What is Stewardship all About? (September 7, 2018)
“Stewardship” is one of those words that often sounds as if it comes directly from the Bible. But it’s not. The interesting thing is that this word is being used more and more often in the field of ethical investment.
Although the word “stewardship” is not found in the Bible, it is nevertheless clearly a biblical concept. The Bible uses the word “steward” about 20 times. The Greek word underlying it is oikonomos, which comes from two different roots meaning “house” (oikos) and “law” (nomos). The word describes a manager or a housekeeper. A steward is someone entrusted with somebody else’s property, who is charged to manage it wisely and well.
We see this concept in both the Old and New Testaments. In Genesis, Joseph orders his steward to frame his brothers, and then sends the steward to arrest them. Luke 16 tells a parable about a rich man, who entrusted his property to a dishonest manager. From these two examples, we can see that a steward is a person who holds a position of some responsibility.
Stewards, in this understanding, are guardians, not owners. They are trustees, or custodians, of something that belongs to someone else.
This biblical understanding of stewardship begins with the notion that God owns it all. Psalm 24 begins, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.” That includes (but is not restricted to) the universe itself, our bank balances and mortgages, our houses and cars, our earnings, our pensions and pets, the birds, the beasts and even black holes. But it’s not just material things. The biblical understanding includes our relationships, our attitudes, our hopes and fears, and the future of the universe. It all belongs to our Creator, and it has been entrusted to our care.
It is, when you think about it, a tremendous privilege and honour, as well as a responsibility.
That’s the understanding which gives rise to the concept of stewardship. From the very beginning of the story of the Bible, God says to the human being, “Take care of it all.” (Genesis 1:28). The problem came with the old word “dominion”. We thought that when God told us that we would have dominion over it, we could do whatever we wanted to do with it.
We were wrong. It wasn’t ours to do with as we wished. It was entrusted to us as stewards. God invited us to look after the world and care for it. Proverbs 12: 10 reminds us that “The righteous know the needs of their animals…” with the uncompleted thought that they look after those needs.
That’s the perspective we use to understand our lives as stewards of what has been entrusted to us. We are given resources for a noble cause. The Bible does not decry money and possessions. But it does recognize that they are not a good thing in and of themselves. They are given to us for a nobler, higher purpose.
The ancient story of Abraham and Sarah tells us that they are blessed so that they, in turn, can be a blessing. The parable in Luke 12 echoes that thought even more strongly: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
All that we have has been entrusted to us. We are not owners; we are care–takers, trustees, custodians. Stewardship has to do with the way we look after things, not the way we own things.
In the world of ethical investment, they talk a lot about “safeguarding the future”. That’s a central part of stewardship. We don’t own the future; we are looking after it for others.
Successful stewards know that we are charged to use the resources we’ve been given for the good of all in the most equitable way we can.
We are “blessed to be a blessing”, which means that we don’t live in this world only for ourselves, but to care for all that has been entrusted to us: our wealth; our neighbours; the earth; the future; those nearest and dearest to us, and those unknown to us; our relationships, and all else.
And when we begin to live in this kind of way, with this kind of deep compassion and commitment to the future, we will make a world which is more whole, more compassionate, more equitable.
As responsible and successful stewards, we define our goals in life with this view in mind. Some of our goals last a lifetime. Others last only for a few years. Some of the people I admire most have articulated successful stewardship goals such as these:
- significant generosity;
- raising a family, which often means sacrificing success in work;
- working part–time or earning less so that you can give time elsewhere;
- building a business not so much for the bottom line, but to provide employment, or launch a product which makes life better for others;
- write a book or compose music or paint a portrait
- clear your mortgage so you can become more generous in other areas of life;
- support the vision of your church or benevolent organization;
- have fun.
In each of these, the primary object is to use the resources we’ve been given well and for the benefit of others than ourselves: spending less than you earn, avoiding debt where possible; saving for the future; giving generously. In each of these things, we think and act intentionally.
Rev. Yme Woensdregt