More Stories, Fewer Prooftexts, on Stewardship

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Published:
March 8, 2023

Estate planning dominates this week’s Adult Bible Study Guide. Except for Sunday’s focus on the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16–21), there really isn’t much scriptural engagement beyond a string of prooftexts. The story of David’s influence on the temple—built after his death—bookends the best of the week’s biblical content.

There are attempts to connect estate planning to Old Testament covenantal language, but whatever it meant several millennia ago seems significantly distant from contemporary probate realities. The Greek word diathēkē gets explained as “the will and last wish of the testator, in the sense of a one-sided relationship. In this arrangement, the heir of faith need only accept the offer.” The lesson adds, “We, who are the beneficiaries of the will (diatheke) executed with Christ’s blood (Matt. 26:28), are given the responsibility to convey to future generations the legacy of this will (Gen. 9:9, Gen. 17:9), as reflected in the patriarchal blessings (Heb. 6:13–18) and the church’s mission to preach to all nations (Matt. 28:19).” Does this just mean pass it on?

We’ve studied variations on this giving theme all quarter long. And it’s been a long quarter. Looking back, I’m not sure it’s been an effective approach. I support the church’s work, and I appreciate the need to discuss financial matters with the membership. But I found this lesson spiritually dry. The sprinkling of one or two verse references throughout sentences doesn’t help. It takes away from the aesthetic pleasure of reading. Footnotes exist for a reason.

In addition to having little deep biblical engagement, the lesson contains some striking editorializing. On Monday, this part, with the second-person address, seems very direct and a little odd:

If you don’t have an estate plan that you have created with a will or trust, the state’s or civil government’s laws can come into play (all this depends, of course, on where you live). If you die without a will, most civil jurisdictions simply pass your assets on to your relatives, whether they need them or not, whether or not they would make good use of the money, and whether or not you would have chosen to give a portion to that person. The church will get nothing. If that’s what you want, fine; if not, you need to work out plans beforehand.

That sales pitch appeal is sharped even more in Thursday's section, which encourages major giving sooner rather than later. “There are many advantages to giving now, while we live,” it states, and then lists the following:

1. The donor actually can see the results of the gift—a new church building, a young person in college, an evangelistic campaign funded, and so on.

2. The ministry or person can benefit now when the need is greatest.

3. There is no fighting among family or friends after your death.

4. It sets a good example of family values of generosity and love for others.

5. It minimizes estate tax consequence.

6. It guarantees that the gift will be made to your desired entity (no interference from courts or disgruntled relatives).

7. It demonstrates that the heart of the donor has been changed from selfish to unselfish.

8. It stores up treasures in heaven.

Some of this is fine advice, but it seems odd as a guide to Bible study. Stewardship lies at the heart of this entire quarter’s Adult Bible Study Guide. It’s an important and multifaceted theological concept that deserves more than prooftexts and estate planning tips. In 1999, Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia wrote the following in the Christian Century.

The majority of the world's resources pour into the United States. And as we Americans grow more and more wealthy, money is becoming a kind of narcotic for us. We hardly notice our own prosperity or the poverty of so many others. The great contradiction is that we have more and more money and less and less generosity—less and less public money for the needy, less charity for the neighbor.

Robert Wuthnow, sociologist of religion at Princeton University, has studied stewardship in the church and discovered that preachers do a good job of promoting stewardship. They study it, think about it, explain it well. But folks don't get it. Though many of us are well intentioned, we have invested our lives in consumerism. We have a love affair with "more"—and we will never have enough. Consumerism is not simply a marketing strategy. It has become a demonic spiritual force among us, and the theological question facing us is whether the gospel has the power to help us withstand it.

The Bible starts out with a liturgy of abundance. Genesis I is a song of praise for God's generosity. It tells how well the world is ordered. It keeps saying, "It is good, it is good, it is good, it is very good." It declares that God blesses—that is, endows with vitality—the plants and the animals and the fish and the birds and humankind. And it pictures the creator as saying, "Be fruitful and multiply." In an orgy of fruitfulness, everything in its kind is to multiply the overflowing goodness that pours from God's creator spirit. And as you know, the creation ends in Sabbath. God is so overrun with fruitfulness that God says, "I've got to take a break from all this. I've got to get out of the office."

With the role that Sabbath plays for Adventists, we should be able to marshal more spiritual inspiration than estate planning tips. Thankfully, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the South Pacific goes deeper, defining stewardship as “prayerfully and carefully managing and sharing everything that God has committed to our care—our time, talents, treasure, testimony and so much more.” They seem to be trying to lay out a holistic approach. The South Pacific Division also has some practical short videos that provide a brief thought on five key areas called “That’s Stewardship.” And in the longer video below, former stewardship ministries director for the General Conference, Erika Puni, talks about how stewardship includes care for the environment.

Our Christian friends in the Episcopal Church also have a rich understanding of stewardship. They see it “as more than simply contributing money to the church; it’s also about contributing time and talents and volunteering for ministry and mission. It’s about reaching out to build relationships from a perspective of abundance instead of scarcity.” A part of their TENS conversational series, the video below explores the important connection between storytelling and stewardship.

 


Alexander Carpenter is the executive editor of Spectrum.

Title image: Peaceable Kingdom by Edward Hicks, ca. 1830–32 (public domain).

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