Stewardship as the Ministry of Service and Inclusion

For most churches stewardship has to do mostly, if not solely, with money. This connection is valid, as the Greek term oikonomos (related to economy) is used for the crafty manager in Jesus’ parable of the unjust steward (Lk. 16). But we realize that stewardship is much broader than economics. The environment has become a pressing concern. We have all heard sermons about using our time and talents for the Lord. As it turns out, the biblical understanding of stewardship is very wide. It involves everything we have and everything we are, all in relation to God. For the faithful steward, it is a way of life, a life of discipleship.

Stewardship is a way of life, as it is grounded in God’s creation of human beings. The story of creation emphasizes that God created human beings in His own image. Though the traditional understanding of image of God emphasizes soul that enables human beings to think, reason and interact with God, the text of the story indicates that being made in God’s image has to do with our role or function: “Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea…” (Gen. 1.26). Human beings are commissioned as God’s stewards or agents to manifest God’s rule on earth. The responsibilities of naming the animals, and filling and subduing the earth show that they are being given an ambassadorial reign as God’s vice-regents.

God’s rule is vividly portrayed in Genesis 2. The focus is primarily on God’s care and concern towards his creation. God planted a garden and caused a river to water the garden. God’s care and concern towards Adam is seen in the creation of “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen. 2.9), and creation of a partner, Eve. When Adam did not find a suitable partner among animals and birds, He created Eve. Generally the theological significance of this story of Gen. 2 is understood that God’s intention for the creation of human being is to glorify or worship him. However, this understanding overlooks the essence of the story, i.e. God’s service to human beings – creator serving His creation. The story emphasises an essential quality of God, i.e. the desire of the creator for the best of his creation. Therefore, the rule of God should primarily be understood in terms of God’s care and concern for the welfare of His creation.

This rule of God or the kingdom of God was manifested in the life, words and works of Jesus Christ. The content of Jesus’ words and deeds was the kingdom of God. His Galilean ministry started with the proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of God (Mk. 1.15). His miraculous deeds were the indicators of the presence of God’s kingdom. In Mt. 12.22ff when Jesus healed the one who was mute and blind, the Pharisees said that Jesus did that with the power of the Beelzebub. But Jesus responded by saying that “If it is by the spirit of God I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.”

What is this kingdom of God or rule of God? Mt. 12.22-32 indicates that bringing healing and wholeness to the body of the person demonstrates the presence of the kingdom of God. In this passage Jesus said two things that are interrelated: binding the strongman and the healing of the person. It was already said that the sickness was caused by the evil spirit. Jesus was dealing with the cause that caused pain and suffering in the person. Jesus was making right the wrong done by the demonic and oppressive forces. It was this transformative action of God in the lives of people and the society that was evident in the ministry of Jesus Christ. It is to this transformative ministry that the disciples of Jesus are called.

Presence of the Kingdom of God in Jesus’ Words and Deeds

Service to those in need

Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God proclaimed through words and deeds signifies service and inclusion. In Mark Jesus was described as touching the hand of people in the context of healing: a leper (1.41), Peter’s mother-in-law (1.31), the dead body of Jairus’ daughter (5.41), a deaf man (7.33), the blind man (8.23), and the dumb and deaf boy (9.27). There were also several instances of people touching Jesus: the woman with haemorrhage (5.27-28) and the crowd seeking healing (3.10, 6.56). Among these healings by touch, leper, dead body of Jairus’ daughter, and woman with haemorrhage were generally considered unclean.

The bone of contention between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities was the unregulated contact with the unclean. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that Jesus’ deliberate gesture of touch and contact with the impure was part of his ministry of inclusion and service. His understanding of holiness was different from that of Jewish religious authorities. For them, holiness meant separation. For Jesus, it meant loving one’s neighbour as oneself or service to those in need.

Ministry of Inclusion

Jesus’ ministry did not confine to Jewish dominated areas. His ministry of exorcism, healing and teaching included the Gentiles. That means, his ministry of the kingdom of God was an inclusive ministry, not an excluding one. Jesus associated with tax-collectors and sinners and ate with them (Mk. 2.14-17). He exorcised a person in the Gentile territory (Mk. 5.1-20) and healed the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman (Mk. 7.26). Thus, he demonstrated that God’s rule had no boundaries.

Therefore, Jesus deeds demonstrated God’s rule in the service of the needy. They not only showed Jesus’ divine power, but also illustrated the character of his power, the way he used it in the service of others. The intense kindness, sensitivity and unfailing benevolence of Jesus aligned him with common people, particularly the marginalized groups, and contrasted him with the powerful religious and political leaders who never showed any interest in the welfare of these groups, except lording over them.

Jesus’ Teaching on Service

The primacy of service is emphasized in Mk. 9.33-37 and 10.42-45. The disciples’ discussion on greatness provides an occasion for Jesus to teach about true greatness in terms of service: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk. 9.35). Such service should be rendered to those marginalized in the society such as children (Mk. 9.36-37) and “little ones” (Mk. 9.42). The contrast between setting mind on “divine things” and on “human things” can be seen between Jesus’ understanding of greatness and that of his disciples (cf. Mk. 8.33).

The disciples’ understanding of greatness represented that of the society. In response to the request of James and John for places of honour in the kingdom of God, Jesus instructed:

You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers, lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mk. 10.42-45).

The disciples knew how rulers used their power and authority to dominate and make people serve their greed. Their knowledge of the way power and authority operated in society was used by Jesus to teach them the alternate way that power and authority should be used by the community of the kingdom of God. He clearly stressed that the behaviour of rulers was the model that should be avoided by his disciples. The way the rulers rule and the great men exercise their authority and power is unacceptable in the kingdom of God. Self-seeking, self-promotion, and abuse of power and authority for self-interests are improper in the kingdom of God. “Greatness” and “being first” involve inversion of familiar models.

In contrast to the familiar models of greatness in the society, Jesus becomes the model of greatness to his disciples. Greatness is redefined in the kingdom of God. Jesus taught greatness as service. He commanded those who wanted to be great among his disciples to be servants and those who wanted to become first to be slaves of all.
Paul says that the church has been entrusted with this gospel of the kingdom of God, which he called “the mysteries of God” or the mystery of “the manifold wisdom of God” (Eph. 3.9,10). Related to this was his use of the word “stewardship” (oikonomia) to describe his preaching of the gospel (I Cor. 9.16,17).

Faithful stewards are involved in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation, inclusion and service. Obeying Christ’s commandment to love the unloved and the unlovable, to pray for our enemies, and to care for outcasts is part of our stewardship obligation.

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