A Sermon Based on Luke 12:35-46 and Corinthians 3:21-4:2
"Stewardship" is a good Old English word that one hardly hears anymore, except in the confines of churches! And then, in church, the concept of "stewardship" has become connected almost exclusively to the annual fund-raising "pledge" campaign in support of the church budget. It has come to mean "money!"
It is my hope to "redeem" the venerable word – steward-ship -- from the narrow (and often negative) confines of "fund-raising" into which this powerful (and, I believe, positive!) biblical metaphor has been relegated.
To be a steward is more than a matter of money; more than merely material concerns. To be a "good & faithful steward" is a unique role in society outlined by Jesus for his followers. To have (at heart) the attitudes & actions of a good steward is a gift that makes a person more "Christ-like."
Before I define the word "steward," let me first remind you of the brief story -- actually a parable of Jesus, as recorded by Luke:
"Who is the faithful and wise steward?" Jesus asked. "The one whom his
master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper
That, in short, is the description of a steward: one who is set "in charge" of a household economy -- a family estate, or a business -- with the task: to assure all is managed fairly, fully, and in timely fashion.
Jesus goes on to say: "Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions...
… But if that servant [on the other hand] says: "My master is away... delayed!" And so, he beats his fellow servants, and eats and drinks with the drunkards... The master will return -- on a day when the servant does not expect him, at an hour he does not know -- and will punish him..."
It's a scary story the way Jesus tells it, because it is intended to warn his followers to be good stewards (wise!), fully and fairly managing the affairs of the One who is their lord.
The word "steward/stewardship" appears 26 times in the Bible. It is uniformly a technical office, namely: the one who has been given the responsibility for the management of something belonging to someone else. Jesus' story draws upon that very familiar Bible image.
Usually the one to whom the steward is accountable is a royal official -- a king, a ruler, or a landlord. The first time we meet a "steward" in the Bible (in the final chapters of Genesis), it's an Egyptian official subject to Joseph, the Hebrew Patriarch, who has risen to the rank of Pharaoh's second-in-command! The steward represents his Master in all affairs of state... just as Joseph himself had been given authority to negotiate all matters in Pharaoh's name. In other words, it is a powerful position!
In the Books of the Chronicles of David the King, stewards are given responsibility for the Treasury, for vineyards, for herds & camels & flocks... Stewards are named right along with the division commanders of the military and the chief counselors of the twelve tribes. They would be like Cabinet-level officers in the government or like directors of various corporate departments.
In the Book of Daniel (for example), the steward was the official charged with the care and provisioning of the Hebrew prisoners of war. This jail steward could make decisions about their food and lodgings on the spot, without consulting his superiors… but he cannot set them free. That’s because they don't belong to him. He is only the steward who cares for them.
It was Isaiah the prophet who first drew upon the image of "steward" as a metaphor (Isa. 22:15-21). He refers to Shebna, the ruler of the inhabitants of Jerusalem in his day, as a steward whose authority is about to be taken away and given to another for having brought "shame on your master's house." By that Isaiah meant Yahweh [God] the Lord was the ultimate authority (the owner of the people)... and anyone who would presume to manage the affairs of God's people (anyone who assumes the mantle of "over-lord") is, in fact, only a steward of what belongs to God. And, as stewards, we represent God only so long as we see to the welfare of God's people with the same heart & Spirit & resources as God would do! When we fail to put the people’s common good ahead of our own – when we think it is about us and our power – we are finished! God can no longer use us.
It is this "prophetic metaphor" of the steward as the servant of God, assigned authority by God, for the purpose of seeing that all is managed fairly, fully, and in timely fashion, for the flourishing of the household of God that Jesus uses as a metaphor for the role of his followers – his church. We are expected to be faithful and wise “stewards” -- good managers.
As stewards of God's household, we (the disciples of Jesus) are responsible for looking after the welfare of the other servants in the household. We stewards have a clearly defined task: to see to it that those who dwell with us in this household of God are properly fed; are protected from thieves (who would rob them of their treasures); and we are to stand watch over God's things.
We have been "deputized" (so to speak) in order to carry out our several tasks. We have been authorized to represent the interests of our Master, Our Lord, Jesus Christ. We are called, and commissioned, and cheered along in our duties; but we are also warned not to forget who we are -- whose we are! -- lest we begin to think that WE are in charge! Or that we are at liberty to do as we please with the others around us, or that we are free to consume all the resources God has placed in our hands!
Yes, maybe the steward is "a notch higher" in authority than the other maid-servants and men-servants in the household. But that extra authority bears with it extra responsibility... somewhat like a “middle-manager” in a business, or a “floor steward” supervisor in a factory, or a “department head” in a school system (one is seen somewhat like an administrator, and somewhat like a faculty member, but not fully one nor fully the other. It’s a hard place to be!)
Jesus’ parable ends (Luke 12:48) with this summary statement:
"Every one to whom much is given, much will be required.
The one to whom men commit much, they demand all the more!"
