Editor’s note: This series is intended to be a public conversation among teaching theologians of the ELCA on various themes of our faith and the challenging issues of our day. It invites readers to engage in dialogue by posting comments online at the end of each article at www.thelutheran.org.
The series is edited by Philip D.W. Krey, president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, on behalf of the presidents of the eight ELCA seminaries.
Sadly, for many stewardship means raising money for the church. In the Bible a steward is the manager of another person’s property. This definition can make stewardship sound like a job where we are employed by the owner. But it’s really a fundamental aspect of Christian discipleship, involving holistically how we live and how we give. Stewardship is a response of gratitude and thanksgiving for what God has done for us and the world in Jesus Christ. It is a way of discipleship of embodying God’s grace and love to people and a world in need.
Maybe then a big part of the answer to reclaiming stewardship is to strongly re-anchor it in what it means to be a disciple. Disciples are called to love God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love their neighbors as themselves. Even though we have a tendency to say 10 percent is a practical goal or limit of a steward, stewards are also called to have the same deep commitment of a disciple. Stewards are called to begenerous toward God with all their heart, mind, soul, strength — through their time, talents and treasures — and to be generous to their neighbors as themselves.
Think about how love and generosity are interconnected. Is it possible to love and not be generous, or to be generous but not have love? Certainly God exhibits both intense love and generosity through God’s gracious presence in creation. John 3:16 is pretty explicit in connecting God’s loving and self-giving. Jesus models for us both the love of a disciple and the generosity of a steward by putting his love into action through generosity.
Maybe the nuance we are looking for is this? Stewards act out love through their generosity, and in the process grow in their identity as disciples. The job description of a disciple is a little more abstract, focusing on love, hearts and soul. That of a steward is a bit more concrete: use the abundance of creation to multiply abundance and then act with generosity toward God and neighbor. (More concrete yet, stewards work with money.) God invites us into this kind of life through example, not as a requirement but out of generosity so we might know what real and abundant life — the good life — is all about.
Potentially then, stewardship might be a more practical, hands-on way of getting going with what it means to be a disciple. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” in Matthew 6:21 suggests it might be the behavior of a steward that precedes the conviction of a disciple.
Financial stewardship is also a spiritual practice that helps us grow in trust in God’s abundance and move from fear of scarcity to hope and love. Henri Nouwen, the Dutch-born Roman Catholic priest and writer, once said, “Every time I take a step in the direction of generosity I know I am moving from fear to love.”
Financial stewardship is a way of life, a way of discipleship that allows us to take steps toward becoming more grateful, thankful, generous, loving and hopeful people. Why have we limited it to church fundraising?
Created in God’s image
A theological key to deepening an understanding of financial stewardship is Genesis 1:26-27: we are created in the image of God, a God who is a gracious, generous and abundant giver. God gives life to all of creation. Jesus gives up his life for our salvation and reconciliation. The Spirit gives us faith, talents and abilities; transforms us; and calls us into the body of Christ. God gives graciously, abundantly and generously. Created in the image of God we are created to be generous givers.
Just as in breathing we must both inhale and exhale, we are called to a pattern of receiving and giving and receiving. It’s who we are created to be. When we feel good about having been generous with our time, talents or money, part of that feeling comes from living out as we were created to be.
In addition to having generosity in our DNA, God has also made us to be creative. God has given us an additional blessing, an invitation to be co-creators with God of a world order that makes “thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.” It is an invitation to work with God and God’s team with purpose, passion and creativity, to have a life of meaning and significance.
The wisdom of God tells us that this is what true life is all about, being part of something bigger than ourselves, making a difference, having a positive impact.
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© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers