Good Stewardship and the Imitation of God
Dr. Peter W. Dunn,
February 5, 2006, FATEB
In John’s Gospel Jesus says that he has seen him has seen the Father (John 14.9). Thus, we can say that one aspect of the mission of Jesus is to reveal the nature of the Father to us. In Matthew’s Gospel, he says (Matt 11.27) that no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Thus, one very clear aspect of the Parables of the Kingdom is that Jesus is trying to reveal to Jewish people of his time what God is really like. And there was then as there are today many misimpressions about God’s character. In looking at the parables of the Kingdom, I would like to focus on the issue of God’s generosity, to complete a two part series on giving. In the first sermon, which I gave Friday, January 27, I spoke about how we as evangelical Christians often view giving in terms of the law of tithing instead of as a charismatic gift of the Spirit. I would like to continue this teaching of giving because I believe that when God pours out his Spirit into our hearts and our hearts overflow in generosity to others, we are actually becoming imitators of God. Jesus does tell us that we must be perfect, even as our heavenly Father is perfect. And Paul calls us to be imitators of God (Eph 5.1). So I would like to study God’s generosity so as to be a better imitator of that generosity.
I find that the Book of Proverbs has many good things to say about good stewardship. Work hard (Pro. 6.4f.), save, spend money wisely, be faithful to your spouse, don’t steal, do not participate in corruption (Pro. 10.2). But interestingly enough, nothing is said about being cheap or frugal. Rather, Proverbs enjoins us to be generous and to honor God with our money, and we will never suffer want. Often, however, Christians confuse good stewardship with frugality. We become frugal to the point of no longer being really able to enjoy ourselves nor to allow others to enjoy themselves. The Bible speaks however about the enjoyment of riches. Take for example 1 Tim 6. 17-19 (RSV): “As for the rich in this world, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on uncertain riches but on God who richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.” Paul juxtaposes generosity and enjoyment of God’s provision; he also condemns those who reject the creation, but says that all things are to be enjoyed with thanksgiving to God (1 Tim 4.1-5). Thus, I think that the Bible encourages balance: it encourages us to be generous, but at the same time to enjoy his creation.
I find that God’s nature differs from our own human nature in this area of generosity and frugality that I would like to compare God’s extravagant generosity with our frugality. I would like to do so under three points: (1) God’s extravagant generosity is extended above and beyond what is deserved or merited, (2) God’s extravagant generosity is extended even when there is no hope of return; (3) and God’s extravagant generosity is without limit.
(1) In our frugality, we tend to pay people only what is necessary or demanded. I worked for an evangelical seminary and because the seminary could pay adjunct professors a very small wage it did, using the excuse that if they had to pay what a person deserved, they would have to close the school. I know of church also, when confronted with the suggestion to raise the pastor’s salary, the board members said, well we all know we can’t pay him what he is worth. So as Christians, we often set salaries at a level which is in keeping not with what would be generous, but with what is the minimum that we can get away with saying that we haven’t sufficient funds to pay any more. Sometimes we use the term, “ministry” to say that the person should accept not being paid properly. This tendency that we have as Christians tends to contrast with (1) God’s extravagant generosity, which is extended above and beyond what is deserved, even to those who don’t deserve it. God gives us more than we deserve. In the parables of the Kingdom, we should be particularly attentive to how they reveal to us the character of God. In the parable of the workers (Matt 20.1-16), the owner of the vineyard pays each person a denarius. Often this word “denarius” is translated “a day’s wages”. But in actual fact, by checking other references in the primary sources, I have found that a denarius was more likely about double the going wage of the time. For example, Rabbi Hillel according to the Babylonian Talmud made half that every day. So the likelihood that person could make a full denarius anywhere for a day in a field doing unskilled labor seems to me unlikely indeed. At the end of the day, the owner of the vineyard gives everyone a denarius and those who were first became angry because they had worked all day and some others worked only an hour or two. But the owner of the vineyard asks who they are to question his generosity. Thus, we can see that God is indeed very generous.
When Jesus fed the five thousand, he provided bread and fishes to many who would later reject him (cf. John 6.60). Yet that did not stop him from providing more than enough food for all who were there. It is in the nature of God to be generous to those who hate him; he makes his sun to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous, and he makes his rain to come down on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt. 5.45), so that all people are the recipients of his extravagant generosity. While we would try to withhold from those unworthy, God’s generosity extends to those who are unworthy.
