Rich Steward, Poor Steward (TMI)
by Penny Brink
Have you ever thought of stewardship in terms of Christian ethics? What are the ethics of giving? We might turn our thoughts to those who have much and those who don’t have enough.
Careful to make the distinction between social responsibility and socialism, let us rather explore the biblical concepts of generosity and justice. As a movement originating in the Western world, or the “first world,” the Seventh-day Adventist Church might justifiably be identified with the West. Our obedience to the Great Commission, however, has afforded us world-wide status and a membership that includes people from both first world and developing countries. They represent the full range of economic statuses, the rich and the poor. Jesus' declaration in Luke 4:18, 19 (quoting Isaiah) and His focus on those in need, encourages me to think that there is something here that we can draw on to motivate good stewardship in both rich and poor, in addition to the other reasons we often give. From an ethical perspective, I would venture to ask two questions:
1. How dare I ask the poor, who do not have enough, to give to the church?
2. How can I motivate the rich to “give back”?
"How dare I ask the poor, who do not have enough, to give to the church?"
The history of a certain well known corporation that produces digital devices is a good illustration of how the West is often perceived by the poor in developing countries. Bill and Christy were among the first employees at the first manufacturing plant of said corporation. To condense their story that took some years to develop, by the time Bill and Christy were in their 50s, over 15000 jobs in this organization had been exported to organizations in the Far Eastern countries such as China. Bill and Christy ended up anticipating an economically distressing retirement. It is reported that this and other corporations are responsible for the exporting of 7.9 million jobs out of the USA between 1990 and 2011. Resulting unemployment and under employment is credited for contributing to the diminishing of the economic “middle class” in the USA. Can we pacify ourselves by thinking that perhaps these losses in the West were China’s gain? Perhaps they were in fiscal terms, but before jumping to such a conclusion, we need to acknowledge that some organizations receiving these contracts are, by many reports, ones that under pay and ill treat their workers to the point of many employee suicides. We are aware that many manufactured goods enter our markets from “sweat shops” in such developing countries. In ethical terms, words like exploitation enter the conversation.
What does this have to do with stewardship?
A question that comes to mind is whether a church that is seen to emanate from the “first world” has a credible or a contextual witness in developing countries. What does this church have to say to the poor, the exploited and the marginalized? Indeed, what do the marginalized think of this church? Can a missionary or evangelist from such a privileged social and economic location ethically expect those in less developed parts of the world to give of their means to the church? Can we ask both the rich and the poor to be good stewards?
I am happy to say that I think we can, and here’s why: Stewardship is for everyone. Everyone made in the image of God has the ability to give, because God is a giver! Everyone, rich or poor, is encouraged to understand their identity as God’s good steward—a channel of His gifts to those around us.
"Stewardship is for everyone. Everyone made in the image of God has the ability to give, because God is a giver!"
THE POOR STEWARD
A story in Luke 21:1-4 comes to mind—of a little, old, bent-over lady, inconspicuous and poor, whom Jesus commended for giving her last cents as an offering to God! Do you remember her? Jesus was known to be full of compassion, and yet we don’t see Him running over to her just in time and saying, “Dear mother-in-Israel, your good intentions have not gone unnoticed, but don’t give your last cents to the “church.” Keep them, and buy yourself one more meal, please…!” Might that not have been a better ending to the story? It is evident to me, rather, that Jesus knew something special about the benefits of giving, even for the poor! Allow me to address a concept in the hopes of clearing the air with regards to encouraging even the poor to give. It involves the “missing middle!”
The missing middle is a concept referred to by missiologists such as David Bosch, to explain a gap that is often left in the spiritual experience of an indigenous person after accepting Christianity from a typical Western missionary endeavor. Very often, the indigenous person would have had a deep spirituality within their tribal belief system, albeit a belief system not based on the Bible. Such beliefs most often have an element of tangibility, such as witchcraft, witchdoctors (Sangomas), and rituals to appease the ancestors, with discernable results. The tangible elements appear to be missing in Western Christianity, i.e. the suggested alternative religion. This "missing middle" results, long term, in syncretism, where a convert would have one foot in either belief system, as it were. When prayer to God does not seem to produce tangible results, it is all too easy to fall back on a trip to the witch doctor, or to go and sacrifice an offering to the ancestors for the desired results. This very phenomenon is listed as number seven among the Strategic Issues in the Reach the World Strategic Plan 2015-2020 of the Seventh-day Adventist Church booklet.
