One of the reasons we are doing this series – and perhaps the reason Church in the Cliff exists – is that there is a tremendous amount of skepticism about the Church. Scandals have eroded the sense that the Church is worthy of one’s time, treasure, or talents. The good that churches do is often done better by other groups, which leaves self-preservation as a church’s only purpose. When we use churchy words like the -ship words, it marks us as church people and church people probably just want something from you. That’s what “stewardship” means, right? Give us money! In return, we will inch our giant thermometer up a notch or put your name on a brick.
Of course, we are told that stewardship is not just giving money, but caring for the things we have been given. That’s a nice and helpful way to look at it. It asks us to be kind and responsible. It encourages us to be mindful and thankful for what we have. It opens up space for ecological concerns. All good stuff. Sadly, that view must be extracted from a text that appears to have other ideas.
There are several words in both Greek and Hebrew that are translated as “steward.” Their meanings range from “prince” to “butler,” which tells us something critical about the biblical witness. A steward is to care for stuff, but he (yes, overwhelmingly a he) does so within the context of what is known as a “client-patron” relationship. That is, he both rules and serves. He rules over things and people on behalf of someone else, on behalf of the real owner of the things and people. Ultimately, everything is ruled and owned by one person: the king. So the steward is sandwiched in a power relationship where he rules over others, but he, in turn, is ruled by someone else.
This might seem to be common sense. As Bob Dylan says, you gotta serve somebody. Certainly, the biblical text is embedded in this kind of power relationship and our society is not much different.
But look at what this does to the whole notion of care. First, it turns the world into a long chain of possessions. We care for stuff because we own it and we hope to be cared for because we belong to someone else. Second, we don’t care for others because they are intrinsically valuable or because they are the image of God, but because someone more powerful than us wants us to care for them. And they do so, mostly, because they provide something. Value is based on what you give; relationship is merely a method of exchange.
Therefore, it should be no surprise that our relationship with the Church is strained. The Church too often adopts this model of power. It promulgates a narrative about human weakness and God’s power and the Church as the caretaker on God’s behalf. Also, in doing so, the Church adopts signs of power from the world: money, status, political influence, masculinity, normative values. How can stewardship be anything in that context other than giving, ruling, and using?
Fortunately, there is a thread of Scripture that runs against this. In the Hebrew Bible, God stands for the slaves and exiles. God prohibits the early Israelite kings from having an army or a treasury. There is an ongoing skepticism about power. And it is written all over the New Testament, too. We see it in the Great Reversal in Luke. We see it in Paul’s writings to his brothers and sisters in Christ, a relationship of equals. We see it in Jesus’ calls for friendship as the ultimate love. We see it in the Acts of the Apostles where the early church shared all things equally. And we see it in Jesus, God dying on the cross, giving everything for the sake of those who have been cast aside. God’s sense of power seems to make power subject to care rather than the reverse.
Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center as we talk about how power is acquired and what we do with it to care for our world and others.
Grace & Peace,