Tag Archives: stewardship

Curving Inward vs. Emptying Out

Biblical Texts: Mark 10:23-31 and Ecclesiastes 5:10-20
Full Draft of Sermon

The deeper theological term that this sermon circles around is kenosis. This contrast used as a summary refrain: The city of man seeks God to add to itself, The City of God seeks God to empty itself, is the kenosis statement. Every path of discipleship involves some emptying of the self. I’ve applied this here in a stewardship frame; it was budget preparation day. The first step in a robust spirituality is often a turning back to God, an emptying from ourselves, of a determined percentage of income. (The traditional response is the tithe, but the important point is putting kingdom values first.) The American church from what I’ve experienced has a problem right here. It is just not willing to turn over finances in a serious way to God. The reasons are legion and many are legitimate. But those reasons pale in comparison to the distrust that is built by not surrendering a portion to God.

But I think this applies in a much larger way to today. There is a much reported phenomenon of spiritual but not religious or the new “nones” in reply to religious beliefs. And I’ve got a big problem with most of that. And yes my current livelihood depends upon the religious aspect, so I am a partisan. But the call of Jesus is to turn our gaze away from our navels (stop being curved in on ourselves) and in this age to turn toward the cross which is the ultimate emptying of self. And Jesus’ vision in not a personal spirituality, or at least not exclusively. I can’t be like the rich young ruler looking to add spirituality to everything I’ve already got. Jesus’ vision is incarnational. The church is that incarnation. The church is the place where a true spirituality is created. The church is that 100 fold return of brothers and sisters…and persecutions. If it is not, it isn’t fulfilling its purpose.

The Household Gods


Bible Text: Mark 10:17-22
Full Draft of Sermon

One of theses days I’m going to write a novel with that title. It’s an allusion to Gen 31:19,32 and as with so much else from that Ur-Book, its a powerful story that we play out again and again like a musical fugue.

The Gospel text for this day is one of those repeats and an appropriate horror story as we get to Halloween. The contrasting character to Jesus is a man who knows he’s trapped by his household gods but can’t leave them. The task of discipleship is to learn to leave them behind. This man’s question is every man’s question or should be. That novel, amongst the characters, the protagonist is the one who in the eyes of the other characters has failed miserably but who is actually the only one who is free.

The big struggle this week was the question have I let the gospel predominate. I went back and forth in my pondering about that call to deep discipleship and how it might be taken. It could be a law proclamation of the second kind. All one might hear is the refrain to give up the idols and the application to do more and feel convicted. We know the responses when told to do something we really don’t want to do before we are ready to break the fugue. It could also be a law proclamation of the third kind. What must I do? Look at the commandments. That is how God intended us to live. Actually putting requirements back on people seems like a reversal of the gospel. If you are proclaiming the captives free, how then can you put the chains back on?

But Jesus didn’t seem to have any such qualms about being explicit. And that gets to a core recognition of the gospel. We can talk about the gospel in those freedom metaphors, but the call to “follow me” is every bit as much the call of the gospel. We can get deep in the Lutheran weeds and get all worried about passive righteousness. We can piously mumble true words about “I cannot by my own reason of strength follow Jesus”. But in the midst of the Christian life there are moments where it certainly feels like a choice. Like the one Jesus put to the rich man. The choice is really do we hear the gospel and walk in the way Jesus has laid out for us, or do we go our own way. So what I hoped the sermon opened up was not a list of preacher saying you must do x – which would all be great things for the preacher – but a space for the hearer to ask that question – “what must I do?” – and hear Jesus’ answer. These are your household gods and need to be left behind. Whatever they might be.

NPR, IRS, Mormons, Tithing & God…is there a hot point missing

Here is the link to the actual story and the radio version.

This was a great news clip. One thing that kept running through my head was that the Mormon faith in the USA is roughly 3.2 Million people. For comparison the LCMS is roughly 2.5M, Methodist 11M, Baptist 36M, Roman Catholic 57M. How does a group of people who are roughly the same size as the LCMS have such a strong influence on the culture such that two representatives were running for President and their charity is widely known even in the relatively naked public square of NPR?

From the conclusion of the piece…

They would pay a full tithe on the profit when they sold a stock. Yet, if they dumped a stock for a loss, they wouldn’t use the loss to offset and lower the income they tithed on. Unlike taxpayers, the Mormons in the study weren’t big fans of taking deductions so they could send less money to the church.

