A three-part series of Bible lessons about stewardship. The second session looks at how Jesus talks about money and faith.
Living in Abundance: "Jesus, Money and Faith"
O God of power and might, your Son shows us the way of service, and in him we inherit the riches of your grace. Give us the wisdom to know what is right and the strength to serve the world you have made, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
-- Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 53
It is commonly said that Jesus spoke about money more than anything else. In one sense that it true. His sayings often contain references to money and wealth, directly or indirectly. Most of the sayings are indirect, such as in those cases where money is involved in the telling of a parable. Examples where money is involved within the story one way or another are the Parables of the Unforgiving Slave (Matthew 18:23-33), the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10), the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-8), the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14) and more.
But there are also cases where Jesus speaks of money directly. A well-known case is the interchange between Jesus and a person who asked him "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus responds by telling him to keep the commandments. When the man says that he had kept them all since his youth, Jesus responds: "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." The story concludes by saying that that the man left grieving, "for he had many possessions" (Mark 10:17-23).
In that particular story, Jesus does not make it a rule that all of his followers are to sell all that they have and give the money to the poor. What Jesus says is directed only to the person he is dealing with. But it is followed by some sayings that do apply generally. These include:
"How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" (Mark 10:23).
"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:25).
In another place Jesus says: "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (Matthew 6:24).
Clearly any wealth and possessions that we have are blessings. God desires an abundant life for all of his children. In fact, it is taken for granted in the Old Testament that among the blessings that God bestows upon his people is prosperity and abundance (Deuteronomy 30:9; Psalm 37:11; 78:25; Isaiah 36:17), and the time of the Messiah is portrayed as a time of feasting and joy (Isaiah 25:6-8; 62:1-9; Amos 9:13; Revelation 19:9).
To put matters into perspective, perhaps it is sufficient to repeat the familiar saying: "It is not wrong to have wealth, but it can be dangerous." It is dangerous from many angles. It is dangerous because a person who has it can conclude that it is well deserved; that no one else has a rightful claim upon any of it; and that using it for one's own choices has no social consequences. Beyond all that, of course, the person who has wealth may forget that abundance is God's gift to be used in trust.
While thinking about stewardship, an acquaintance of mine made the statement some time ago: "I tithe. That means that I give 10 percent of my income to God, and the 90 percent remaining is mine to do with as I want." The person has forgotten one important thing. That is that 100 percent actually belongs to God, not 10 percent or any other amount, more or less, that is given to the church and various charities.
One can look at the whole matter in another way. For some persons, who do not share the abundance of the affluent in our land, good stewardship may mean that the 100 percent entrusted to them will have to be apportioned in such a way that, once the family is cared for, there is very little to give away. In fact, some members of congregations are actually in need of support from social service agencies. Those who have little to give, or who are in need, can contribute to the life of a congregation in a variety of ways beyond financial support.
On the other hand, for those who have shared in the abundance of our country, good stewardship may entail restraint in spending on things that they do not really need and using much of what they have to enhance human life beyond themselves and their immediate families.
We cannot derive from the gospels any rules for all times and places, including our own, on how we are to apportion that which we possess. For one thing, the means of supporting religious institutions and for providing relief for the poor in the world of Jesus and his disciples were very different from our own.
Furthermore, Jesus does not give any rules in the gospels on how his disciples are expected to apportion that which they possess. During his earthly ministry his disciples and other followers seem to have come primarily from the lower end of the economic scale (although not only there), and so it would have been difficult for Jesus to provide any rules for them. What might be appropriate for those who were well-to-do would not be fitting for those who were poor. After his death and resurrection, Christianity grew in the early centuries, and more persons of means joined the Christian community, but still no rules were imposed.
What makes it possible for the followers of Jesus to give, both during his earthly ministry and today, is faith in God, who cares for and provides for the needs of his children. Faith, in the biblical sense, is essentially trust, a reliance upon the goodness of God and God's will to bless us.
One of the memorable passages in the gospels about faith in God and his abundant care for his children is in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says:
"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you -- you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today." (Matthew 6:25-34).
If we lack faith, that is, if we lack trust in God as gracious, we tend to grasp at what we have. Or to put it another way, our possessions, in the end, possess us. We become fearful. We think that we must put our trust in our possessions. And then we run into the danger of worshiping a false god. In his Large Catechism Martin Luther wrote that whatever we set your heart on, that is our god.
Jesus calls upon us to put our trust in God, who cares for us abundantly.
Christian stewardship arises out of trust in God. That does not mean that we should be naॖve -- or worse, negligent -- about our responsibilities for ourselves and others as we look to the future. To plan for the future as best we can is a virtue, not a sin. It is one aspect of stewardship. We expect all the institutions we belong to (governmental, religious and civic) to make plans. If we are parents, we teach our children early on to think about the future. It would be bad stewardship if we did not work and plan for a good, and even better, tomorrow insofar as we can.
One of Jesus' parables comes to mind at this point. That is the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21). The man in that parable prospered, and as a consequence he tore down his existing barns and built bigger ones. Then he concluded: "Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry." But that very night he died.
In many ways one could say that the man was exemplary. He worked, planned, saved and sought to protect his belongings. All that is good stewardship! But he had a problem. He was possessed, even consumed, by his possessions to such an extent that the meaning of life depended upon them. He put all of his trust into himself and what he had. The pronoun "I" is used six times in the parable and the possessive "my" five times -- all in the space of only six verses. The tragedy is that the person who is like this man loses all sense of God's gifts and claims upon himself or herself and is oblivious to the needs of others.
Stewardship is made possible when our trust is in God. But stewardship is made impossible if we neglect our responsibilities for ourselves and for others.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of the goodness of God to all persons by saying that our heavenly Father "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45). And so it is. We are blessed by God ڸ all of us ڸ beyond any measure of worthiness we might have. We can therefore place our trust in God, a God who blesses us in spite of our unworthiness. By trusting in him, we cast out fear, live in freedom, and exercise stewardship over that which has been given to us to manage in trust.
1. When we use the word "abundance," what do we mean? Does it refer only to material possessions?
2. Discuss the statement: "It is not wrong to have wealth, but it can be dangerous."
3. What attitudinal shifts about money have you observed in your lifetime?
4. Read again the text from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:25-34). What is the difference between anxiety and trust?
5. Consider again the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21). What is the difference between planning for the future and trusting one's abundance for years to come?
God of mercy and grace, the eyes of all wait upon you, and you open your hand in blessing. Fill us with good things at your table, that we may come to the help of all in need, through Jesus Christ, our redeemer and Lord. Amen.
-- Evangelical Lutheran Worship
Arland J. Hultgren is the Asher O. and Carrie Nasby Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.
Click on these links to access the other articles in this three-part series:
Living in Abundance: Perspectives from Classic Texts in Scripture (Session 1/3)
Living in Abundance: Faith Working through Love (Session 3 of 3)
Living in Abundance: PowerPoint presentation as Microsoft PPT
Living in Abundance: PowerPoint presentation as Adobe PDF
Dr. Arland J. Hultgren is a professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary.