This lesson is the second of three prepared by Dr. Bliese for adult studies in a variety settings in congregations. Each lesson includes a presentation that may be reproduced and distributed among participants.
Stewardship is about relationships. The lesson uses three stories that focus on the relational character of exchanging gifts. These "gifts" bind us together as people. Three dynamics of relationships are the rule of GIVING, the rule of RECEIVING, and the rule of APPROPRIATE RESPONSE. These three rules help make sense of the dynamics of living relationally as disciples of Jesus Christ both in the Body of Christ and in the world.
Session 2: Stewardship is About Exchanging Gifts...And about Relationships
Bible Text: Matthew 22:1-14
Three Stories of Gift Exchange
Sociologists tell us that one of the keys to healthy relationships, among both individuals and groups, is the role of exchanging gifts. This is true in the world. It is also true in the church. Many of the parables in the Bible about the kingdom of God have this insight at their core. Stewardship is, finally, about relationships.
Let's review a couple of stories that focus on the relational character of exchanging gifts. Please notice the dynamics that surround any exchange of gifts. (What examples might you share from your own life?)
Gift Exchange Story #1: The Dinner Party
A nice couple from our congregation, Silvia and Norm Johnson, invited my wife and me to dinner at their home. They were new members in our congregation and had few friends in the neighborhood. They wanted to get to know us better. Before we left our home to visit them, my wife started wrapping a bottle of wine as a present. I asked if the Johnsons had asked us to bring wine for the supper. My wife answered "no." Bringing a gift to a dinner party is just a nice way to say "thank you" in advance.
As soon as we entered their home, we knew this would be a special evening. The table was beautifully set. The flowers in the middle of the table were artistically arranged. A four course meal followed that must have cost a fortune not to mention days of preparing and cooking by Silvia AND Norm. We were impressed and extremely appreciative. At the end of the evening we expressed our gratitude in the following way: "We had a wonderful evening. The food and conversation were delightful. We must have you into our home. We'll call you soon and try to arrange something."
Two months later Silvia and Norm were in our home as guests. They brought chocolates as a "thank you" instead of wine. We made fondue instead of a formal meal. We could just tell after that evening that a friendship had begun.
Gift-Exchange Story #2: The Scholarship
Harold Rohr, my supervisor in the mission society, sat me down and explained that he had good news for me -- REALLY GOOD NEWS! I had been working as a missionary in Africa for five years for a German mission society. I had almost completed my fifth year and now wanted to return to the United States in order to do doctoral studies in theology. The question was "How"? Graduate studies in the U.S. were expensive. My wife and I couldn't afford these new plans.
Harold sat me down and spoke these simple words: "Don't worry about your graduate studies. I will find you a full scholarship." I didn't know how to respond to his words. They were too good to be true! In fact, that was the problem. A full scholarship for graduate work would cost thousands and thousands of dollars. He smiled at me, knowingly, and repeated. "Don't worry about your graduate studies. I will find you a full scholarship." And he did. I don't know where the money came from, but after five years in graduate school, it was worth over $ 120,000. This gift of a scholarship changed my life.
Knowing the magnitude of the gift, and that I could never repay him for this generosity, I nevertheless asked him, "How can I repay you? I'm so thankful."
The answer came in the form of a request: "Send me a card periodically, and tell me how you are doing with your studies."
Gift Exchange Story #3: Matthew 22: 1-14 The Parable of the Wedding Banquet
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come." Again he sent other slaves, saying. "Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet."
But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves. "The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet."
Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, "Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?" And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, "Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen."
The Mechanics of Stewardship as Gift Exchange
As we review the stories above, what may appear as a simple, free gift from one person to another (for example: a meal, a scholarship and a wedding banquet) may be just that . . . almost. When we receive or give a gift, this exchange is only a part of a larger scene that involves relationships. If exchanging gifts works well, relationships are built and strengthened. If exchanging gifts is done poorly, relationships are destroyed.
Relationships -- from the perspective of stewardship -- involves simple yet important sets of obligations, indebtedness, interconnections and expectations. These "gifts" bind us together as people. Let's name three of these dynamics:
-the rule of GIVING
-the rule of RECEIVING
-the rule to APPROPRIATE RESPONSE
By looking at these three simple rules, we can make sense of the dynamics of living relationally as disciples of Jesus Christ both in the Body of Christ (i.e. the church) and in the world.
Take a look at the three stories again. In each story, point out the dynamics surrounding GIVING, RECEIVING and how to RESPOND to a gift APPROPRIATELY.
Do you have any stories of your own about how the etiquette of exchanging gifts can either improve or destroy a relationship?
How does gift exchange work in your congregation? (Think about your worship service and Sunday school, your service projects within the church, your committees, your visitation program, your stewardship drive, etc.)
How does a relationship with Jesus Christ change the way a person views the exchange of gifts?
Going Deeper into Stewardship and Relationships
Let's go deeper now into the nature of how our lives as stewards affect our relationships with God, the church and our world. Each of the three rules of stewardship (giving, receiving and appropriate response) deserves both reflection and practice. Finally, stewardship is a Christian practice that needs to be experienced as well as learned. Gifts that are exchanged GRACIOUSLY build relationships. Gifts that are exchanged inappropriately can lead to slavery, negative indebtedness and guilt. How does God model this gift exchange as GRACE through the gift to us of his son, Jesus Christ? (see John 3: 16-21)
Let's take a look at the three rules of stewardship as gift exchange.
The Rule of GIVING:
This rule applies to everyone who wants to be in a relationship. Unless we give, we cannot be "received." What does this mean? Relationships are not possible without giving. Unless we give, we remain centered on ourselves rather than open to the community, and unless we give, then ultimately we will not receive, and thus remain isolated. Giving is not first about charity but about building social capital (See the parable about the dishonest manager, Luke 16: 1 13).
People in western societies, with our love of individuality, may believe themselves to be independent and in no need of giving or receiving. But people in western societies also have enormous problems of isolation, alienation, loneliness and suicide. No, the rule of giving is binding on all who look beyond individualism to community. The more we give, the more that we bind ourselves to community. Giving and building community are two concepts linked together. No community is possible, therefore, without encouraging stewardship.
Giving initiates chains of positive social indebtedness and bonds of reciprocity. Let's repeat this idea because it is an important one: Good stewardship leads to relationships of positive indebtedness (because, of course, there are also relationships of negative indebtedness like those who fall into massive credit card debt.).
Look at all three gift exchange stories above. Gift giving reinforces self-giving and strengthens relationships. Relationships are built by exchanging gifts. The refusal to give, in tightly-knit societies, may be tantamount to an act of war! Those who have but do not give lose respect and are placed at the margins of the group; they may even be shunned. On the positive end, giving a gift is always the first step in creating a relationship. How does your own congregation build up its fellowship through the exchange of gifts?
(For further study: Take a look at two fascinating stewardship texts.)
The first is from Luke 21:1 about the Widow's Offering. "He [Jesus] looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, 'Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.'"
And from Acts 4: 32 we read: "Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common." This text continues in Acts 5 with the story of Annanias and Sapphira. Compare these two stories.
What does "giving gifts" say in both texts about relationships, with God or with other people?
Study Questions for Small Groups:
Exchanging gifts always leads to social indebtedness. Naturally, we don't want to be "indebted" to everyone. Can you name times and people with whom you do want to be positively "indebted" (that is, mutually interdependent) and those to whom such indebtedness would be negative, even harmful?
The Rule of Receiving
If giving gifts is an activity intended to open up relationships, then the corollary is that the gift -- as a sign of openness to a relationship -must be accepted. Not to accept is an insult; it even may represent an act of war! See the Matthew text above. The King was furious when his gift was not received. His reaction was violent.
Have you experienced "friends" who refused gifts from you? It is very painful. Not to accept a gift may be a statement of unwillingness to be in relationship with others. I can still remember a couple who refused to accept an invitation to our house for dinner. After three invitations, "they were out!" We lost interest in them as possible friends.
Why might this unwillingness be so present in people? One answer is that the "giver" is initially in a superior position to the intended recipient, first because the giver opens up the situation and initiates the relationship, but also because the receiver becomes thereby indebted to the giver. Here is where "power" and "charisma"can be seen as the underlying language of gift exchange. Receiving another person's gifts means becoming vulnerable with them. Is this what we want -- from them?!
Notice how Paul speaks of the gifts of the spirit in I Corinthians 12 and 14. In I Cor. 12. 27, he writes: "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still excellent way."
I Corinthians 12 and 14 are about stewardship and gift exchange. Paul describes how fellowship in the spirit is about a life lived in interdependence with other Christians. We need each other's gifts to thrive as Christians. But exchanging gifts in the body of Christ can be both profitable and dangerous. That is why Paul places chapter 13, the chapter on love, in between these texts about exchanging gifts.
Indebtedness is, of course, no bad thing in social relationships; it is even the core of the "message" of gift exchange. People want to be indebted to others, precisely because this indicates relationship. But no one wants to be indebted to everyone. Debt can be as crippling as it is potentially liberating, and if the debtor has no resources with which to appropriately respond, then a dilemma is created. Refusal to receive, as we stated, can be interpreted as a very negative act. Likewise, prevailed upon someone to accept another's pledge or service maybe just as oppressive. Freedom and love are two key ingredients at the heart of both giving and receiving gifts.
(For further study: Read the three chapters on spiritual gifts in I Corinthians 12, 13, and 14. Why are these chapters so important for Paul's message to the Corinthians? Sometimes gifts aren't received, they are stolen. Take a look at the Parable of the Wicked Tenants in Luke 20: 9-19. Furthermore, some gifts are just waiting for us to come and get them. The question is whether we will return to receive them. Read the parable of the prodigal son, Luke 15, 11-32.)
Study Questions for Small Groups:
It is often more difficult to receive than give. Why is that? What does the act of receiving say about the nature of our relationships with the giver? No one in the church can just be a "professional giver." We must also learn to receive. How does your congregation teach both giving and receiving as acts of stewardship?
The Rule of Appropriate Response
Giving and receiving gifts characterize healthy parties in an ongoing relationship of interdependence. This is the nature of practicing the appropriate response to a gift. Your response to a gift can either build mutuality and reciprocity or servitude and guilt. Review the three gift exchange stories above. What were the various responses -- appropriate and inappropriate -- to the gifts received?
Even though we may acknowledge our moral responsibility to be both receivers as well as givers, there is still that tendency for us to be so on our own terms, and this we must continuously and firmly resist. How we both accept and respond to a gift will either further the relationship or degrade the gift exchange into a mere economic repayment of debt, and thus mark the conclusion to a transaction.
The distinction here is between two forms of gift exchange:
1. Gift exchange as a contractual obligation.
Here the primary goals are efficiency, the completion of a transaction and the fulfillment of the terms of the contract. I give you money in exchange for services. (e.g. I give money to my church in exchange for spiritual services.)
2. Gift exchange as a free and "appropriate" commitment to relationships and God's mission.
Here the primary goals are relationships and interdependence. Services and gifts are exchanged, but money is rarely the primary form of currency -- even when it is used. (e.g. I give money to my church in response to God's love for me and to further the ministries of this community to each other and to the world.)
Given what you have learned about gift exchange, take a look at these questions:
Do we, perhaps, demand immediate return on what we have lent, or immediate reciprocation of what bounty we have extended, and then try to justify our attitude as one of "justice" or "good stewardship?"
Do we concentrate on money as a sign of reciprocity, more than on other gifts?
How can you appropriately respond to a gift from someone in the church that you don't really "need?" [In other words, how can we learn to be gracious receivers, and in so doing come to accept what may be tedious to accept -- things we do not really want or appreciate, or for which we have no "need" or 'use."
Conclusion: A Meditation on Gift-Exchange and Stewardship
With the theme of "gift exchange" in mind, listen to these texts as they are read out loud. Remember how stewardship leads to relationships. Allow God to speak to your heart and mind through the Holy Spirit as these passages of scripture are read. God bless your hearing.
"If anyone should press you into service for one mile, go with that person two miles. Give to whomever begs from you. Do not turn your back on the borrower" (Mt. 5: 41-42)
"Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleans the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment." Mt 10: 8)
"Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town." (Mt. 10: 9-14)
"A gift opens every door for you and wins you access to the great" (Prov 18:16)
"The generous person has many to court his favor; to the one who gives, everyone is a friend" (Prov. 19:6)
". . . divine grace through Jesus Christ came as abundant free gift." (Rom 5:15)
"Each one of you has received a special gift; so, like good steward responsible for all these different graces of God, put yourselves at the service of others" (1 Peter 4:10)
"The amount you measure out is the amount you will be given" (Mk 4: 24)
"Give and there will be gifts for you . . . good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over" (Lk 6: 38)
"God never takes back his gifts nor revokes his choice" (Rom 11:29)
"People were bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them. For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of god as a little child will never enter it." And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them." (Mark 10: 13-16)
----Richard Bliese, President of Luther Seminary, Professor of Missions, Luther Seminary, October 15, 2005
Permission granted by Centered Life Learning and Stewardship In the 21st Century, Luther Seminary, for use in congregations.
Click on the following for other sessions by Dr. Bliese.
Session 1: Mission Starts with Stewardship & Five Small Stone
Session #3: Communion: The Great Stewardship Meal
Rev. Dr. Richard H. Bliese, President of Luther Seminary and Professor of Mission.