The Essence of Stewardship
November 22, 1998
We come once again to our annual emphasis on stewardship. We try to do this at the Thanksgiving season for the very reason that we then remember the great bounty that God has given us, and that we have not been entrusted with that bounty just for ourselves but also for others as God directs, since it all belongs to God. So the emphasis is on giving as a worshipful response to God’s generosity. We might touch on it briefly at other times of the year as various themes lead us, and in fact, giving is spoken of often in the Bible. But a special emphasis once a year is not too bad is it?
We usually think of stewardship as being responsible with our money. But there are several facets to this topic. Stewardship involves virtually all of what God has given us and we could go many directions with the idea. But I would like to develop three areas of stewardship in this message today. Those three areas certainly include the use of our money or treasure, which is a big issue for most of us. But it also includes the use of our talents, and I would then like to conclude with the idea of being stewards of God’s truth.
What does the word “stewardship” mean to you? What is it’s essence - the purest meaning of the word? I propose that the essence of stewardship is trust. We are entrusted with something for which we are to be trustworthy. Since God has entrusted these things to us, we are to honor him in the way we use them. He is trusting us with his things. They have great value and he has given us instruction about them. Obeying these instructions honors God and brings blessing to us. A steward then is one who is trustworthy with the things of God, whether they be treasure, talents, or truth.
Use everything as if it belongs to God. It does. You are his steward.
The Possessor of heaven and earth placed you here, not as a proprietor, but as a steward.
-- John Wesley, in The Use of Money.
I. Treasure - being trustworthy with God’s physical gifts.
Regarding the parable of the rich fool, Jesus, being God, and knowing with infinite accuracy the heart and soul of man, could always come up with a good hypothetical story to illustrate one of the teaching moments that invariably occurred in response to some offhand question or comment as he addressed the crowds. But the thing I wonder is how hypothetical some of these parables really are. I’ll just bet that at some point in human history it was a real life situation that Jesus could draw upon, and the reason that these parables speak to us is that we can truly identify with the all too human experience involved.
Jesus was teaching his disciples in the midst of a large crowd about the priority of the soul and its eternal destiny when someone in the crowd blurts out what is either the most important thing on his mind at the time or as an attempt to mock Jesus and change the subject. His question reveals he wasn’t seriously listening or he didn’t understand what Jesus was teaching. He wants Jesus to exert his authority and force his brother to share the inheritance with him which was probably the family farm that he wants to divide up.
Jesus immediate reply is insightful when he asks, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Jesus response tells the man that he is off the subject and implies that he should handle the issue either himself or elsewhere - that Jesus concern is not for such petty arguments. But Jesus does take the opportunity as a teaching moment to illustrate his point that the concern over money was not consistent with the eternal value of the soul. In other words, Jesus patiently uses wise teaching to equip the man to make a wise choice about the issue. But he does not proceed until he calls the issue what it is - greed - and that such concern is way off track with what is truly important about life. You see, the man already had what he needed. The inheritance was over and above. He just wanted more.
You might argue that all the man wants are for his rights to be recognized. Like us, he simply wants what is due him. However, there is a problem with that. Most of us overestimate what is due to us and underestimate what is due to others. This man demands his share of the inheritance, expressing his unwillingness to abide by the will of his father and live peaceably with his brother. He is saying that no matter what his father wanted, he appeals to Jewish law which allowed a division of an inheritance if one party demanded it. Notice that he does not come to Jesus and say, “Rabbi, my brother and I are in dispute and unable to live together in unity. What should we do?” This is not a request for assistance but a demand to satisfy his desire based on greed.
So follows the parable about the use of surplus wealth in the kingdom of God. Do we spend the brunt of our labor in struggle and strive to figure out how to spend more of it on ourselves, or do we consider the needs of others in the kingdom of God and how to be good stewards of the wealth of treasure God gives us? It is a primary consideration of importance. A man’s time on earth is temporary. A man’s soul is eternal. Our time on earth tests our stewardship potential for the more glorious things in the eternal kingdom. Will we prove trustworthy of little so that God will trust us with much? If a man doesn’t value his own soul, polluting it with greed, how can he value anything else God aspires to trust him with?
Interestingly, possessions are what drives a capitalistic economy. Without a desire for goods most jobs would be gone. You know what this parable is about. It is about what to do with surplus wealth in a capitalistic society. What Jesus is talking about is the fact that people who live to possess and consume are people who are never satisfied, and if this man gets that land away from his brother he is not going to be satisfied and there will be more and more demands because we somehow think that the quality of the “good life” is comprised of the quality and the quantity of the goods we can consume on ourselves. Learn this - no matter how much you get, it is never enough. Desire is never completely satiated. Desire always needs and wants more, whether it is a desire for power, fame, reputation, possessions or sexual fulfillment. Our entire culture animates itself and drives itself by desire and when it is fulfilled it promises the good life, but it never produces it because we are always after more. To this man Jesus could say, “With my kingdom present and the King here don’t miss the quality of the time you are living in. If you understood what I am offering, you would not be concerned about land division.”
We are no different than this hapless man. Radar and satellites permit us to pinpoint the next thunderstorm, but we do not have sense enough to understand the quality of the time we are living in, the time between Jesus’ redemptive victory, his ascension, and his absence preceding his return. We live in that time period when he is building his church in this world, and this is not the time for unrestrained consumption. It is the time period for evangelism, not the time to gear life toward the satisfaction of our temporal desires. It is a time not to accumulate but to sacrifice on behalf of the church Jesus Christ is building.
To talk today about sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom based upon the hour in which we live is not looked upon any more positively than it is in this parable nor in this man demanding his rights to have what he believes is due him in order to consume them upon himself. And Jesus said once you consume it you will not be fulfilled - you will need more. Jesus implored his disciples to hold themselves away from such desires, to understand that true love and a fulfilling life does not consist in the surplus of possessions.
You will notice in this parable of the rich fool that it was not the most recent bumper crop that made him rich. He was already rich. He was obviously very good in what we would call strategic planning. Perhaps he had all the latest fertilizers and all the best research available - he was an astute Jewish farmer - and he experienced a crop yield that even he had not planned for because his barns did not have enough capacity to contain the harvest. This man did not become rich by being a poor planner, but God gave him a harvest that exceeded any expectation and he found himself with a storage problem. He was uncertain what he should do in order to accommodate this large harvest. Ambrose, and early church father, in a sermon about this parable said, “There was ample storage in the mouths of the needy.”
This parable is not an attack upon being rich. It is an attack upon what we do with our riches in the kingdom. It is about the kind of wealth that goes beyond what a person could justify consuming on himself. The farmer begins to solve his problem by talking to himself. “What will I do? I have all this surplus and not enough places to store it.” The last thing most people talk to others about is their wealth. If asked about our wealth, most of us would say, “It is none of your business!” Wealth can cause you to live in isolation from other people. This man’s bumper crop was a great blessing but he did not have anyone with whom to share his excitement or his wealth. He had no one to help him make strategic decisions about how to deal with it. Unfortunately, he made the same assumption that many people make when abundance comes into their lives - he assumed it was there for his personal consumption. He already had more that he needed, but his surplus wealth came and his conclusion was that he had a right to consume the excess too. His response is typical of people today. Whenever someone’s income goes up so does their means of living. I read about an exception the other day in the paper. A multiple millionaire had decided to live quite modestly with an average house and car as he gave most of his income to charity since he didn’t want to be consumed by his wealth. He was a man of whom Jesus would be proud.
What is to be done with surplus wealth in light of the hour in which we live? Where do you draw the line? Where is the line in housing, in clothes, in toys, in vacations, in investments, in IRA’s, in savings and annuities for the children’s inheritance? Where is the line that says, that’s it, and everything else beyond that will be given in light of the hour in which we live, for the advancement of Christ’s church in the world? Do you have such a line drawn in your family? Some people believe the Bible teaches that only 10% of a person’s income belongs to God. They falsely conclude that if they give God that 10%, they are free to consume the other 90% in whatever way they choose.
With that kind of thinking it is not surprising that it takes the average missionary thirty months to obtain enough support to head for the mission field. It does not take that long because there is poverty in the church. It takes that long because we have baptized into the church the consumptive values of the culture and we live our lives according to a very strange concept - that a better quality of consumption and a higher quantity of consumption is going to make us happy.
This man contemplated his surplus and did what most people in the church would do. He tore down his barns, built bigger ones, stored his harvest, paid his tithes, and in his isolation with no one around to share in his success, he says to himself, “Soul, you have arrived. Relax, eat, drink and live the good life. It doesn’t get any better than this!” He went into retirement. But God said to him, “Fool, this night your soul shall be required of you. Then whose shall those things be that thou hast provided?”
What this man thought was the good life turned out to be an absolute failure in stewardship. He failed to comprehend that not only were those goods entrusted to him but so was his life. Everything he took for granted was on loan from God, and God was exacting repayment. He was not rich toward God. All of life is stewardship, and we are to invest in God’s program for the world, not just so we can retire from a job. You may retire from a job but you do not retire from life! Where is the line that each one of us will draw beyond which nothing is legitimate for personal consumption and with no strings attached because we are giving it for the advancement of God’s program in the world? Have you adopted his program as your program? He has willed that every tongue, tribe and nation will hear the Gospel before Jesus Christ returns. His Church must be, and will be, established. The Gospel must be proclaimed. In the quality of this hour in history, what kind of stewardship do you, or will you, render?
II. Talents - being trustworthy with God’s spiritual gifts.
We have been learning much in our Sunday night sessions on spiritual gifts about how God has uniquely equipped each one of us to serve in an interdependent fashion to carry out the full ministry responsibility of the church.
The church in Thessalonica had a major problem which Paul had to address. In his first letter he told them to warn those who were idle (1Thess. 5:14). In his second letter he went into a little more detail about the necessity to work in the church as we discovered in our Wed. evening Bible study. In verses 6-15 of chapter 3, he addresses the problem in 4 different ways; 2 of which were negative and 2 of which were positive, and then he returns to the theme with which he began.
A. Full fellowship should be withheld from those who do not give adequate effort to the ministry of the church.
B. Proper example has been given by Paul and others in the church leadership to all so that none have any excuse for not knowing what is expected.