“They’re worried about being petty with God,” Dahl says.

I asked a Mormon bishop in Salt Lake City if a few more rules defining income might make tithing easier on Mormons or bring in more money for the church. He said all this soul-searching about what you owe God is kind of the point

One of the old christian faith’s practices of lent was almsgiving. That was a practice beyond the tithe. It was direct charity to the less fortunate usually. Ultimately is was a practice that spoke to a recognition of the 10,000 talents. (Matt 18:24) There are plenty of people who would look at the mormon tithe and the question of being petty with God and scream legalism or works righteousness as if they were attempting to buy salvation. Instead it might not be a bad question for lent. In light of the cross, how are we being petty with God? Maybe the LDS are a mirror to our Christian practice. What we give to God doesn’t buy us salvation, but it is a first look at how we value that grace. It is cheap, or costly?

Let’s try and tie some things together…

I had this old game – Fortress America. Think Red Dawn but a lot geekier and without wolverines. Everybody (but Canada, which had declared itself Switzerland) was attacking the United States. The United States defended its turf and expelled the invaders. Think about that for a second. What kind of fears are displayed in a scenario game where the United States in the 1980’s is getting invaded? If you look at the picture of the box nearby it has the unmistakable picture of Saddam Hussein on it. The geek kids of the 80’s played a game that encouraged speculation than Saddam was invading the US.

I want to point at a post by Richard Beck at Experimental Theology. From my reading – and you can ask my wife how we drown in books – what Dr. Beck ponders and scribbles is a treasure to the Christian church. I’d say it should be part of your everyday reading except that it might burn a little too bright. The post that I’m linking to is part of a series mulling over Heb 2:14-15 which includes the phrase, “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death”. In that phrase and what Dr. Beck is poking is the center of some of the things we’ve been looking at around here.

The Lutheran way of talking about just what Jesus has done and is doing for us is to talk about that unholy Trinity of Sin, Death and the Power of the Devil. We often reduce the gospel to just the dimension of sin, but the gospel is larger than that. If we stop at a therapeutic gospel of feeling good by being forgiven we can still find ourselves outside the kingdom. Our lives can still be lived in slavery to the fear of death.

What that looks like is the inward spiral of control that we looked at in Ann Voskamp’s work, One Thousand Gifts. Something bad happens, we experience loss, and we don’t trust God. Our entire life becomes a Fortress America retreat exercise in establishing a perimeter of control and asserting ourselves at that wall. When that wall is over-run, we retreat further and further establishing areas of control. And we do this not realizing how we are living our whole lives in slavery to that fear and how stunted and small our world becomes. When we seek to save our own life out of fear of loss and death, we lose it.

Christ has come to bring life and bring it abundantly. And here is where this intersects with our stewardship thoughts. We have said in that series that the goal of stewardship isn’t really to fund the church or anything like that although that is a side product. The goal of stewardship is that you recognize and trust God’s providence. It’s our money we say. We as a country are not as rich as we thought and we seem to be playing a never ending game of musical chairs over who is going to take that psychic (and real) loss. We are asserting control. We are retreating. We are running in fear. All fights over “my money”. Stewardship and the tithe that we talked about is a place where God starts punching holes in those chains of slavery to the fear ultimately of death. If we are able to give the firstfruits, from the first dollar, we are starting an outward spiral of grace. God – I’m not retreating anymore. That doesn’t work. I haven’t been able to protect any of my fortresses anyway. You handle it. Does giving that 10% mean you’ll be safe? Absolutely not. In fact it will weaken your ability to guard your turf. Everyone else is using 100% of “their money” and now you are using only 90%. But it places you in Beck’s “fellowship of need”. The goal of stewardship is that you recognize and trust God’s providence. In being gracious, we recognize our need of grace. In stopping claiming “my money”, we are freed from our slavery to fear of loss. We are saying back to the power of
the Devil – do what you will. Though it all be gone, you still have nothing won. The Kingdom’s ours forever.

The slave does not remain in the house forever, the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:35-36) And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” 33 And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! (Mark 3:32-34)

Stewardship 6: A Cheerful Giver.

Here are the links to the prior posts in this series.
post #1.
post #2.
post #3.
post #4.
Post #5

Last time we looked at the OT background of the tithe – both where it has gospel roots and where it is a command of the law. What the OT stories confirm is that while the law doesn’t save, it does reflect the will of God for his people.

