"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Luke 12:34).
With those brief words, Jesus identifies that which is at the heart of Christian Stewardship - faith. In so doing, our Savior also identifies why so many of us are repelled and even repulsed by the very mention of stewardship - such teaching from God's Word shows us how little our faith really is and identifies the false gods we secretly worship. To deny this is to deceive only ourselves. It was no different during Jesus' earthly ministry, when the Son of God Himself taught about stewardship. In Luke 16, Jesus says "you cannot serve both God and money," and "the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him" (Luke 16:13b-14). A theologian once said that the last part of a person to be converted is his pocketbook, and the Old Adam (sinful nature) that clings to our neck rebels against any teaching that threatens to unseat the false god of money from the throne of our heart.
Moreover, so much foolish nonsense and evil lies have been presented under the banner of "stewardship" that an abundance of false beliefs and misunderstandings pollute the minds of many. Too often have corrupt preachers and televangelists lied to the masses and extorted the elderly to make themselves rich. Too often have despairing sinners been turned in on themselves and their wallets instead of turned out toward the cross of Christ and the means of grace by which God forgives us through Word and Sacrament. Too often have self-righteous Pharisees upstaged the poor widow whose faith gave God more than their coffers of gold.
Still, the command of God is clear, as spoken through His apostle to Pastor Timothy: "I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry" (2 Timothy 4:1-5).
To preach God's Word and teach sound doctrine on the subject of stewardship, we are given to use the language and categories of Scripture itself. When thinking and speaking about stewardship, therefore, Lutherans have always insisted on the Biblical distinction between Law & Gospel, the biblical understanding of Vocation; and the biblical proclamation of Justification & Sanctification. To these divine distinctions and teachings we cling as we hear and ponder what God commands and promises His holy people in relation to our life of stewardship.
Christian Stewardship in Four Points
1) Voluntarily and Cheerfully. Christian giving is done voluntarily, not under compulsion. Christian giving is also done cheerfully, not grudgingly. Work is done cheerfully when it is done willingly, and such is the perspective of faith which lives in free response to the baptismal gifts of Jesus' cross.
2) First Fruits. Christian giving comes from the first fruits of our labor. Our giving is what we set aside, dedicate, and offer in faith on the first day of the week, before our other expenditures or savings consume the rest.
3) Proportionally. Christian giving is proportional, "as each one of you may prosper." Christian giving is not an arbitrary dollar amount or thoughtless rifling through a purse or wallet as the offering plate nears. Rather, it is in accordance with how one has prospered each week, or month, or year. Thus, the faithful Christian determines to set aside a certain proportion of his or her income for the church each week, month, or year. This is a deliberate and ordered action, given reason and meaning by faith.
4) Faithfully. We have God's certain promise to give us what we need for this body and life, and (just as importantly!) to keep from us those things that would harm us. Therefore, we give in faith, trusting that God provides for all our needs, even when, for the sake of our salvation, He does not give us what we think we want.
A Final Word
The study of stewardship begins with a consideration of God's Law and God's Gospel. God's Law shows us our sin by telling us what we are to do and not to do. God's Gospel shows us our Savior by telling us what God has done and continues to do for us in Jesus Christ through Word and Sacrament. To be sure, a Lutheran understanding of stewardship includes and flows from God's Gospel, His Word, and promises to provide for us each day for Christ's sake and freely to give us the one thing needful in the forgiveness of our sins.
Nevertheless, we also hear much of God's Law about stewardship - His commands that we support the work of His church with the gifts He gives us - our finances, our time, and our vocational abilities. As God's true Word of Law, these commands will always show us our sin. They will reveal that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. What's more, the devil tempts us concerning this. He whispers deceiving words in our ears, just as he whispered lies to Eve in the Garden of Eden. Perhaps especially when it comes to stewardship, the devil constantly attacks us with questions about "enough." Have I given enough? Have I volunteered enough? Am I willing and cheerful enough? The answer, of course, is "no." I have not done enough. Nor can I. I, a poor, miserable sinner will never do enough to satisfy the demands of God's holy Law. And that is precisely where the devil wants us looking and on what he wants us to dwell - our own, sinful, inadequate, unholy, deficient lives.
God's holy Word would direct our attention elsewhere. "Wretched man that I am!" the apostle Paul confesses. "Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:24-25a). As long as we look to ourselves, to our own achievements, works, and contributions, we will always despair under the question of "enough." "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation (atoning/forgiving sacrifice) by his blood, to be received by faith" (Romans 3:23-25). The Lord would therefore have us look instead to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of the faith that saves us, who for the joy set before him (the joy that is each and every one of us) endured the cross of our salvation and gave everything He had - even His very life - so He could have us. Through Holy Baptism, His holy Word, and the His holy Supper, God gives to us the "It is finished" of Jesus' cross.
To paraphrase a theologian named Gerhard Forde, the only hope we have in the face of an absolute God and his absolute claim and demands on our lives, is absolution. This Word, then, the Word of the cross, is the final Word we ever need hear, both for our living and for our dying:
Your sins are forgiven by the blood of Jesus Christ. Depart in peace.