair has never seen a razor, the other because his hair has seen a razor. Everyone knows saints must conform to our standards.

I could prattle on forever about the mad-cap antics of clowns like Samson, the long-haired lout who brought the house down – on top of himself;f Jacob, who had an angel in a headlock;g Daniel, who ended up on the lion’s menu, not because he prayed but because he insisted on praying on his knees with the windows wide open.h I could lampoon whole armies – like the one that snuck off to battle insisting that the choir go first,i or Joshua’s troops who waddled around in circles to the (short-lived) amusement of Jericho’s inhabitants.j (How embarrassing to be in that dizzy army. The locals must have died laughing.) Or I could slip out of the Bible covers and tell of Luther, who threw an ink pot at the devil; of Wesley, who prayed for his horse’s leg; of Finney who brought jesting factory girls to their knees by merely looking at them;47 of the nineteenth century ‘funeral’ procession where a Bible-thumper burst out of the coffin and launched a verbal assault on startled on-lookers. I’m telling you, you and I are the first sane Christians that have ever lived!

But honestly, has God stopped prompting people to break with convention, or have we stopped heeding his prompting? Has God exhausted his creativity, or are we exhausting his patience?

If we were more open to the Spirit’s leading would the church have fewer Sunday School teachers and more clowns, cartoonists and puppeteers; fewer choir members and more yodelers, mime artists and totally new forms of music; fewer preachers and more entertainers, movie producers and computer whizzes?

I am being neither radical nor dogmatic. I’m simply pleading for an army of Christ-centered saints, dedicated to allowing the Spirit of God express himself in the way he chooses, rather than the way our tomato brains think he should move. If your ministry seems bland, that’s fine, provided it’s a calling, not a cop-out.

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