(2) In our frugality, we will often withhold our generosity thinking that the person who would obtain it would let us down.For example, some Africans who have studied in the US, Europe and Canada, have never returned to Africa. We now become wary of giving to other Africans in the fear that they too will do the same thing. Indeed, once we are let down by someone, we can easily be wary of trusting another. What is the point of giving to this person? They will just let us down. On the other hand, (2) God’s extravagant generosity is extended even when there is no hope of return, hoping against hope. In the parable of the sower, which speaks of God spreading his word, the sower sows in unprofitable soil, on the path, amongst the thorns and in the rocky ground. We could easily call this parable the parable of the foolish sower who wasted seed on unprofitable ground. God’s generosity is shown in that he sows his precious seed in places where there is little chance of growth, hoping against hope that some might be saved. We cannot allow the failure of some people to stop us from being generous like God. We knew a so-called prophet who abandoned us as soon as we gave him a car. But my wife and I have not allowed our deep disappointment with this person to keep us from giving, even sometimes in ventures that seem to have little hope of a positive outcome. We payed for a trip to Ghana for person who later turned out to be a false brother and a member of secret society. Will we now no longer give because we have been let down in the past? God invests in each of us, giving us all a chance, because it is in his character to be generous. And he will invest himself in people for whom there is very little hope of a positive outcome, because his extravagant generosity is like that.
(3) In our frugality, we often see economics in terms of a pie that must be cut up and distributed. Our church’s plan budgets are often based on last year’s giving and projections into the future as to whether giving will increase from one year to the next. But I think that there are two other criteria which are absolutely essential for Christian organizations: (1) Justice: Churches should act justly. The owner of the vineyard acted justly (Matt : he agreed with workers to give what is just (Matt 20.4, δίκαιον) and he did no injustice to those who had worked the whole day (ἀδικέω). But churches and Christian organizations are often guilty of injustice towards their employees, underpaying them or mistreating them in other ways. (2) Vision and the will of God. What is more important than the budget of the church or the organization is that the people get a vision for ministry which is in keeping with God’s will. But what too often happens in Christian organizations is that someone will take initiative to suggest a project, and the board will say, well that’s all well and good but there is nothing in the budget for that, and so we constantly kill initiative. In contrast to our frugality, (3) God’s extravagant generosity has no limits. For God the pie has no limit and it is always getting bigger. What limits God’s pie is sometimes our lack of faith. I believe that if an initiative is in the will of God, it is our part pray, and it is the part of God to find the funds necessary for the project to be accomplished. Thus, the killing of initiative often demonstrates a lack of faith. Jesus sees with the eyes of faith that his heavenly father can make limitless provision. With this faith he was able to feed the five thousand. And afterwards there were twelve baskets full of bread leftover—it was a provision of food above and beyond what the people could eat. When Jesus turned the water into wine, he made over 120 gallons. Because I am a wine maker, I know something about making wine and laborious a process it is; it would take me two or three years to make between 540 and 730 bottles, which God made instantly out of water. His generosity in wine making was extravagant. We as Christians often adopt a culture which is so out of keeping with God’s extravagance that we sometimes argue that this was not real wine but just grape juice. But I can assure you that there is no way possible that Jesus turned water into grape juice. God doesn’t worry about throwing seed on the path or on the bad ground because he has an unlimited supply of seed. Thus, we need to start seeing things not from the standpoint of our frugality, but from the standpoint of God’s unlimited resources.*
May God help us to imitate him in his extravagant generosity. May he help us all to understand how great his generosity has been to us that he gave up even his own son for us all, the most extravagant and incomprehensible gift ever given in history. May we learn to love one another and learn to be generous, in our dealings with our employees and workers, and with our brothers and sisters in the Lord, with taxi drivers, with the poor. And may we have wisdom to know the difference between good stewardship and frugality.
*I was once with a person who remarked that the sparkling mineral water that my wife Cathy and I enjoy was a waste of money. Why should one buy water when it is freely available from the tap. I said because we enjoy the sparkling quality of the water. He insisted that we were wasting our money. I was shocked and angry because this same person had benefited many times from our generosity. How can such a person, who time and time again received from our hands, criticize us for spending money on something that we enjoy and is infinitesimally small fraction what this man has cost us? It reminded me of the rebuke of Judas: when Mary of Bethany brought the expensive nard to honor Jesus, he said that it should be sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus too was angry and said that Mary had not done wrong—the gospel writer explains that the reason why Judas said this was not because he cared for the poor but because he was stealing from the cash box. Somehow Judas, who had received so much from Jesus, thought it appropriate in the cultural context of his poverty in first century Judah and Galilee, to criticize Mary’s extravagant act in thankfulness to Jesus. But Jesus rebuked him and said that God’s economy doesn’t work the way that you are saying. What Mary did was legitimate and good despite its apparent extravagance. I think this is because what Mary did was in conformity with God’s character, because God is extravagant in his generosity, in ways that we often find unfathomable.