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A Christmas parable in the heartland

parable of the talentsThe Associated Press sent out a fairly solid story of religious and social significance Thursday, although one would not think so at first glance. A local pastor in Chagrin Falls, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, gave members of his congregation $50 and told them to go see how they could multiple the money for charity. The story has been carried on several newspaper websites, but as best I can tell, the AP is the only news outlet to publish something on this. The theological underpinnings of this pastor's challenge did not slip by reporter Helen O'Neill:

First, he read from the Gospel of Matthew.

"And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his ability."

Then, he explained the parable of the talents, which tells of the rich master who entrusts three servants with a sum of money -- "talents" -- and instructs them to go forth and do good. The master lavishes praise on the two servants who double their money. But he casts into the wilderness the one so afraid to take a risk that he buries his share.

Gazing down from the pulpit that Sunday, Throckmorton dropped his bombshell.

Like the master, he would entrust each adult with a sum of money -- in this case, $50. Church members had seven weeks to find ways to double their money, the proceeds to go toward church missions.

The story proceeds to tell how various members of the congregation used the $50 to multiply the money -- from making soup to flying airplanes to producing crafts and even offering rides on a 2006 Harley-Davidson Road King.

The only thing missing from this story is an example of someone who failed to make a return on the $50. Wasn't there at least one person who "buried" their $50 for safekeeping?

I think including an example of a "failing church member," while surely difficult to find, would have expanded the story's perspective. Did everything in this $50 challenge really end up as rosy as the story tells us? O'Neill clearly spent a fair amount of time reporting this story, and shows an appreciation for the religious significance of the pastor's challenge.

The story is also limited to the church's experience with the $50 challenge. There are several places a reporter could take this story. First, the perspective of the story is that investment of money for the purpose of helping others is a gain for everyone. But what does it say about our society and culture when investments and financial returns are tied to charity giving? Whatever happened to giving for the sake of giving?

This local story reflects the larger movement of microfinance charitable giving, mostly in underdeveloped areas of the world. In some cases, people are advocating for replacing traditional aide with microfinance strategies. There is a moral and religious angle to this. The parable account of the talents is seen as an example of how Christians should seek to help others.

But there are critics of this type of charity, and a more comprehensive story on this trend ought to reflect these criticisms rather than portraying it as an entirely wonderful endeavor.

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