St Johns, Johnsonville and Holy Trinity, Ohariu
Readings: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 112; 2 Corinthians 8:1-7; Luke 21:1-4
You can download the stewardship of treasures study guide (pdf) or
the Stewardship of Treasures Family Activity (pdf)
The Catechism asks how we are to live the life of the baptised, and gives this answer: ‘By prayer, by regular worship and by using our time, talents and money to serve Christ in the world’ (NZ Prayer Book, p 937). So stewardship is a fundamental element of the way we live out our baptism.
The Gauls were a warlike people who inhabited what is now France and Belgium. By the time of the Christian era they had been conquered by the Romans and were supposedly under their control. But the extent of this control varied, because the Gauls never did take too well to being conquered. Christian missionaries ventured into Gallic territory and, over time, many Gauls became Christian. A story goes that when a converted warrior was baptised, he would hold one arm high in the air as he was immersed in the water. A missionary, perplexed by this custom, asked what the reason for it was. It was explained that when the next battle took place, the warlike Gaul could proclaim, “This arm is not baptised”, grab his sword or axe and ride off to slaughter his enemy in the most unchristian manner.
It’s a compelling image: the picture of someone of trying to keep one part of the body, one aspect of their identity, free from the influence of baptism. Stewardship, like baptism, is about getting wet. We need to look at ourselves and discover what it is that we want to keep dry, and then immerse that part, that aspect, in the waters of baptism.
Stewardship is a way of life that involves all that we’ve received from God. Over the past two weeks we’ve thought about our time and talents. Now we come to treasures, that is, the stewardship of material resources, which includes money. Our treasures tend to be like the limb in our lives that we keep out of the water. And maybe that’s why Jesus spoke about it so much. It’s there in his parables; in his meetings with individuals; in his sayings and teachings. In fact, Jesus spoke about money more frequently than any other subject except the Kingdom of God.
In the Gospel story known as the Widow’s Mite, Jesus sees rich people putting in large sums of money and then he sees a poor widow who drops in two small copper coins, and he says, “This poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21:3-4/Mark12:41-44)
Widows were amongst the poorest in society, and this widow comes into the temple and drops in two small copper coins. They were the smallest coins you could get back then – the equivalent of our 10¢ piece. And the woman had two of them. But she doesn’t give one and hang onto the other – which she would have been entitled to do. She gives both. She doesn’t do just what the law requires her to do: she doesn’t work out what a tenth of what she had would be worth and put that in the collection plate – which is what the rich people were probably doing. She really does give all she has.
Jesus’ comments help us to grapple with human generosity as a faithful response to God, as he puts her gift in perspective. He says that the two 10¢ pieces put into the temple treasury by a faithful widow was more generous than all the extravagant riches of the other givers. Because the value of any gift isn’t set by its cash value, but by what it represents for the giver. It’s set by its cost to the giver, in terms of what she or he has and by the commitment that’s gone into it. For the rich people Jesus saw first, their gifts were a small percentage of abundance, a drop in the bucket. For the woman it’s the whole bucket.
In commending this woman, Jesus isn’t telling us to bankrupt ourselves and put all our money in the collection plate. But he does call us to look at her as a model of radical trust in God – of total commitment to God. The challenge and encouragement of this women’s example is in how her gift shows the extent her life was turned to God. It’s a picture of complete trust in God. She gave, not a proportion of what she had, but everything she had.
The amount of money isn’t the issue. The issue is the commitment and the faith that lies behind it. The woman’s gift was two 10¢ pieces. She shows us what generosity and relationship with God are all about. And it’s that relationship that emerges in the reading from Deuteronomy. The Israelites were told to set aside the first fruits of their harvest as an offering to God. And why? Because of all that God had done for them. Their giving was a response to God’s gifts to them. God had blessed them by freeing them from slavery in Egypt, leading them through the wilderness and giving them a land to settle in. Because of their relationship with God, they set aside the first and the best of what they had, in order to acknowledge God’s amazing generosity to them.
We’re also called to acknowledge our relationship with God and to respond to God’s generosity to us by setting aside the first and the best of the resources God has given us. This means that we give out of gratitude, not out of obligation. We give because we’re grateful for God’s goodness to us, not because of some driving ‘should’ or ‘ought’.
As we reflect on how we give and on how much we give, let’s think about how generous we’re being with what God has given us. The question I’m asking myself is: Am I as generous as I might be, with my time and my talents, and yes, my money and other material resources? If God has given me more this year – if my income has gone up, or I’ve had a sudden windfall gain – have I responded by being more generous, by giving more in return?
In 2 Corinthians, Paul gives an inspiring example of Christian giving as he describes the way the Macedonians gave. Eugene Peterson paraphrases like this:
Fierce troubles came down on the people of those churches, pushing them to the very limit. The trial exposed their true colours: They were incredibly happy, though desperately poor. The pressure triggered something totally unexpected: an outpouring of pure and generous gifts…They gave offerings of whatever they could—far more than they could afford….This was totally spontaneous, entirely their own idea, and caught us completely off guard. What explains it was that they had first given themselves unreservedly to God and to us. The other giving simply flowed out of the purposes of God working in their lives. (The Message, 2 Corinthians 8:1-5)
The Macedonians gave in direct response to what God had given them. It was a response to the generosity they had received from God.
If God is God of our lives, then we give in response to what we know God has given to us. When we ask, ‘Why give?’ a natural response is to say: ‘Because I’ve got more than I need. I can afford it.’ But the Macedonians weren’t wealthy people. They didn’t always have enough. If we transported them to contemporary New Zealand, we would find many of them living on benefits and Income Support. They gave, not out of their surplus, but out of their poverty.
This raises a second question: “How much do I give?” Following the example of the Macedonians, we see that they gave as much as they could. Which is the very opposite to the attitude that says: ‘How little can I get away with, and at the same time clear my conscience.’
Jewish law laid down a giving level of 10%. It was called a tithe – giving a tenth of what one produced (often agricultural offerings, later money). That was seen as an integral part of their worship – just as we make our offerings when we come to worship. But the tithe was used for much more than the operation of the religious system. If we’re updating it in today’s terms, ‘tithing’ would mean what we give to the church, to various charities, and that proportion of our taxes which funds health, education, and social welfare. But the Macedonians went beyond that. As Christians who know God’s grace and love we may choose to go beyond that 10%. But there’s no hard and fast law for Christians. I think the only virtue in tithing is that it’s easy to calculate. I suggest that it’s more helpful to follow the principles of regular, proportional and generous giving.
The value of giving based on a percentage of what we receive, is that when our income increases or decreases, our giving changes accordingly. But whatever method we use, the questions to be asked are: Is my giving an expression of my commitment to Christ? Does it reflect my appreciation of who God is to me and what God had done for me?’
These words, which are often used at the offertory at the Eucharist, will be familiar to you: ‘All that is in the heavens and the earth is yours, and of your own we give you’ (NZ Prayer Book, p 420) That sentence reminds us that all we have is a gift form God: our money, our time, our talents – but also, all that we are as people. We are God’s because God made us. We’re also God’s by our baptism. Stewardship is simply the means by which we live out our baptism and proclaim that we are God’s. It’s been said, ‘stewardship is all that we do after we say “Yes” to Christ.’
Giving touches the heart of our relationship to God, and so I leave you with Paul’s affirmation:
You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ,
that though he was rich,
yet for your sakes he became poor,
so that by his poverty
you might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8:9)