Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Stewardship: A Unified Theory

Last night I was gossiping with a couple of Lutheran friends, and I caught myself grousing about the way today's church sticks its fingers into people's pockets. It's as if everything the church does reduces down to an appeal for money. One can certainly come away from the average "stewardship message" with the idea that "stewardship" equates with "contributing money to the church."

Now, good Christian stewardship will most often involve contributing money to the church. But the equation "stewardship equals putting dollars in the collection plate" is false. The word "stewardship," in the biblical sense, covers a great deal more. It means that everything we have, we have received. Every ability we possess, every right we enjoy, every freedom we exercise, every relationship we partake in, all our possessions, powers, and privileges, are gifts from God and properly belong to Him. He gives them to us in trust; He can take them away from us at any time.

"Stewardship" means the freedom we have, as trusted servants, to use the Lord's things as if they belonged to us - knowing that we must one day give an account. "Stewardship" is a daily exercise of our faith in the One who provides us with all that we need: an exercise that both demonstrates our faith and strengthens it. God-pleasing, accountable, Christian stewardship is that use of our Lord's gifts which best glorifies Him and serves our neighbor. It is, in short, an act of faithful love.

Clearly, there's a lot more going on in Christian stewardship than "putting money in the collection plate." Maybe for many Christians that's a good place to start practicing the spiritual discipline of stewardship. We care so much about our money: how to earn it, how to stretch it to cover our present and future needs, how to enjoy its abundance, how to cope with its scarcity. We have bills; we have debts; we have taxes and, hopefully, tax returns. To turn over a significant proportion of our earnings to the church may seem a big enough challenge to our faith. But make no mistake: it is an act of faith. It is a confession that God has provided, and a gesture of trust that He will continue to provide.

But that is not where the dollars in the offering basket most nearly touch the heart of the matter. For those same dollars are also an investment in preserving the ministry of Word and Sacrament, in spreading the Gospel, and in instructing the young in faith (whether they be old or young in years). The same gift, returned in part to Him who first gave it, is an exercise in locating our most cherished treasure not in our bank account, or in our investment portfolio, or in any earthly property, but in the Kingdom of God.

The dollars, time, and energy we deliver to the church are acts of stewardship mainly because they tear our devotion away from earthly things, and develop in us an appetite for heavenly things. For the true, lasting treasures are not earthly but heavenly, not visible but spiritual, not perishable but eternal. The best gifts of God, and therefore also the best stewardship, are concerned with these heavenly, spiritual, eternal treasures: namely, the grace of God in Christ, His forgiveness, His presence, His dwelling in us here and our dwelling with Him forever.

God has poured all these treasures into His Word and Sacrament. Through this ministry we catch men and haul them into God's kingdom, making disciples by baptizing and teaching them according to His Word. From this ministry we continually receive the forgiveness we need to cover our sinful lapses and to give us courage in the hour of spiritual trial and, ultimately, death. To this ministry we therefore supply all that we can afford, not only in monetary gifts but also in our arts and industry, our prayer and submission, our time and energy, even in some cases devoting a lifelong career to it.

We make these sacrifices because, of all acts of worship we could render to Him, nothing pleases God more than our receiving His gifts. We make these offerings because we trust Him to supply us in every earthly need, and because we value our heavenly treasures more highly. We give these gifts because, as stewards, we recognize that He has already given us so much, and because in respect to His Kingdom we want Him to enrich us with all His fullness.

Having made a big noise about biblical hermeneutics in this blog, I had better be able to back all this up with Scripture, soundly interpreted. Fortunately, I can. First, let's study the word "stewardship" as the New Testament uses it. Then, let's look at the concept of "stewardship" as Jesus and the apostles described it.

New Testament forms of the word "steward" occur only 12 times in the old King James Version, 15 in the New KJV, 15 in the old RSV, 12 in the New RSV, 14 in the NASB translation, 8 times in the ESV, and never in the NIV.

Luke 8:3 describes Chuza, the husband of Joanna (a female disciple of Jesus) as Herod's steward: which is to say, a high-ranking servant with responsibility over his master's property and business affairs; a manager, an administrator. John 2:8-9, in some translations, uses the word "steward" to describe the servant in charge of the wine at a wedding feast. We can take these literal uses of the word as a reference point for understanding the figurative sense in which the New Testament speaks of "stewardship."