This time I want to jump right into the New Testament in 2 Corinthians 8-9. The Corinthian congregation is an interesting parallel to today’s world. Corinth was a wealthy Roman colonial trading port city. It lay on key sea-ways as well and key over-land routes. The aristocracy of the city was based on wealth and not land. In the Corinthian letters Paul scolds them for their separation even during the Lord’s Supper into social stratum layers based on wealth (1 Cor 11:17ff). The old city of Corinth which the Roman’s had destroyed was such a cesspit of vice that the noun Corinth became a verb meaning to fornicate. A “Corinthian girl” was a euphemism for a prostitute. This adventurousness also extended to the religious realm where every type of mystery cult and philosophy could be found. It is in the Corinthian letters that Paul addresses meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8) and the warning not to marry unbelievers (2 Cor 6:14-18).

In 2 Cor 8:1-15 we have what might be the capital campaign. The gentile church was taking up a collection for the church in Jerusalem. Paul praises the Corinthians for their initiative in starting a collection, but the initial push has stalled. Paul is sending Titus and encouraging the collection to be finished. And here we have the two step. Paul does not want the offering to be a law, but wants it to spring from the gospel.

The core of Paul’s advice is in 2 Cor 9:6-11.

The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. 9 As it is written, “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.” 10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11 You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.

Here Paul states clearly what we have been following in this series with two added thoughts. The repeated themes: 1) He who supplies seed to the sower…will supply and multiply. The goal of stewardship is to recognize and trust God’s providence. 2) Doing so is a matter of faithfulness – you may abound in every good work. 3) Firstfruits are important – decide what you are giving in your heart first. The two new parts are the relation of sowing to reaping and the joy in cheerfulness. Cross reference for a second Luke 6:38. I want to be clear here. Jesus and Paul are not preaching a prosperity gospel. This is not a proclamation that giving to the church reaps material blessings. But, a part of the Christian life is being generous, is being a person given to grace. We have received grace, we should be willing to live that grace. If you want a gracious, graceful and full of grace church and community, a good place to start is your monetary support of it. The second point Paul adds is being cheerful about it. And that is not something you can really fake. God loves a person who can support the mission of God happily and not out of compulsion.

Practically I think we can look at this a couple of ways. First, if you are always hesitating in your offering and worrying about not having enough, you are not giving cheerfully. Reduce the amount until you are cheerful about it. But if you find that your spiritual life and church are somewhat empty don’t be surprised. You reap what you sow. In money matters challenge God. Not to give you the Mercedes Benz, but to give you a cheerful heart. You will be surprised at the response. God is not outdone here.

A second way to think about this is the sanctification walk. First pursue faithfulness. Faithfulness defined by the law is the tithe. We are not under the law, but the law is a good starting point. (Should the graceful response be less than the compelled response?) If that seems too steep at first, ok. Decide in your heart and challenge God in this area. Make a firstfruit offering and ask God to help your cheerfulness grow in this area. The life of a Christian is not under the law, nor is it instantaneous. Taste the truth here. God wants us to know and trust his providence. Will a time of testing come in these matters? Yep, probably. There will be times when you are giving a lot and never seem to be reaping anything. But most of the American church is far from that point. We are baby Christians in these matters. Babies don’t get tested like that. And there is no testing given us that we cannot withstand.

I’m out of space here. I’ll come back to this next week and do some wrap-up and clean up.

Stewardship 5: The Tithe – where it comes from and what it means

This is a link to post #1 in this series.
This is a link to post #2 in this series.
This is a link to post #3 in this series.
This is a link to post #4 in this series.

In our prior posts we talked about three things:
1) Stewardship or how we use our possessions is part of the sanctified life. Christians strive to be faithful in their walk with God.
2) A key part of faithfulness in stewardship is the concept of “firstfruits”. The offering to God comes from the first part, not the remainder.
3) The final goal of stewardship is for Christians to recognize and trust God’s providence.