C. Food should be withheld from those who do not provide adequate effort to earn it.
D. Efforts of the idle should be redirected away from fruitless gossip toward productive labor.
E. The withholding of full association toward the idle should prompt change through the shame of rejecting their lack of contribution toward the ministry.
In other words, those who do not support the church (labor) should not have unrestricted access to the spiritual benefit of the church (food). A good steward works hard at giving his time and using his talents and spiritual gifts to further the ministry of Jesus Christ through his church. And the Lord provides for the needs of those who serve him. The Lord Jesus gives many other admonishments in Scripture about laboring hard in the Kingdom and our accountability to do so.
III. Truth - being trustworthy with God’s gospel gift.
This gospel is salvation, but it comes through the forgiveness of sins.
Lu 1:77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins,
Lu 24:47 and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.
Joh 20:23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."
Just what is forgiveness anyway? Isn’t it an affirmation of acceptance after sin? Although we must add that it doesn’t always relieve us of responsibility for our actions or of reaping serious consequences. Everything is fine if the offending party repents. We are then satisfied. But what if they don’t repent? Is forgiveness then truly possible? It may not be. Certainly it is much harder. But if we don’t try, we become consumed and destroyed by our bitter emotions. We may be cast into an arena of many other temptations.
In cases where repentance of the offender is not forthcoming, we may be called upon to become living martyrs. The Bible tells us in Romans 12:1 that God desires us to be living sacrifices in a manner of true worship. We think of martyrs as those who have died for the faith. But is it not a greater testimony to God to become dead to self and sin while yet alive? Nor should we have what is commonly considered to be a martyr complex which brings prideful attention to our plight. The question is how much can you give of yourself without getting anything in return? All things are possible with God, even forgiveness. Perhaps 2Cor. 9:6-7 applies here - that God loves not only a cheerful giver, but a cheerful forgiver as well. Giving is a matter of the heart and so also even forgiving is a matter of the heart.
To forgive sins means to remove sins from someone (‘for’ = ‘not to’ give sins, or render them inactive). To forgive means to stop being angry with, to pardon, to give up resentment and a desire to punish, to cancel a debt, or in just plain English, to “give it up”. And when we give of our physical resources and time we also give something up. We give it up to God with no strings attached. When we forgive the sins of others, we act as God’s agents to draw them to him as the One who has enabled forgiveness. Indeed, forgiveness is only truly possible with God’s help. This also draws them to him as the One whom they have offended more than us, and to whom they are accountable to more than us. We are then being good stewards of the grace of God. Forgiving is setting someone free to discover God. In this sense, forgiveness enables repentance (chicken or the egg?).
But again, this should not prevent us from being responsible to confront the obvious and troublesome sins that some people have. Even if they don’t repent, they need to know they are being forgiven - if you mean it. To forgive sins is not to disregard them and do nothing about them, but to liberate a person from their sins, their guilt, and their power so they, and we, will not remain under their power. Unless we can forgive sins done against us, we allow them to remain unchanged against us and to be imparted to us.
A. Being trustworthy to tell others of God’s gift of forgiveness through what Christ did on the cross.
Ga 2:7 On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews.
1Th 2:4 On the contrary, we speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts.
1Ti 1:11 --doctrine--that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.
Tit 1:3 and at his appointed season he brought his word to light through the preaching entrusted to me by the command of God our Savior,
Illustration: about the controversy over praying in the Name of Jesus to open sessions of the state legislature (divine adrenaline). See Mt. 10:32-34.
B. Being trustworthy to show others God’s gift of forgiveness through what Christ did in me.
Mt 6:12 Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Mt 6:13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. '
Mt 6:14 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.
Mt 6:15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
(We must forgive lest we be led into temptation by not forgiving.)
Mt 18:21 ¶ Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?"
Mt 18:35 "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."
Mr 11:25 And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins."
Lu 6:37 ¶ "Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.
Lu 11:4 Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation. '"
Lu 17:3 So watch yourselves. "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.
Lu 17:4 If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him."
Lu 23:34 Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
2Co 2:7 Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.
2Co 2:10 If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him. And what I have forgiven-- if there was anything to forgive-- I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake,
2Co 2:11 in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes.
Eph 4:32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Col 3:13 Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
Jas 5:15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.
C. Being trustworthy to live God’s gift of forgiveness through obedience. (Rom. 6:1-4, 11-14)
Lu 12:48 But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
Ro 6:17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted.
1Co 4:1 ¶ So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God.
1Co 4:2 Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.
2Ti 1:14 Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you-- guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.
1Ti 6:20 Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge,
We could now take this idea of obedience upon which we have ended and come full circle back to the beginning, which is to carry out our obedience by giving freely, as God has given to us. We must give freely of our treasure, our talents, and the truth of which we have been entrusted which not only saves us but others. In fact, the way we are trustworthy with God’s gospel truth gift is by being free with our treasure and talents toward the ministry. The essence of stewardship is trust. In 2Tim. 1:12 Paul says, “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.” God is able to guard my salvation that I entrust to him. He is trustworthy - am I?