In Luke 12:42-48, Jesus uses the words "steward" and "slave" interchangeably in a parable about the administration of the church. The steward is that slave whom the master makes responsible for the other slaves. His proper task is to feed them their rations in due time, not to beat them or to live the high life on their food and drink. When the master returns, he will reward the steward who does the former, and will punish him who does the latter - all the more so if he has knowingly disobeyed.

This parable seems to speak of the holy ministry and its brief to "feed" the church until Christ returns. Blessed is the minister who uses his stewardship of God's gifts in Christ to nourish us spiritually. Woe to the minister who uses ditto to lord it over us or to enrich himself; woe to him especially if he knows better.

In 1 Corinthians 4:1-2, St. Paul speaks of himself and other ministers of the Gospel (see chapter 3 for context) as "servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God"; stewards who, moreover, must be found faithful. Again in 1 Corinthians 9:16 ff., Paul describes the preaching of the Gospel as a stewardship. He does not boast about it because it is laid on him as a necessity. If one serves the Word willingly, the work is its own reward; if unwillingly, it is as one "entrusted with a stewardship," neither enriching oneself nor abusing one's power.

In Ephesians 3:2, Paul speaks of "the stewardship of God's grace which was given to me for you." In Colossians 1:24-29, Paul says he became a minister of the church "according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God...striving according to His working which works in me mightily." Once more, in Titus 1:7 ff., Paul requires that a bishop (pastor) be, among other things, "a steward of God."

St. Peter urges Christians to minister to one another, each according to his gifts, as "stewards of the manifold grace of God" (1 Peter 4:10). In verse 11 he makes it clear that he is speaking in the context of a church service, as in preaching the Word ("speaking the oracles of God") and conducting the liturgy. This seems to be complementary to Paul's exhortation in 2 Timothy 2:24 that "the Lord's bondservant" be "able to teach."

A word translated as "steward" appears in Galatians 4:2 in the sense of a regent or guardian who holds an inheritance in trust until the rightful heir comes of age. Paul likens the Law to such a steward, before the coming of Christ. Except for this instance and the cases of Chuza (Luke 8) and the wedding butler (John 2), the word "steward" in the New Testament always seems to have some connection with the eternal, spiritual, heavenly gifts of God's Kingdom in Christ; it could even be argued that the New Testament uses "steward" as a title for the pastoral office. But the crucial case remains to be examined.

In Luke 16:1-13 we find another parable about a steward: the dishonest or unrighteous manager who, having been denounced for squandering his master's property, was about to have his stewardship taken away. What did this man do to protect his future? He went around to his master's debtors and forgave some of their debts, using his authority as steward to make binding deals on his master's behalf. His master then praised him for his shrewdness!

This parable of the "unrighteous steward" is often the text (or pretext) for a "stewardship message." But when interpreted as "Christ's principles on how Christians should manage their money," it is a very perplexing text. Verses 9-13 come off as a string of loosely related proverbs rather than an application of the parable, which is how they seem to have been intended; while, if they are application, they seem to make the parable signify monstrous and bizarre things.

For several years, I have held that this parable is not Jesus' treatise on the ethics of fiscal stewardship. In an essay that I really thought I had blogged (but I can't find it now), I wrote that in Luke 16, Jesus is talking about the ministry again. When the dishonest steward gave his master's word to those debtors, he bound the master with his own word. Likewise, when the minister of God's gifts forgives your sins in Jesus' name and on the authority of God's Word, you can be certain that God will not go back on it - even though that minister is imperfect and sinful himself.