Now in this post I promised to look at some brass tacks. One of the toughest words to mention in many churches is tithe. What is a tithe and why is it so contentious? Simply put, a tithe is a tenth or 10% of the income or increase in any given period. As we will see, in its original usages, the time period was usually a harvest season. Probably your grandfathers, could still relate to that. I remember my grandfather’s stories of bringing in the tithe at harvest season. For him that meant dropping a large check into the plate once a year after he had delivered the crop to the mill. He would joke about 90% of his rural church’s offerings coming in on three Sundays. By the end of his farming career with the advent of futures much of that had changed. More so with regular salaried work, but I do wonder given the increase in freelancing and other forms of self-employment if the next generations will look more periodic in income.

But none of that explains the source or purpose of a tithe. The Ur-stories or deep bedrock stories of the tithe come from Genesis. Abraham in Gen 14:20 is reported to have given a tenth of the spoils of war to Melchizedek – the priest of God Most High from Salem (Ur-Jerusalem). It is interesting the writer of the book of Hebrews in the new testament also mentions and interprets this story in Heb 7:1-10 where Melchizedek is a picture of Christ. So, the first recorded tithe is from Abraham – the father of all the faithful – to an obvious Christ figure. It was given as a recognition of victory and who the victory came from. The second Ur-story of the tithe is Gen 28:22. Jacob, on the run from Esau after tricking his Father, sees his vision of the ladder. But the real import is not that image but the promise and the response. God promises Jacob the same thing he had promised the other patriarchs – descendants, land, and blessing. When Jacob awakes he is a new person in regards to God. A boy who had grown up in the tents of the Patriarchs declares – “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it”. Jacob has received the promise and now believes it. The first thing Jacob does in the morning is build an altar and make a vow to return a tenth a tithe. The response of faith is worship and faithful stewardship. A tithe or 10% becomes a symbol of that faithfulness.

Now that isn’t the only place a tenth or a tithe appears. In Leviticus 27:30-34, as part of the Sinai covenant, God claims a tithe or a tenth of the grain and the tenth of the herd. Since everyone was a farmer or a herdsman that is a tenth of all produce. This tithe was given to the Levites – the priest clan. Levi did not receive an allotment of land when Israel entered, but instead lived dispersed as the local priests. (This is found in Numbers 18:20-32). The Levites themselves were not spared the tithe. They gave 10% to the Aaronic (what would become the Temple) priesthood. Also look at Deut 14:22-29 where some regulations regarding the tithe are put in place. At the initial gift all Israel shares a festival meal. The remains (i.e. the majority) is for the Levites. But, every third year, from that tenth the Levites were to care for the aliens, the fatherless and the widows. Unlike the tithes of Abraham and Jacob, these tithes were part of the Law of Sinai.

None of that mentions the offerings commanded as part of the sacrificial system. Those are listed in the first 5 chapters of Leviticus: Burnt offerings, grain offerings, fellowship offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings. Those were in addition to the Levitical tithe and were given directly to the temple. They were also largely consumed in the altar fire, although parts would be saved for the temple priests.

So, that is an OT overview of tithes. When stewardship is being talked about, churches talk about tithes because it is deeply grounded in the Old Testament. We take the law as the way that God intended things to be. We cannot fulfill the law, but it is still good and wise. The law demands a tenth of the income for God. Read Malachi 3:1-12 to get a glimpse, even at a late prophetic date, what God felt about those tithes. Not bringing them in was stealing from God. So the tithe was a part of the law, but it was also a part of the gospel. Abraham was not commanded to give 10%, nor was Jacob. Both freely brought 10% as a response to the grace of God.

There are a bunch of smaller questions regarding the tithe that often get asked. A popular one: Is it on the gross or the net? That makes sense in a modern salary world. And you can read about God warning about a second tenth being taken by the government in 1 Samuel 8:15-17, but that Kings’ tithe doesn’t remove the responsibility for God’s tithe. The OT tithe is clearly talking about the full harvest or the gross. 10% would be given to God, some would be taken in taxes, some would need to be set aside as seed for the following year and the rest consumed.

I’ve gone exceedingly long here, so I will continue next time with a new testament view. Review Acts 5 and the story of Ananias and Sapphira, take a quick look at Matt 23:23, but focus on 2 Cor 8-9, with the core passage being 2 Cor 9:6-11.

Stewardship 4: The goal of stewardship

This is a link to post #1 in this series.
This is a link to post #2 in this series.
This is a link to post #3 in this series.