"This "missing middle" results, long term, in syncretism, where a convert would have one foot in either belief system, as it were."
This challenge warrants much study and attention, including a focus on how to contextualize the gospel so that it can be better internalized in local, understandable terms. I believe that stewardship, however, is perhaps one of the ways in which this “missing middle” may also be addressed! Stewardship is one of the most tangible ways to experience God! It is a way to experience His power. As Christians, we know that by giving, we become more like God. We grow into His image, because He gave! He gave us life, He gave His Son, He sustains us. So, giving is important for our sanctification. There’s more! Faithful stewardship comes with a promise. There are many promises where God covenants with those faithful to Him to take care of them. Malachi 3:6-10 is one which we frequently use:
"For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.
Even from the days of your fathers ye are gone away from mine ordinances, and have not kept them. Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith the Lord of hosts. But ye said, Wherein shall we return?
Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings.
Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation.
Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it."
Returning a faithful tithe is our way to participate in supporting the ministry of the church. Giving offerings is our way to support the mission of the church locally and abroad, and in taking care of the needs of others. When we are faithful stewards, we acknowledge God as the Creator and Owner of everything. We acknowledge Him as the One who sustains us, and we can claim the power of His promise. Am I referring to prosperity theology? No. I am suggesting that when we put our faith in the One who owns everything and has promised to sustain us, we are on our way to experiencing God in tangible ways. We are closing that gap of the missing middle! This concept entitles us to open the eyes of someone who has less than we have and teach them about Stewardship as a doctrine of hope. We can ask them to share what God blesses them with in order to share that hope with others. And we can do so unashamedly.
"Perhaps we can be motivated to invest in that eternity for the sake of the marginalized in the here and now!"
THE RICH STEWARD
What about the “rich?” Those who have enough, perhaps more than enough? Is there a way that Christian ethics speaks to them? How can we motivate people accustomed to accumulating wealth to give away their money instead? Do the reasons for giving, discussed above, apply to the rich as well? Certainly they do but there’s more. Often the wealthy are those who inadvertently or not, have benefited from systems that have disadvantaged others, whether it be according to race, class or economic structures. Perhaps ethical concerns about injustices, which none of us alone might be able to change, can motivate us to give to an organization that preaches the hope of eternity in a better system. Perhaps we can be motivated to invest in that eternity for the sake of the marginalized in the here and now!
Another Bible story comes to mind. Luke 19: 1-10 tells of a “wee little man” (as the song goes) who "climbed up into the Sycamore tree, for the Lord he wanted to see!" We know that Zacchaeus had been greedy in his tax collecting activities and had dishonestly or unfairly taken more than he should have from many who, no doubt, were already experiencing other kinds of oppression as well. We know the story. We also know that he offered to give back four-fold, and to give half of all he had to the poor! Why was that? Did the heretofore stingy Zacchaeus forget how to do his sums? No, I believe that he was making amends. He was offering to make up for what he did wrong. He was offering restitution.
While none of us may purposefully have disadvantaged another, perhaps we can be encouraged to give by considering that we are helping to create a more equitable world and a more sure eternity. When we return God's tithe and give our offerings, we support the church as it carries out God’s mission on earth.
THE STEWARD'S PRIVILEGE
There are many other motivations for giving. God has given so much and we are grateful. It is important, however, that our witness be both credible, and contextual, and mindful of the times we live in. So next time you consider the widow’s mite, or Zacchaeus’s restitutive act, consider what it is to be poor and to be rich, and remember that giving is the privilege of both!
Watch the full seminar on: https://vimeo.com/172724282
1. De La Torre, Miguel, A. Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins. Orbis Books: Maryknoll, New York. 2015. Pp. 73-80.