Partly I was guided by the context of the surrounding verses. The parables of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7), the lost coin (15:8-10), and the lost son (15:11-32) are all about God's readiness to forgive every sinner who repents. Indeed, Jesus claims that God is pleased with sinners who seek His grace rather than with righteous people who live by observing the Law. In the previous two chapters, Jesus had used a variety of examples to illustrate how the Jews of His time, due to their literalistic and legalistic application of God's Law, would miss out on His Kingdom while the heathens, who had no righteous works to their credit, would inherit instead. And in the verses following the parable of the dishonest steward, Luke 16:15 ff., Jesus warns against justifying oneself by works, urging all people rather to receive His gifts in humble faith. In 17:1-4 He instructs us to forgive each other tirelessly rather than causing one another to stumble (by withholding forgiveness) and thus incurring God's wrath on ourselves. In 17:6-10 He puts obedience to God's Law in its proper relationship to faith: a believer seeks no favor or reward for his obedience, but renders it freely as what is due to a just and loving God.

So the parable of the dishonest servant stands in the center of an extended discourse that contrasts faith (the receiving of Christ's holy gifts, which alone pleases God) with works (seeking to be justified by obedience to Law, which turns the best deeds into deadly sin). Why, then, would Jesus suddenly, and for this one parable only, choose to instruct us in the correct use of our finances? It isn't merely that the standard interpretation of this parable makes no sense. It actually militates against the clear sense of the surrounding passages. And it turns verses 16:9-13 into a litany of non sequitur epigrams, connected only by a general topic of stewardship and their position in the text.

An interpretation of this passage more in keeping with its context and the analogy of faith (i.e., all that Scripture teaches about stewardship) also happens to make verses 16:1-13 work as a unit. Jesus is not, in fact, teaching us about money. When has he ever said anything about money that wasn't, after all, an analogy to the Kingdom of God? When has Jesus ever put a value on money, except in contrast to the imperishable, spiritual, heavenly treasures? This case is no different. In the parable of the dishonest steward, Jesus is instructing us to forgive one another as we would be forgiven by God. See also Matthew 5:21-26; 6:14-15; 18:15-20.

In Luke 16:8, Jesus begins his application of the parable by explaining why the master praised his steward's shrewdness: "For the sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light." This is a statement that causes endless difficulty in interpretation. I propose that all this difficulty can be cleared up by understanding the unspoken words that logically belong at the end of the sentence: "in their generation." It is a completely balanced thought: the children of this world are wiser in applying the things that pertain to this age than the children of God's kingdom are in regard to its gifts. The sons of this age make better use of their "unrighteous mammon" (16:9) than do the sons of light with regard to their eternal, spiritual, heavenly treasures in Christ.

If a crooked little weasel like the steward in Luke 16 knows how to apply his master's good name and authority to forgive debts to his own advantage, how much more could Christians achieve by means of the authority to forgive sins? If a dishonest manager can thus make a place for himself in the homes of his ex-master's debtors, why can't we believing sinners make peace with each other by handing around little morsels of the boundless forgiveness God has granted to us? To our everlasting shame, we "children of light" are not so clever in using our treasures as the "children of this world" are in using of theirs.

Jesus says in Luke 16:10, "He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much." Our chief gift, our highest treasure, is God's forgiveness. Our debts toward each other are "the least" compared to our debt toward God ("much"). Can we expect to be forgiven in much if we do not forgive each other in the least? We are stewards of all God's gifts in Christ, the greatest gift being His forgiveness. Will this stewardship not be taken from us unless we share it with each other? Such lack of forgiveness would be unfaithful stewardship indeed. It would mean failing to properly use what God has given us, or to return even a small part of it to Him. It would mean failing to confess and exercise that faith which holds His forgiveness to be a good and abundant gift. It would be living not in accord with the Gospel, but in ruthless adherence to the spirit of the Law. It would be inviting the fate of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35 (another parable richly complementary to this one).

In Luke 16:9, Jesus issues the at first perplexing advice, "Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations." One may be immediately tempted to interpret it thus: "If you throw enough money around, you might attract more people to your church, people who will be happy to see you when you arrive in heaven." But the context is crucial here. There is nothing in this parable to suggest that Jesus could be talking about "spreading money around." Rather, he has been talking about forgiving debts. Within the church, among the "sons of light," that translates to holding no debts against each other, considering everything you own to be the common possession of all, willingly parting with anything your Christian brother or sister needs so that you may be built up together as living stones in an eternal, spiritual house. See also Matthew 10:8; Acts 2:44-45; 20:35; 2 Peter 2:5. The fact that this has never worked out in practice bears witness that the sons of this world are indeed shrewder, etc.

In Luke 16:11-12, Jesus continues his application of the above parable with two parallel questions. "If you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in what is another man's, who will give you what is your own?" In both, notice what is being asked: not whether one has earned much, or given much, but whether one has been faithful. Notice, too, that the first question contrasts "unrighteous mammon" (filthy lucre) with "the true riches," i.e. the grace of God in Christ. And notice how the second question changes the contrast from terms of "earthly treasure vs. heavenly treasure" to "stewardship vs. ownership."

What Jesus is asking, then, is first: "How can you handle God's gift of forgiveness when you can't even use His material blessings as a faithful steward? What use can God's grace be to you, when your conduct regarding food, clothing, money, etc., shows neither awareness that He has provided them nor trust that he will continue to do so?" And secondly, Jesus is asking: "If you live this life without faith or trust toward God, how can you expect to receive an eternal inheritance?"

Here the concepts of faith as "receiving" and trust as "relying" get mixed up with the concepts of faith as "reliability" and trust as "holding on behalf of the rightful owner." In this life we can be but stewards, by faith, of the gifts and treasures of the Kingdom to Come. But when it comes, when the dead are raised and when heaven and earth are renewed, we will inherit that Kingdom and take full ownership. The latter cannot come without the former. By trusting in God's promises (forgiveness etc.), we now hold their present fulfillment in trust, like guardians of an heir who has yet to come of age; but we also confidently hope to own it outright when we ourselves inherit it in the rebirth of all things. With that faith which believes and receives God's gifts, comes the Spirit to deal "in good faith" with them; that is, to be good stewards of them.

We need the gift of faith from God. In good faith, we constantly use the gifts He faithfully pours out through Word and Sacrament, especially His forgiveness, so that we may be built up in faith. As disciples of Jesus, we are ready to devote every earthly blessing, every shred of "unrighteous mammon," of which we are stewards in this life, to preserving and spreading the eternal treasures in which we trust and which we now hold in trust. As Paul says in Philippians 3:7, we are ready to spend and/or lose all things (pertaining to this world) in order to gain Christ and the inheritance of the sons of light. (See also Acts 26:18; Colossians 1:12). That is why "stewardship" can so easily be confused with "giving money to the church." As true Christian stewards, we must realize that the church's ministry and witness is our most precious treasure; we can afford to lose anything but that, and will give up whatever is necessary to keep that one thing needful (Luke 10:42).

There are other passages that, without using the word "steward," provide additional insight to the concept of stewardship. Those familiar with "stewardship messages" may especially recall the parables of the Minas (Luke 19:12-17) and Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). In fact, I reckon that today's common understanding of the word "talent" to mean "a special ability" arises from the use of the coins in the latter parable as a metaphor for the work each of us can do for the Kingdom of God, according to his or her ability. The ability to forgive one's neighbors, however, is inherent in being a sinner who lives by God's forgiveness. I have already cited Matthew 5, where Jesus admonishes Christians not even to come to God for forgiveness unless we have already made peace with each other. To do so would come perilously close to tempting God (Matthew 4:7). And as the Minas & Talents show, to bury this gift from God and try to live without it is to invite a terrible judgment.

Jesus gives us Luke 16:13 as a final conclusion to his unjust-steward parable in order to remove any possibility that we might mistake his intentions in verses 9 and 11. "No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." Jesus does not want us to be disciples of money. Nor does he want us to go and make disciples of money. We should not even try to split our loyalty between Christ and money. So He is certainly not advising us to run the church like the Temple of Mammon it so frequently resembles these days.

The church's job is not to grow or succeed. The church's job is to be faithful and to make disciples. We, as members of the church, do this not by spending or making money, but by receiving God's perfect gifts through the ministry of Word and Sacrament, and by sacrificing all that we can afford (!) to preserve and spread that ministry. As we live in faithful stewardship of God's boundless gift of forgiveness, we forgive one another daily and hourly. And whatever we give to the church, we give to no one's glory but God's, expecting no reward, but offering only what is due to our Lord and Provider, and trusting Him to supply all that we lack.

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