In the last post we looked at the question what does faithfulness in stewardship look like through the story of Cain and Abel. We came to the conclusion that “firstfruits” were a big part of faithfulness. What firstfruits represent is faith in God to be a God of abundance to his people. It also represents the understanding of the final source and purpose of all good gifts.

One quick geeky sidebar about that last sentence. Aristotle’s causes: material, formal, efficient, and final, can be helpful here. While the efficient cause of our having good stuff might be our labor and work, the final cause is the aim or purpose. We have good stuff so that we might recognize God’s providence. We can ignore that and turn inward and use it all for ourselves. We can claim other final causes: have fun, die with the most toys, measure who is the “better man”. But God’s purpose is to build a people, to build the Kingdom of Heaven. What we have been given not only sustains us, but directs us toward faith. Our stewardship lets us be part of the final cause. God has invited us to work with him in building the Kingdom.

Now I want to turn to Jesus’ example of how God looks at this. You can read either Mark 12:41-44 or Luke 21:1-4. These are parallel stories of the Widow’s mite. The simple summary is that all kinds of rich people were giving all kinds of money to the temple and they would probably be doing so ostentatiously. The widow quietly comes up and puts in a penny. Jesus calls out the widow as having given more. Why? That is not true on just a counting basis. But God was never after raw numbers. For all we know Cain could have been a much better farmer and his altar full of stuff. God wants faithfulness. The final cause of stuff is to produce recognition of God’s providence. He wants us to trust his providence. The widow, in giving all she had, demonstrated her complete and total reliance upon God’s providence.

One of the first crises in the church was over exactly this recognition. Read Acts 4:32 – 5:11. All the believers in that first congregation shared everything. Before you lose it about not being communist, let me say that I agree with you. This is not practical and it didn’t stay practical for long in Acts either. The church at that time consisted of: the Apostles, those who had witnessed the resurrection, and the Pentecost converts. If you had a church of pure saints – that would work. We have a church of sinner/saints. A lesson that they will learn. Even that church didn’t make that work. But God still supports the underlying theology.

The Acts 4 church shared everything. They were like the widow in expecting God to provide. Then comes a man named Ananias and his wife Sapphira. They didn’t share that trust to the same extent. But they felt that they had to fake it. So, like Cain who was giving out of a sense of duty and not faithfulness – they gave a certain amount pretending to be everything, but withheld a part for themselves. Peter’s words to Ananias and Sapphira clarify – “Didn’t the land belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?…You have not lied to men by to God.” The problem wasn’t the size of the offering, but the manner in which it was given. Ananias didn’t feel comfortable with 100%. And that would have been ok. Complete trust in God’s providence is a final cause. It is where we are heading. We’ll only see glimpses here. The final purpose of stuff is to learn to trust God’s providence. We are all at different points. The larger point from Ananias and Sapphira is to be open and honest with God.

Stewardship is part of the Kingdom, it is part of the gospel. The law brings death. It brought death to Abel through Cain. It brought death to Ananias and Sapphira. The gospel brings life. Stewardship is not finally a duty but an invitation to experience abundant life.

In the next post I’m going to look strictly at pragmatics. From this post you should recognize that setting specific numbers on these things is pointless. The idea of faithfulness and where each person is at in their walk differs greatly. But the law is still useful as a rule (3rd use). It is the way God intended things to work. So we will be looking at OT “tithes and offerings” and trying to see what they tell us about things like gross/net, percents and where does it go. If you have a concordance, just look up the word tithe and the word offering and scan the verses listed.

Stewardship 3: What does faithfulness look like in Stewardship?

This is a link to post #1 in this series.
This is a link to post #2 in this series

Short Recap. Stewardship is part of the sanctified life or part of living the gospel. It would be easy to make a law of it, but we break the law. That is what the law does. It shows us where we fall short. But, the law remains a good guide of how God intends for us to live. Instead, by looking at the parables of the talents and mina, what God desires of the sanctified life is faithfulness. God has given every baptized Christian the Holy Spirit indwelling. God has given a mix of gifts to every church. What He is looking for is faithful use of those gifts. The return is not really what matters. God will bless that. The amount of original gifting is not what matters. That varies and is from God. What matters is the use. The faithful Christian does not bury the talent or wrap the mina in a cloth, but he/she uses them or you can even say puts them at risk.

Now the question is what does a faithful use look like? What I want to start with is the Ur-Story of Cain and Able in Genesis 4:1-16. Take a minute to look read the story.

