This week I am going to write about the marks of stewards and stewardship, not in terms of tangible objects or possessions but in terms of the more important tasks, about which the possessions are only lesson books. There are many extraordinary examples of God’s stewards in the Bible. They have included those who are old, young, female, male, Hebrew, Canaanite, Roman, rulers, servants, and commonplace hosts. Because the authors of these Sabbath School studies chose to focus on the ones who left Mesopotamia, I have chosen to use their example to discuss here.
I have been hearing stewardship sermons since I was old enough to be given the word-count list children use during church to keep themselves occupied. I remember the general gist being that we should hand our pennies and our extra houses to the church to help with various and sundry projects. By that definition, the mark of a steward was simple: choose to hand over the above-mentioned items. No pennies or houses: no steward. Movies and books gave me another definition. A steward is the person who makes sure the silver stays where it is supposed to and keeps unwanted guests out of the wine cellar. That always sounded like a dignified bouncer. I never thought to look up the actual definition until I was researching this commentary. Merriam-Webster says a steward is one employed in a large household or estate to manage domestic concerns (such as the supervision of servants, collection of rents, and keeping of accounts).
Since this study addresses religious, theological, and spiritual concerns, the possible definition of a large household or estate gave me pause. If I choose to be a steward for the Lord of the universe, how much of a microscopic and intergalactic responsibility do I have? If Einstein’s unified field theory or chaos theory is accurate, everything we do has unexpected consequences. When I think in terms of the Great Controversy, my choices affect those around me and those I cannot access with the Hubble. If I think in terms of Hebrew linguistics, the tangible represents the spiritual. These are the lenses through which I look at the texts and teachings.
Paul wrote, “You ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:1,2).
The Greek word mysterion means secrets or deep truths. My concordance says mysterion often refers to parts of the Old Testament that may have been misunderstood but that are revealed by Christ’s teachings. That said, for this study I am going to focus on the aspect of mysterion that means deep truths.
There are several things the concept of “deep truths” might include. Here are some of the precepts that came to my mind. In Eden, we were given dominion and the power attendant with it. As stewards of the God of grace to a new planet, we were to tend and nurture, not exploit or ravage. Similarly, all relationships, horizontal and vertical, were given to us to nurture in our sphere, as God cares for us in His. The Sabbath was placed, as a reminder in time, to help our focus be concerned with and responsible to the vulnerable: human, mammalian, ecological (see Exodus 20: 4-8). It has been said that the science of salvation will be our study throughout eternity—definitely a deep truth. Using the tangible as teacher, the Hebrew sanctuary and its services were a representation of the process of salvation. Throughout the Bible, we see stewards whose actions and interactions with others were examples of and encouragement to hope. I think “deep truth” also includes the complexities of grace and the ability to perceive, even in the Old Testament writings, tangible stories of God’s grace. Following this line of thinking, we who are stewards are called to care for and nurture that over which we have been given dominion, the people who have come to be part of our lives, the vulnerable, and the truths of salvation, grace, and hope.
Paul used the word pistos to describe qualities that a steward of the deep truths must possess. Pistos (faithful) is defined as someone who is trustworthy, reliable, and believing. In Eden, at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Eve chose to disbelieve, by thought and action, in the true character of God. She gave up the qualities of pistos needed for her job as steward of the earth. Adam, when he chose to disbelieve in God’s character of love and that God would work out a loving situation after Eve’s fall, also gave up the needed qualities to be God’s steward. When we choose to be stewards for God, our belief in and actions based on God’s character of love are part of proving Satan was wrong at Eden and wrong now. Every time we use our power to protect and defend, every time we use our resources to nurture, every time we use our influence to heal, we are showing what it is like to be part of heaven and stewards of God on earth. We are then part of the management of His domestic concerns.
As stewards, we are assigned various responsibilities based on the gifts and talents God has given us. We have the choice to accept that assignment or not. Are we reliable? Can we be trusted to move forward when God shows us a path or action? Will we find excuses not to go? Will we give it a try with our 1-10 talents or will we bury them in the sand? Are we willing to take the risk of making mistakes as part of the learning process? Do we trust God to be a loving teacher of our life and task? The problem with the one-talent servant in Matthew 25 is that he chose to disbelieve the accurate description of the character of God. In belief, he made the same mistake as Eve. In action, he was not willing to risk a mistake. Based on lying rumors about the character of his employer, the servant/steward chose to bury his assigned resources in the sand. Despite the trust placed by the lord, the person with one talent did not have the mark of a heaven-focused steward.
The stories of the talents, barns, Achan, and Jonah are all about one issue. The tangible only teaches the deeper truths of divine character, dominion, and relationship. The first three of these examples were about stewardship of objects designed to be committed to others or to God. Jesus said: Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So, if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches (Luke 16:10,11)?
Jonah was given stewardship of humans. He was to represent the love of God to a powerful but spiritually dying people. Yet, as a steward with the job of prophet, he was more concerned about his Hebrew patriotism than about the grace of God. We face issues like this today. We are in contact with people who are considered our natural enemies. We have calls to familial or cultural loyalty. We have calls to patriotism. What would we do if God made us stewards of both the short-term history and the eternity of the Assyrians?
This lesson on stewardship has given me a much more complex picture of Abraham and Sarah. When I saw their description in Hebrews 11: 8-12 and Romans 4:18-21, my skeptical brain went immediately to the historical disaster that was their instigation of the birth of Ishmael. I cannot even imagine the numbers of people who have been at war because of that mistake. My first reaction was that their choice made them a most suspect example of heavenly stewards. Over the days I have been studying, I’ve been humbled, shown a view of heavenly grace, and given hope for the rest of us.
Making the choice to leave a comfortable home in a walled city with urban conveniences to take a rather large group of people to an unknown land for a less-known future was clearly an enormous example of faith and trust. Abraham and Sarah’s actions made them stewards of an active faith in the living God who leads our lives. They were stewards of hope and faith to hundreds of people in their household, not to mention the people they left behind in Ur, and those they met in Canaan. Their actions showed their acceptance of a stewardship of faith that grasped promises of a future they could not see. Abraham was a steward of care and grace when he went to war in the rescue of Lot. Lot had been selfish and greedy. He was rescued, at peril, anyway. In this act, Abraham was steward of the lesson given to us when Jesus left heavenly comfort to place Himself in peril to rescue our human race that is often and disastrously self-focused.
Clearly, in the deception of Pharaoh and in the birth of Ishmael, Abraham and Sarah did not act in faith. It occurred to me this week that Isaac was born, not because Abraham was always steadfast in his journey but because God is steadfast in His promises. Isaac was born, not because Abraham was the perfect steward but because he chose to attach himself to the “estate” of the Lord of grace. I wonder now if Isaac was born, not because of Abraham’s consistency but in spite of its lack. I also wonder if God’s continued active trust in Abraham, His remarkable grace instead of punishment, was the gift that led Abraham and Sarah to be remarkable stewards of their child. Today, Abraham and Sarah are, for me, the story of the servant/steward with ten talents. They did not bury their opportunities in the sand but, even as flawed human beings, moved forward, letting God teach. Every single one of us has made mistakes, some of them at great cost to others. What makes the difference in our life as stewards is that we allow the grace of God to continue to heal us and guide us and teach us. I appreciate and continue to stretch to understand this mark of a steward.
Finally, John writes his clear description of the mark of a steward, that deepest of all truths. “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). “God is love. Those who live in love live in God and God in them” (1 John 4:16). “This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out His commands” (1 John 5:2). This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. We ought to lay down our lives for one another (1 John 3:16). Laying down our lives doesn’t always mean dying; it means putting aside selfishness that is natural since Eden’s catastrophe and living by another mandate: “Love is patient, love is kind, love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 15: 4-7). Love is the foundation and most important mark of a steward of God.
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