Father Rice was an Ojibway priest on the reservation in northern Minnesota where I have some ties. In the 1960’s, he was in his eighties but still presided frequently at the little church in Onigum. Like most reservations, especially before the “new buffalo” (the arrival of the casinos), people lived in serious poverty. Every summer, though, many folks came up from the Twin Cities to vacation and fish and a percentage found their way to church. I remember Father Rice commenting on their success in life. They owned good houses, new cars, big boats, all the good stuff. But he would point out to them that in fact, they owned none of that. They were permitted to use those material things for a time, but God owned it, since God owns everything in creation. The only thing, he said, that is yours and not God’s is your sin. Everything else is loaned for a time. The important point is not what you own, which is nothing except sin, but rather how well you care for what God owns.
In the Fall, comfortably back in their urban and suburban parishes, they encountered Stewardship Sunday. The sermon would tell them to be generous givers to the church and remind them of the Old Testament concept of the tithe. Your material obligations to God can be fulfilled by forking over this amount to the church. The rest is yours to keep.
The two concepts are opposite. According to Father Rice’s view, God has no interest in getting a 10% cut of your worth, and then having to say thank you for it. “I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains and the creatures of the field are mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world is mine and all that is in it” (Psalm 50:9-12). This is God’s comment on the question.
The word “stewardship” has become archaic in English in terms of its original meaning. The steward was an official of an estate who oversaw its operation on behalf of the owner. According to Webster, it comes from a Saxon combination meaning “the warden of the house, or hall.” This is a translation close to the Greek word for steward, “economos,” still used in the Eastern Church to describe an administrator, from “oikos,” house, and “nomos,”rule, so the “ruler of the house.” In Spanish, the term is “majordomo,” literally the head of the house. Thus, the steward is a manager.
In the rural West, I have used the analogy of the ranch foreman, who runs the ranch on behalf of the owner. An urban analogy would be that of a branch manager, who runs a factory, office or bank branch on behalf of the corporation which owns it. “Stewardship” is the job description. To steward something means to operate it judiciously and well on behalf of its owner.
We are certainly expected to steward the church accordingly. But when did the church decide that we are not responsible for stewarding the rest of our life? To return to God only 10% of what he has given us seems an extremely poor investment outcome. In Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), stewardship means taking what we have been given and increasing its worth, not greatly diminishing it.
God has appointed humans to be stewards of the earth, the whole earth (see Genesis 1:26-28). We are to manage this branch of God’s universe, on his behalf, giving an accounting to him of our stewardship. You may question God’s wisdom in entrusting such a precious thing to our greedy and unreliable species. Nevertheless, he has. And the dominion he has given, as recorded by Genesis, is not a license to exploit, exhaust and slaughter. It is rather to be careful branch managers who administer in harmony with both the Creator and the creation. St Peter expresses it that we are to be kings and priests, which is to say, that we are to rule the earth while simultaneously offering it to God (1 Peter 2:9).
The perversion of the term “stewardship” from its Biblical meaning into a fund raising scheme of the clergy and vestry is a hijacking of the very purpose for which we are created and an abdication of our sacred obligation to carry out God’s wishes for the planet, along with its creatures, resources and our own species.
It is a relief to the current rulers of the earth that Christians have left the field to them. They are therefore able to exploit and oppress to their own enrichment and empowerment without challenge from those who are mandated to speak for God. It is totally insufficient to murmur that the politicians and plutocrats should carry out their agendas mitigated by humanitarian concerns. Real prophecy means the pronouncement that the world is to be operated in accordance with God’s will. There is no ownership, there is only the stewardship of God’s earth. This includes the economy, the environment, the climate, the care and nurturing of all God’s creatures, humans included.
We as Christians know that the earth is the Lord’s. There is no secular portion of it anywhere. We are expected to manage it accordingly, starting with whatever part of it we have been given. Think of the parable of the talents. Some are given more than others to work with. But all are expected to manage the totality of what they are given for the profit of the Master.
So for this Stewardship Sunday, take down the fence around the church. Your job is much bigger. It is to care for the earth. It would appear that job isn’t going well, so go out there and exercise your stewardship. Get that straight, and the church will do fine without having to nag you. Father Rice got it right.