In Gen 4:3 how is Cain’s offering described? “In the course of time, Cain brought to the Lord an offering from the fruit of the ground.” Now I’m going to get a little geeky here. The “in the course of time” translation is fine, but the Hebrew Idiom is literally more interesting – “it took place at the end of the days”. In other words, Cain finished everything first, and as an afterthought said, ‘maybe I should offer something to God.’ Compare that description to Abel in Gen 4:4. You can read the pretty translation at the link, I’m going to skip to the geeky one – “Abel himself moreover brought in from the female firstborn of the flock and from the fat ones”. Catch the difference? 1) Abel himself, the implied contrast is that it wasn’t Cain himself that brought the offering. 2) Abel brought in the firstborn of the flock. (I’m not going to read anything into the ‘female’ portion of that. If you want to push it you could say that offering a female was more valuable in that the female would produce milk and more sheep.) 3) Not just the firstborn but also the fat ones. The sheep that had been well fed and taken care of.

So, where Cain’s stewardship was an afterthought given without a real measure of thanks from the remains of the day, Abel’s was the first part in every way. Abel acknowledged in his offering where everything came from. Cain was checking off a box. Abel was living the gospel. Cain was living the law.

God favors Abel’s offering, but Cain’s he pays no attention to. Cain gets angry at this. [Enter grumbly voice] Stupid God, doesn’t like everything I’ve done for him. I’ll show God. [Voice off] God even warns him the sin is at his door. He needs to get control of it. But we know the rest of the story.

But for our stewardship study the message is plain. If you are treating stewardship as a law. If you are coming in at the end of the week or month out of cash and offering $5 in the hopes that God will superstitiously bless you, you are treading the path of Cain. You would be better off not putting that in the plate. Instead the gospel stewardship is a recognition of where all good gifts come from, and the deeper recognition that sacrificing the first and the fat is not a “dead weight loss”. That God is a God of abundance and living the gospel is having faith in Him to provide for all our needs.

There are all kinds of questions and buts and ifs and legal codicils that could be raised. If you want to the comments are open. But I’m out of space for today. For the next part please read Mark 12:41-44 or Luke 21:1-4. We’ll talk about some of those buts, and then transition into some very practical matters.

Stewardship 2: The Importance and Return to Faithfulness

This is a link to post #1 in this series.

The texts we will discuss below: Matt 25:14-30 and Luke 19:12-27

I wanted to look at the parables of the talents in regards to stewardship first, and I put them both on, because I think they help each other.

The Matthew form is probably the most familiar. A man goes on a journey and gives his servants a large amount of money to watch until he returns. One he gives 5 talents, one he gives 3 talents and one he gives 1 talent. The first two double their amounts and are welcomed. The one with 1 talent goes and buries it afraid of losing it. He is “cast into the outer darkness” when the man returns. The stinging question is why were you so dumb to bury it? At least give it to the bankers to collect interest.

The Luke form has 10 servants instead of three. Each servant is given the same amount – 1 mina. 1 mina is a much smaller amount than a talent. 1 talent contained 60 minas. 1 mina was roughly 100 drachmas or 100 days wages. So the poorest servant for Matthew gets 6000 days wages or about 16 years. The second difference is the context of the parables. In Matthew the talents is in the middle of the “End Times” discourse. Jesus is answering the disciples’ questions about what the end times will be like and when they will be. In Luke the parable is right at the end of the travel narrative before Palm Sunday and after a Rich ruler fails to enter the kingdom but a blind man and Zacchaeus are welcomed. Obviously the purpose of the story is different in each gospel, it illustrates something different about the Kingdom of God and the amount of money means something different.

In one parable the servants are treated vastly differently but still opulently. In the other they are more modestly treated, but all treated the same. In what way are all Christians treated the same? The simple answer is that in baptism all Christians are given the Holy Spirit. Paul refers to the Holy Spirit as a deposit or a down payment or guarantee until the return of Jesus. (1Tim 6:20, 2Tim 1:14, 2Cor 1:22, 2Cor 5:5). Is it a stretch to see the individual indwelling of the Spirit at the equal deposit given to all the servants?
If we take the individual mina in that sense, then the rest outfolds this way. They all perform differently in the Lukan parable – One returns ten, the next 5. One comes back and has done nothing with the mina. That one is thrown out. Individual Christians from baptism through the sanctified life all live more or less faithful lives. And that is what the king says in Luke – “you have been faithful in little, you will be put in charge of much”. The only unfruitful or unacceptable course is to guard the deposit passively. Essentially say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church…” and then live as if you don’t.

