Gift of the century
Our society increasingly measures people by the value of their possessions, but there’s an alternative that’s much better.
Loren SeiboldMar 20, 2023, 12:50 AM
One of the first and more widely publicised gifts of the mass media era was actor Richard Burton’s purchase of a 68-carat diamond for his wife. The diamond was famous, not just for its astonishing price ($US1.1 million in 1969) but for its wearer, actress Elizabeth Taylor, who was at the time one of the most famous women in the world. It’s still known today as the Taylor-Burton Diamond. The gift included the right for Taylor to name both the diamond and a series of publicity events, among which was the diamond’s “guest appearance” on the Ed Sullivan show. Fifty years later, the nouveau riche are still giving extravagant gifts. For example:
The irony is that this expensive gifting happens most conspicuously in a subculture that’s infamous for its unstable relationships and inconsistent affections. Perhaps these impressive gifts are but a substitute for spiritual qualities such as love, peace of mind, loyalty and trust that are often lacking in the lives of celebrities. I can’t but think of the movie Citizen Kane, where the protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, accumulates a vast fortune and inestimable power but dies mourning a beloved sled he’d had as a child in the poor home where he’d grown up with a loving mother.
Extravagant gifts are part of a larger materialistic trend in societal evolution. Like never before in history, ours is a material culture in which people measure worth by the luxuries they can buy and the leisure activities they can afford to enjoy. Among the first to attempt an explanation of this phenomenon was economist Thorstein Veblen. Veblen noticed that in the wake of the Second Industrial Revolution, those who’d accumulated wealth spent it not just to make their lives more comfortable but to impress others and establish their social standing.
For millennia, status was dictated by birth. A king begat royal children, a rich man privileged children. Few aspired to a status they weren’t born to. The growth of the manufacturing economy changed the rules. No longer was it necessary for people to be from a high-status family to be successful. And as the price of goods fell, more people—even the lower classes—could buy and own material things well beyond those needed for mere survival.
But it wasn’t enough merely to have good things. You must be seen to have them. Relative social status, said Veblen, is demonstrated by patterns of consumption: those with more money buy better things, are able to work less if they so choose, and are able to play more if they feel like it. And it’s contagious: people of other social classes see “conspicuous consumption” (Veblen coined the phrase) and try to keep up. Consuming, with all that involves in terms of getting more money, shopping, maintaining and displaying one’s possessions, and conspicuous leisure, become a primary lifestyle.
Veblen noted that consumption, aided by liberal credit, led consumers to spend money they didn’t have for things that didn’t benefit them or their environment. The result was “conspicuous waste”—unquestionably one of the most noticeable effects of overconsumption today. The odiferous smog of Shanghai is a tribute to overconsumption, as are the Great Pacific garbage patch, rampant diabetes and melting arctic ice.
Consumption is now a political and cultural discussion. Some politicians insist that wasteful consumption is necessary to keep the world economy from collapsing: both Franklin Delano Roosevelt and George W Bush urged citizens to go shopping in order to blunt the impact of national crises. In opposition is a growing green movement that discourages purchasing in favour of conservation and recycling. Consumption even has its own mental illness: those with hoarding disorder keep every physical possession, even what others might regard as trash, until they can no longer live a happy and productive life.
Jesus was, by choice, a minimal consumer. By today’s standards He would be considered a homeless Person (Luke 9:58). Though He didn’t insist that everyone be as self-denying as He was—as a house and dinner Guest, He appeared to appreciate the fruits of others’ success—He did voice repeated warnings about priorities. “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” He once asked (Mark 8:36).
Materialism, He cautioned, only brought anxiety. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” (Matthew 6:25).
But it’s one thing to remove excess from your life and quite another to fill the resulting emptiness. Jesus told a parable about a man who was purged of one demon and then, emptied of all spiritual substance, was repossessed by 10 others (Matthew 12:43–45). The Bible promises that the result of accepting Christ is that He fills one’s emptiness with spiritual gifts, gifts that make our lives not merely happy but meaningful.
The first spiritual gift—the foundation of all the rest—is the certainty of salvation: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith,” the apostle Paul wrote, “and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).
Accepting that gift opens the door to more gifts—gifts to help us help others. Paul lists some of them in Romans 12:6–8: “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.”
And when we look at all four passages where Paul talks about spiritual gifts (Romans 12:6–8, 1 Corinthians 12:8–10; 28–30 and Ephesians 4:11), we can assemble a list of about a dozen specific abilities or talents with which God endows His followers to help them make the church an effective vehicle for sharing God’s good news.
Spiritual giftedness is demonstrated beautifully in the lives of Jesus’ apostles. Most started out as poor, uneducated labourers. But in the service of Christ they became splendid speakers, pastors, administrators and authors. Today, 2000 years later, we still quote the inspired writings of former fishermen Peter, James and John. God miraculously bestowed upon them abilities with which they were enabled to change the world. What was true for them is true of every believer: if you accept Christ, you will be given not just tasks to do for God but the ability to do them.
A popular theology dubbed the “prosperity gospel” claims that to those who accept Jesus He grants wealth and worldly success. The sacrificial lives of Jesus and the apostles belie that claim. Paul says that God gives spiritual gifts not to exalt individual Christians but “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:12). Even when a Christian is blessed with wealth, it’s for contributing to God’s work.
In the end, Liz Taylor transformed her gift from Richard Burton into something better. In 1978, after her divorce from Burton, she sold the Taylor-Burton Diamond for more than $US5 million and built a hospital in Botswana. Though she never referenced Romans 12, she did give generously and with a merciful purpose. She is rumoured to have said, “I have lots of jewellery. They don’t have even one hospital.”
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