October marks the beginning of the fourth quarter of the year and, as Summer turns to Fall, many of us find ourselves reflecting upon what we did and didn’t accomplish during the previous nine months. Perhaps we are pleased with how we spent our time, money, and effort and feel motivated to begin planning for the next season of our lives. We feel excited, hopeful, invigorated, ready for the next adventure and prepared to see what God has in store.
On the other hand, we may find ourselves reflecting on just how little we have done with God’s gifts. Perhaps we’ve taken care, but not enough. Winter is coming and we feel the overwhelming need to shore up our resources. While others may be thrilled about what comes next, we find ourselves frightened and doubtful, uncertain that our hard work has paid or will pay off. We plan anyway.
For churches, this reflective season becomes a time to focus on stewardship – it’s time to make our plan for next year – to think creatively about what we have and what we might do to continue the work of God in our communities. Not surprisingly, our collective thought processes often mirror the individual ones highlighted above. For some congregations, this season of stewardship is a joyous celebration of bounty, marked by gratitude and thanksgiving for the generosity God has shown through the acts of Christ’s followers. For other worshipping communities, however, stewardship season is a time of grief and anxiety as we take a hard look at budgetary shortfalls and the ways in which the ministries that we engaged this year (sometimes just barely) will have to be cut to match our projected financial status in the coming year. Such disparate responses make one thing clear: stewardship matters.
According to Wikipedia “Stewardship is an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources. The concepts of stewardship can be applied to the environment and nature, economics, health, property, information, theology, cultural resources etc.” So when we speak of stewardship, it’s important not to just get hung up on the monetary definition (though this is definitely an important one). Stewardship in its truest form recognizes that our resources (in whatever form they take) are not our own, but a gift from God. And Scripture teaches that the more we have been given, the more is expected from us (Lk. 12:48).
In Matthew 25:14-30, Jesus tells His disciples a story about a wealthy businessman who, before leaving on a long journey, decided to commit portions of his fortune to his servants. To one, he gave five talents of gold, to another two, and to another one. It is interesting that Jesus doesn’t distinguish between the servants. He doesn’t tell us what roles they held within the household or how hard they labored (or didn’t) on their master’s behalf. In fact, the only clear distinction between them is the amount of money that the master left in their care.
Upon his return, the master found that the first servant had doubled the value of his investment. The second servant, likewise, made a return on the rich man’s money. The third, however, took the path of extreme caution. Opting for a “low-risk investment,” he buried the gold and returned it to his master exactly what had been given. (Though, perhaps, a bit dustier than it had been initially.)
Jesus goes on to explain the master’s pleasure with both of the servants who, despite the disparity in what he had given them, gave him a good return on his investment. The third servant, however, didn’t fare quite so well. He had done as little as possible with the resources entrusted to his care and reaped the “reward” due a lazy steward.
The passage ends on a theme quite similar to that of Luke 12:48: “For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away.” (Matthew 25:29) The moral? God’s gift to us doesn’t just consist of time, money, and energy, but of His trust that we will handle those gifts well and in ways that further the work of Christ’s Kingdom. If we break God’s trust, God will offer the gifts to someone else.
While this isn’t what is happening in every struggling congregation, it is certain that it is what is happening for many of us – oft times without our even realizing it. Part of the reason for this is our tendency to conflate stinginess with stewardship. TheFreeDictionary.com defines stinginess as “the unwillingness to part with money” (though we might freely add “time” and “energy” to the mix). We hold on to what we have with an iron grip believing that in doing so, we are engaged in “the responsible planning and management of resources.” We do our best to get the most work for the lowest price (without regard to the quality of the work being done or the well-being of the workers), avoid paying too much for a professional to handle the work or maintenance we believe (often wrongly) we can do just as well ourselves, and stash as much of what God has gifted us with in the ground as we possibly can. When the Master returns, we will be able to proudly show him the one dirty talent that we buried – our storehouse against potential future disasters.
True stewardship, on the other hand, is a call to courage. It’s not about getting everything at the lowest price, through the least amount of labor, or in the shortest period of time, but about using discernment as we seek ways to earn a return on what God has entrusted to us. It’s an invitation to invest our time, money, and energy in ways that bring glory to God.
In honesty, it’s often difficult to measure these “Kingdom returns.” We may rarely (if ever) recognize the impact that the time invested in speaking words of kindness had upon the supermarket cashier or the difference that one meal made in the life of a friend. But God does. And we are called to invest with faith.
So as the air cools and the leaves begin to fall, it’s a good time to ask ourselves about our own plans for the coming year. Will we cling to God’s gifts out of stinginess, or will we invest them wisely in the work of Christ’s Church?