… even though we ain't got scratch …
Various religious traditions, Christian and non-Christian, bestow insight into the right uses of our resources. Here’s another place where discussion can become illuminating. Curiously, much of the current awareness of money in a positive light among Christians originated among the Pentecostals – a stream of denominations that has subsequently been tainted by high-profile financial and sexual scandals, especially among its televangelists. I was rather startled the first time I heard, “She’s a member of a church where they preach it’s good to have money, that God wants to bless his believers with wealth and possessions, that there’s no reason sinners should reap the glories of Creation.” This was certainly a contrast to the gloomy, guilt-inducing view I had heard growing up.
While this is sometimes derisively dubbed the “name-it-and-claim-it” strand of theology, and has been widely criticized for a number of theological shortcomings, it has spurred a lively examination of ways faith deals in the world. In its failings, it has also revitalized an appreciation for accountability and discipleship as well. Listen to what this strand lends to the dialogue, even when its words ring strange to more mainstream ears.
For example, in his pamphlet, What Jesus Taught About Manifesting Abundance, John Avanzini draws from the fourth chapter of Mark to argue for a transformed understanding of giving and of receiving – in effect saying that the quality of what you give and receive is more important than its quantity. From there he develops concepts of seed (your resources) and harvest (“not a natural event”) in ways that acknowledge limitations of productivity while seeking maximum results. “We must understand God’s principles of increase before we can take over the wealth of this world (Proverbs 13:22),” he writes. “Warning lights go on, and we find that God’s way of abundance is not a get-rich-quick scheme. In God’s way, growth comes slowly. It comes first as a blade, then the stalk, then the harvest.” Then he adds: “Warning lights come on again as Jesus instructs us to keep our focus ever upward.” That is, to avoid worldly temptations.
One Pentecostal, telling me her belief that what she had was not her own, that these were simply resources entrusted to her care, introduced me to an outlook known as stewardship. The term arises from the Biblical occupation of steward, “one to whose care is committed the management of the household.”
The concept has been gaining popularity from a number of other approaches as well, especially among congregations reclaiming environmental responsibility as a spiritual duty. “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof” (Psalm 24:1) expresses a perception that we may be only caretakers within the vast Creation.
Addressing a right use of assets, the concept of stewardship moves individuals from autocratic ownership to divine accountability of resources entrusted to their care. Loren Gary in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin (February 1988) explains, “When ownership is absolute, the use of wealth becomes solely a matter of the owner’s discretion. Effectively shielded from any substantive criticism or responsibility that a religious perspective might provide, the absolutist conception of ownership makes it easy for us to adopt a self-congratulatory attitude toward even the slightest charitable contribution we make. But when an understanding of stewardship informed by [New Testament] principles of koinonia and autarkeia is applied to issues of ownership, works of charity … become, instead, morally mandated actions.” Our wealth is God’s blessing, after all, but with a twist; ultimately, God owns it, and lends it to our use to become a way of blessing others as well. There are to be beneficial consequences to our actions. In stewardship, “Although the legal privileges pertaining to ownership remain the same, … our acquisition and disbursement of wealth – and our use of our knowledge and skills as well – are made to conform to our religious vision.” Gary then quotes Roger Dewey, who adds to this aspect of charitable giving: “I don’t think there’s much ethical value in our giving just from our surplus. I think the biblical approach is to ask how much would the Lord have us keep.”