In the Matthew version of the parable it is not the individual deposit of the Spirit in question, but the vastly more variable outpouring of gifts. Just looking at the church through the ages – why do some churches get apostles, prophets, miracles and strong teachers while others get thieves and abusers? We do not know. It hasn’t been revealed. What has been revealed is that this variance is how God says he’ll act until the end times. One gets 5 talents and another 1 talent. Either way the capital stake is enough to do at least caretaking business. (Put it on deposit with the bankers or maintain the capital). In this form the only unacceptable outcome is to whittle away the deposit of faith.

So, the lesson out of both is faithfulness. All the endeavors are risky. Any business is risky. Many lose money. In both of these parables those risking the deposit are all rewarded handsomely. 5 talents, a staggering some, a lifetime’s earnings, double! 1 mina becomes 10! God’s word does not return empty. If an individual or a church is faithful in their walk, God prospers it. [I should make a side note that this is not an endorsement of what we think prosperity always is. This is not a material prosperity gospel message. We might be humanly disappointed in God’s idea of prospering when he sends a church a raft of homeless to take care of instead of that bright shiny intact family.] If his people are faithful with what has been entrusted, large or small, corporate grouping or individual, God will prosper and reward the work.

So what does this mean for stewardship? The most pressing question to answer to me is: what does it mean to be faithful in stewardship? All Christians have been given the Spirit, but they have been given a great variance of material means and spiritual means. What does it mean to be faithful in our use of that variance? That will be the topic of post 3 in this series. The foundational text will be the story of Cain and Able in Genesis 4.

Stewardship 1: The messy side of the gospel

One of the planks of our vision statement says that we grow and engage the faith. The church has many euphemisms. It also has many fine words. Too often what I have found is that fine words also have euphemistic meanings. And the church has worked to promote the euphemism because it is easier than the hard work of teaching the good word. It is easier until it isn’t. And when it isn’t, things have stopped working. We are teaching the good words and wrestling with them.

One of those fine words with a euphemism is stewardship. The euphemism that we all know is: 1. It is budget time and the pastor’s salary is at risk. 2. A pet project needs some money. 3. We will talk about time, talent and treasure, but what we really want is your treasure.

The good word is much more complex. Something like: the proper use of what is not actually yours.

Good stewardship is a theologically deep and complex problem because it lies on the messy side of the gospel. Lutherans like to talk about law and gospel or one big theological word – justification. The entire reformation split was over justification – how God makes us right with himself. The reformers answer was pure grace. The law shows us our sin and the gospel pronounces the grace of God over that sin. So, there is a sense that we can say that we are saints. We are baptized, and in baptism God has connected us to His son Jesus Christ. We are justified, declared righteous, in Jesus Christ through baptism. End of story, right?

Well, it would be if at baptism God also decided to rapture you. But then there would be no one left to baptize the next person. No, we live in tension that we are now saints, but not yet fully realized. Christ has already won the victory over sin, death and Satan, but we still struggle. One little word can kill them, yet they seem so strong. Welcome to the messy side of the gospel.

The big theological term for this is sanctification. When Luther would write in the small catechism his explanation to the 3rd article of the creed, “…the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith…” he was compressing the Christian life. All too often the churches of the reformation fight the last battle. Constantly on the lookout for anyone who might be teaching works righteousness we miss that fact that if surveys are to be trusted – nobody is worried about God being judgmental and having to appease him or thinking they can. In other words they’ve accepted the gospel, but it is not the costly gospel of Jesus Christ but a cheap gospel substitute. We get scared away by the messiness of sanctification and retreat back to the bright line justification. In the words of the writer of Hebrews – we stay with the milk. (Heb 5:11- 6:3)

Stewardship is squarely on that messy side. We confess the creed. We believe our justification. How then do we live? Stewardship is really a word that describes how we use money (and other good things from God) in a sanctified way. Our entire lives are a form of stewardship.

I promise to get more concrete as we move into this series, but before that I’d ask you to read two biblical stories: either Matt 25:14-30 or Luke 19:12-27 and the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4.