When one is called -- chosen -- to be a steward, it is both an honor and a burden. One must do right with the resources that are put in our hands.
We are chosen -- and blessed with abundant good things -- not for our own sake, but in behalf of others... many others.
As stewards of God's universal grace, much has been given to us; hence, much is required of us as well!
Stewardship is (as I say in my sermon title) a matter of "managing our resources." Actually, it is more correct to say that stewardship is really the managing of God's resources.
The Apostle Paul says in First Corinthians (3:21-23): "All things are yours... whether the world or life... the present or the future... all is yours! And you are Christ's! And Christ is God's!"
We are all bound up with one another! Even Jesus Christ himself is part of this chain of mutuality. Even Jesus Christ is accountable as God's Steward for the life and teachings he lived!
Paul goes on to say: “This is how one should regard us: as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trust-worthy.” Jesus calls them “faithful and wise” servants.
At the heart of this parable of faithful stewardship (in Luke 12:37), Jesus says: "Blessed are those servants whom the Master finds awake when he comes. Truly, I say to you, the Master will gird himself and have them sit at table; and he will come and serve them!" What a remarkable reversal!! No landlord of old -- no royal officer, nor civic leader -- would ever think to serve his servants! But that, friends, is a core principle of Jesus’ expression of God. That surprising reversal of expectations is typical of the Good News that Jesus brought into the world.
Jesus’ radical mutuality -- his willingness to be one of us (yes, a servant among servants) -- is what shows him to be God’s most faithful Good Steward. Two weeks ago, we called him a Good Shepherd – who tended the flock, protected the sheep, knew each one by name, led them in and out to find pasture, and prepared a safe place for them to dwell. To be Good Shepherd was to be a Good Steward of the Master’s sheep: same principle.
I hope we now see in the word "stewardship" more than a “fund-raising” campaign, or an effort toward budget-balancing, or a sneaky synonym so we don’t have to use the word "money."
It is, in fact, a comprehensive model for us of the servant spirit of Jesus. It is a clear job description for the whole of the Church as we strive to "manage" -- fairly, fully, and in timely fashion -- the resources of time, talent, and treasure God has given us.
One part of good stewardship (of course) would include our use of money -- in particular, any discretionary money that you have “left over” after your personal needs and family expenses are met.
In today’s economic climate, people are often afraid that their money will not stretch to cover anticipated expenses. I get that! And that’s why my sermon today (and over the next few weeks) about “money” will have no request attached to them. It’s about you managing your money quite apart from any “steward-ship campaign” here at church.
Having said that, however, if you believe (as I do) that our church can have an impact on lives -- first, in our own members’ lives, as the ones who come to worship, Bible study, and service -- but beyond that to address our community’s needs…
… perhaps having an impact on society, in short doing our part to assist the survival of our species and the betterment of our world – I trust you will want to make the financial resources available to do just that… & so you will give, generously & gladly!
And I can assure you that we will be good & faithful stewards as we budget the use of your money. For us (as a church) to be good stewards means we will "manage" -- fairly, fully, and in timely fashion -- all the resources of time, talent, & treasure you entrust to us. We take our fiscal responsibility (and due diligence) regarding the use of your tithes and offerings very seriously here.
But it is about more than money... In the story Jesus told, the steward was instructed to provide food at the proper time for everyone in the Master’s household. So, providing food -- in adequate amounts for the sustaining of life and the flourishing of health -- is part of our stewardship task. We pray “Give us this day our daily bread,” and that’s fine. But the steward is the one who responds: “Here you are” and hands the person a sandwich!
As stewards, we are conduits of provision... on behalf of God, who has set us in a place of responsibility. As I said last Sunday about “dominion”: we have been set over the household not to lord over others, nor to take advantage of those who are less fortunate. We have not been given such an abundance of resources in our personal lives, or as a nation, in order to hoard them for ourselves, nor to consume them ourselves (eating & drinking with drunkards, as Jesus put it). We are managers of our assets in service to God for the good & the flourishing of all.
Think of those examples of “stewards” in the Bible stories I mentioned a moment ago: the ones who had been given the responsibility for managing something belonging to some-one else. In some cases it was financial: the king’s Treasury.
But in most cases it was other kinds of tangible assets: food, vineyards, herds of cattle & camels, flocks of sheep... In the Book of Daniel, the steward was responsible for the care and provisioning of prisoners of war… today: refugees, immigrants.
As both the Psalmist and the Prophet Isaiah have made clear, Yahweh/God (the Lord) is the ultimate “owner” of all that is... and anyone who would presume to manage the affairs of other people is, in fact, only a steward of what belongs to God. And, that’s us, friends.
As stewards, we represent God only so long as we see to the welfare of God's people with the same heart, Spirit, and resources as God would do! I say: thank God we have Jesus as our role model of how a person might actually do it, for he has a servant’s heart. May we prove to be faithful and wise stewards of the resources at our disposal, to the Glory of God in Jesus Christ.