Updated: Sep 23, 2020
The Meaning of Stewardship in the Christian life
A steward is a servant entrusted for a time with the goods of the Master. The steward uses but does not own these goods, and must eventually give an account to the Master for the way in which they have been cared for and made fruitful.
Each of us spends a brief time in this life, preparing for our eternal life with God. While we are here, we receive everything from God, even life itself, and are asked to make good use of what God has entrusted to us. We are invited by God to be good stewards of His gifts. It is no wonder that the idea of stewardship plays such a central role in the life of faith.
The Bible frequently refers to the spirit of stewardship, whether or not the actual term is used. In fact, the ideas of servant, disciple, and apostle – so central in the scriptures – all include the idea of stewardship. We are servants of the Lord, who will be called to account when he returns. The disciple must be faithful to the teachings received from the Master. The apostles are sent out from Jesus, and must faithfully represent him as stewards of his mission and message.
The Bible teaches us that responsibility is inseparable from stewardship. We ultimately will be held accountable for the way in which we use what God gives us. In Luke 12:41-48, Our Lord reminds us that we are like stewards who are placed in charge of the household while the Master is away. “Who, then, is the wise and trustworthy steward whom the master will place over his household to give them at the proper time their allowance of food? Blessed that servant if his master’s arrival finds him doing just that.” But if the servant abuses his master’s trust, saying “My master is taking his time coming” and sets about beating the men-servants and the servant-girls, and eating and drinking and getting drunk, his master will come on a day he does not expect and at an hour he does not know.” The prospect of the return of the Master should fill Christians with joy: we wait in joyful hope for the
coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ. In New Testament times, and throughout the early centuries of Christianity, the disciples of Jesus had a lively sense of expectation, as they awaited His return. Our liturgy is still filled with references to the coming of the Lord, though we hear of that so often that we do not take it seriously. But Jesus will come at the end of time, whenever that will be, and each of us will stand before the Lord at the end of our life to give an account of our stewardship. That can happen at any moment, and we need to be ready. Only the right use of the time, talent, and treasure which have been entrusted to us will allow us to be able serenely and joyfully to await the coming of the Lord. Again and again in the Gospels we hear of the imminent coming of the Master.
In the most famous stewardship parable, in Matthew 25: 14-30 (See also Luke 19: 11-27), three
servants are entrusted with great sums of money, and are then assessed by the master when he returns, on the basis of how they made use of the money they had received. The ancient sum of money used in the parable, the “talent”, has now become for us the term for any human skill or “gift” that we have a responsibility to develop, as did the servants who are praised in the parable. A faithful steward, now as then, needs to make good use of his or her talents.
Stewardship calls for creativity and boldness. Each of us has enormous potential, but few things are sadder than to hear at the end of a person’s life: “that person had a lot of potential.” As good stewards, we are meant to use God’s gift fruitfully and creatively, so that with true gratitude for what we have received we may return God’s gifts to Him with increase. If we truly have the spirit of stewardship, we will not let God’s gifts go to waste, and we will not selfishly cling to them, but use them generously to
serve others, and in so doing give glory to God. That is the point of stewardship. It is significant that immediately after the parable of the talents, we hear of the judgment of the
nations (Matthew 25: 31-46), when people are separated, as sheep from the goats, on the basis of how they acted in this life. We can use our time in this life to be selfish, or to be generous to others. The blessed used their time here to care for those in need. That is true stewardship, and we are called to do likewise.
At one point (Mark 10:17-22) Jesus encounters a rich man, who seeks to discover what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to follow the commandments, and then says: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” This is good stewardship: not to cling to material goods, but generously to share with those in need. But the man went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. His was possessed by his possessions, as each of us can be. What a shame.
Jesus tells of a rich fool, captivated by his possessions, who builds bigger barns to store his grain (Luke 12: 13-21) and says: “‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
For us, as for the rich fool in the parable, the thought of death is spiritually fruitful, as it forces each of us to consider our priorities. What is the point of all the energy I spend on gathering treasure, or spending my time and talent on things that are ultimately useless? It is wisely said that at the moment of death no one wishes to have spent more time at the office. We need to think of the moment of death, but not wait until then to realize what is important in life, and how we can each be wise stewards of what we have received for this earthly journey. As an example of misguided priorities, Jesus tells of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31); only too late did the rich man realize how he should have spent his time on earth. It is better to be like Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10) who repented of his greed.
The secret of life is to recognize our state of dependency upon the providence of God. We do not ultimately own or control the time, talent, or treasure with which we are blessed by God during our short sojourn on this earth. Everything is a gift. Life itself is a gift.
It is especially important to realize this at a time when people foolishly think that they are masters, not stewards, of their own lives, even to the point of thinking that they have the right to determine when they will die. That toxic autonomy is an illusion. We are stewards, not masters, of our life; we have no right to take anyone’s life, including our own.
Even in the first chapters of the Bible we find the theme of stewardship. Man and woman are entrusted with God’s Garden. They may enjoy it, and are given responsibility for it. They do not own it. Sadly, they want to control everything in the Garden, and forget that they are simply stewards of God's creation, and so are banished. They were deceived by the illusion of self-sufficiency. We can as easily be deceived.
It is interesting that we are often called “consumers.” What a shame it is that we can be identified as people who are simply consuming the goods of the earth. Inevitably, if that consumption becomes the mark of a greedy life, then we will ourselves be consumed and possessed by the goods that we consume. It is far better to see all such things in proper perspective. The time, talent, and treasure that we briefly enjoy are gifts to be accepted with gratitude, and used generously. If we do so, then that posture of detachment allows us truly to be free.
As we enter into a conscious effort to develop more fully the spirit of stewardship within our faith community, each of us is invited to examine how we make use of the abundant gifts which we have received. Do we bury them away, or cling to them as if we own them, or do we thank God for them and share them generously?
Pastoral Letter on Stewardship