The Law of the Gift

          Joy and Hope, (Gaudium et Spes), is one of the four “Apostolic Constitutions” coming out of the Second Vatican Council.  It is an overview of the Catholic Church’s teachings about humanity’s relationship to society, especially in reference to economics, poverty, social justice, culture, science, technology and ecumenism.  It begins: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ”.   

 

 

 

“We become most truly human in the measure in which we go out of ourselves and give ourselves for the sake of others…” Pope John Paul II called this the ‘law of the gift. From Vatican II documents he recalled: ‘The human being, who is the only creature on earth that God willed for itself, cannot attain its full identity except through a disinterested gift of self’.

           For those shaped by the values of the vigorous individualism of our day, this point is not only difficult to understand, it seems to contract everything we’ve been taught about life. Why should I go outside myself to find happiness? Why would I ever want to commit myself to another or to larger humanity or to Christ in this radical way? Why would I want to give up the freedom to do whatever I want with my life?

           But from a Christian perspective, life is not about “doing whatever I want.” It is about fulfilling my relationship with God and with the people God has placed in my life. This is where we find fulfillment in life: in living our relationships well. But to live our relationships well, we must often make sacrifices, surrendering our own will to serve the good of others. This is why we discover a deeper happiness in life when we give ourselves in this way, for we are living the way God made us to live, which is the way Jesus lived: in total, self-giving, committed love. One of my favorite lines from Vatican II says, “Man finds himself only by making himself a sincere gift to others” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 24).

           So while the modern individualist may consider disinterested self giving a myth and see self-giving love in marriage as something negative and restrictive, Christians view such limitations as liberating. What I really want to do in life is to love my God, my wife, my children and theirs and my neighbor — for in these relationships I find my happiness. And if I am to love my wife and kids and be totally committed to them, I must be free from having my selfish desires dictate my life and rule my choices. In other words, I must be free from the tyranny of “doing whatever I want.” Only then am I free to live the way God made me. Only then am I free to be happy. Only then am I free to love. 1st Peter 4:10 reads: “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” So an appropriate Query for today might be: “Have you given much thought concerning the gifts and talents with which God has blessed you?” Or maybe how am I to serve others faithfully?

             But first we should start by considering what is meant by God’s grace in its various forms? God’s grace is diverse and different; it is not identical for each person. Just as each person is a unique creation so each person’s gifts and talents are unique and varied. They are not equal or the same for each of us. Each man’s or woman’s gifts and talents are not meant to be in competition with one another, rather they are to be complementary, abilities needed to complete the whole…that is to build up the Body of Christ as Paul suggests in 1st Corinthians 12.

            Human experience is that every few years as some talents subside new gifts and talents begin to emerge. “Senior” talents or abilities that in our younger years we had no idea even existed can be discovered. Old dogs can learn new tricks.

            Let’s look at what is meant when we refer to someone as having gifts and talents? They are a special, often creative natural ability or aptitude…a special ability. Some examples include the gift or talent for art, music, sports, compassion, dramatic arts, leadership, teaching, cooking, kindness, and an endless list of others. As well, just as every virtue has a vice, or defect, so too, every gift and talent has a “dark side,” a defect, or its temptation, such as, deceit, dishonesty, manipulation, cheating, selfishness, and so on. Where one’s gifts and talents, then, are not being used in service to God and others, but to knock others down, they become self-serving, i.e., those so blinded by their successes that everything becomes, “It’s all about me!”

             Listen to the Apostle Paul exhorting Timothy (2 Tim. 1:6-7 NIV), “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God which is within you…For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” To “fan into flame” is like poking among the ashes in a fire-pit to find a glowing ember so you can re-ignite the fire that is now only smoldering. It’s as if God speaks to us through Paul: I’m reminding you, God says, to breath new life into the ashes of your unique gifts and talents. I’ve already given you not only the gift but the ability to employ that gift by a spirit of power, not of cowardice or timidity.”

             Some of us have had the experience in beginning to develop a particular gift or talent of feeling that the initial fervor, or surge of energy, but then things become difficult, we’ve become discouraged or distracted and slow down or discontinue the effort altogether? Paul tells us to not be a coward, a timid spirit, but to “fan into flame” the power of God’s spirit within you.

              Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Every person must … feel a responsibility to discover one’s mission in life.” God has given each of us a capacity to achieve some end. True, some are endowed with more talent than others, but God has left none of us without talent. Potential powers of creativity are within you and me, and we have a duty to work assiduously to discover these powers.

              Joy and Hope,  is one of the four “Apostolic Constitutions” coming out of the Second Vatican Council.  It is an overview of the Catholic Church’s teachings about humanity’s relationship to society, especially in reference to economics, poverty, social justice, culture, science, technology and ecumenism. Sadly, at a time when it seems ever so important, it has fallen under attack by persons at the highest levels of today’s Roman Catholic Church.   It begins: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ”. Throughout it acknowledges that followers of Christ have a duty to develop the gifts and talents given them by God for the fulfillment of God’s kingdom.

             What potential powers of creativity, or talents, are waiting within you? What would our world be like were each one of us to fan into flame the gift and talent with which God has blessed you? A couple of weeks ago the message was grounded in I Thessalonians where Paul says that we each were to “encourage one another and build one another up.” One commentator reported that this verse had a profound influence on her life. She said that it provided her with an understanding of meaning and purpose; guided her sense of mission and ministry – to encourage one another…build one another up. Can you tell me who doesn’t need to experience encouragement, or being built up? She said, “Looking back, it wasn’t so much that I found the gift, as it found me. It is true that when you start seeking, searching and knocking, then you will have a better chance to find what you are looking for, even when you don’t know what it might look like.”

              That’s like coming down stairs on Christmas morning and being awed by the gifts and presents under the Christmas tree. Imagine that the first gift you open is some new electronic device or musical instrument. It presents the greater challenge to learn to use it, to develop the gift or talent so that it bears fruit. Often that’s a struggle. Martin Luther King said, we have a duty to work assiduously to discover this power…And “assiduous” means: constant; unremitting… working diligently at a task; persevering; industrious… to develop the gift.

               Difficulties and struggles, by the way, are normal in life, especially when we work to develop our gifts and talents. To be good at anything in life requires unremitting perseverance and self-discipline regardless of whatever hardships, difficulties or struggles one might encounter.

               Steve Garvey, the former first baseman for the San Diego Padres, was never cut from an athletic team in his schoolboy days. However, he was cut from the high school concert choir his senior year. His teacher told him he lacked the range needed for the school’s first concert program of the season. Determined to be part of the choir, the young man practiced and practiced with a piano accompanist until he improved his voice quality. He later was part of the choir that earned best-in-state at the Florida state championship.

               The Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Romans writes: “Every man and woman has a duty to grow one’s different gifts and talents, each into its fullness, and exercise them in contributing to the needs of others.” How do I exercise my God-given talents to encourage others, to build them up, to magnify God’s glory in your daily living?

                In the Parable of the Talents there is a dire warning about burying one’s gifts and talents, especially when it is done out of fear or intimidation. We read: “Then the man who had received the one talent came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’…” Pope Benedict reflected on this parable…”With this parable Jesus wanted to teach his disciples to make good use of their gifts: God calls every person and offers talents to all, at the same time entrusting each one with a mission to carry out. It would be foolish to presume that these gifts are an entitlement, just as failing to use them would mean failing to achieve one’s purpose in life.” The “law of the gift” is that we go out of ourselves and give ourselves for the sake of others. It begins in discovering the gifts and talents God has given us, then fanning those gifts into flame so that they become useful in the Kingdom of God.

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