Saint John the Theologian Greek Orthodox Church

What is A Good Steward?

By Fr Allan-Gabriel Boyd

“His Lord said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will put you in charge over many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” ~ Matthew 25:23

A steward (οἰκονόμον) is someone who has been entrusted with the *management* of another person’s possessions, property, household, household accounts, businesses, and other resources.

A Good Christian Steward – is someone who understands, that because they are a Christian,

  1. they, themselves belong entirely to God;
  2. and everything they are and have has also been *entrusted* to them by God, its owner;
  3. with the fiduciary responsibility of utilizing it to accomplish His good will…to profit Him.

One key point here: God doesn’t need your money! That’s because God already has your money. Along with the entire world that God created, it already all belongs to Him. The Psalmist writes, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it…” (Psalm 23[24]:1). In the post communion prayers, we are taught to pray, “…that growing in Your divine grace, as You give me Your kingdom; I am preserved in Your holiness, so that I may always remember Your grace, and live, from now on, not unto myself, but for Your sake, our Master and Benefactor.” So, God has merely entrusted a part of His world to you as a partner with Him, to manage on His behalf, for His sake. And He’s entrusted this fiduciary responsibility to each of us, not only regarding our money, but also our talents & skills; our job/career; our health; our time; our families & other relationships; our house; our yard; our cars; and especially our Orthodox Christian Faith. Just as we see in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) to the one who mis-manages what God has entrusted to him or her (who only gives back to his Master the amount that was entrusted to him in the first place), He calls “wicked and lazy”…and our Lord takes away what He had entrusted to them, and gives it instead to someone else who has been faithful in the role of their stewardship. And we learn from this parable that a good steward is diligent, hardworking, and willing to take reasonable risks to build up and increase what God has given to us. *Everything* in our lives really belongs to God, and He expects us to engage with it all in a way that participates in His ministry to the world… reconciling ourselves and the world to Him. As God’s “Good Stewards,” that’s how we use it *all* to make God a profit.

Patterns

It’s vital for us to realize that there are fractal patterns of beauty that God establishes throughout His creation and with His people in the scriptures. God calls each of us to become enthused participants with Him in demonstrating those patterns of beauty. Noticing and applying those timeless patterns of God’s Heavenly Kingdom and its Divine Economy will help enlighten us with meaning in the mundane, build resilience amidst seeming scarcity in our lives, and help us to flourish, even in the most challenging circumstances. There are also patterns that are surreptitiously sinful…covertly causing us to unify ourselves with any number of things other than unity with our Lord. Adam and Eve put one of those distorted, corrupting patterns in motion when they followed the devil’s enticement to mistrust what God had said, and to become gods-in-and-of-themselves…deciding for themselves what was right and what was wrong. That continuing temptation has only served to bring about humanity’s ruin. Thus, those of us who wish to deepen our unity with God, look for His divine patterns and try to apply their beauty to the way we live our own lives. “Whoever has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me. The one who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love them and reveal Myself to them” (John 14:21). Many would be surprised to learn, that as Jesus went about in His preaching ministry, He talked about the subject of money and possessions more than any other subject…three times more than love, seven times more than prayer, and eight times more than belief. And for Jesus, money was never seen as a means to accomplish ministry…again, “Jesus doesn’t need your money, because He already has it.” Rather, when our Lord talked about money and possessions, His focus was on the souls of his followers and where their heart was actually invested. A smart person would say that there’s a beautiful pattern there, to which it might be in our best interest to pay careful attention.

Trust

One of the most important patterns to notice about God in the history of His relationship with people, is that from the very beginning, our Lord keeps trying to instill trust in us. He wants us to live out our Stewardship like we truly believe He’ll always be faithful as The Source who takes care of our every need. From the very beginning of the Bible, with Adam & Eve, and on through the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the Israelite community, and followers of Jesus Christ, our Lord continues to hold up this pattern of teaching that if we’d only learn to trust that He’s looking out for our best interest, we would be so much better off. In fact, that kind of trust in Him is vital for our salvation, because failing to trust God that way merely demonstrates our devotion to other, lesser gods. Over and over again our Lord has spoken about the need for this trust. And there were always blessings that came along when people did trust Him…and consequences for not trusting and obeying God. We’ve seen the consequences when Adam & Eve failed to trust God. We’ve seen the tragic and catastrophic consequences (over and over again) of all the times the Israelites refused to trust God. Thus, Jesus reminds us: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and work against the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Therefore, I tell you, don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they don’t plant seeds, nor gather grain, nor store away their harvested crops in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you much more valuable than birds? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why would you worry about clothes? Notice how the flowers of the field grow. They don’t exhaust themselves in labor, nor do they weave cloth. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed as stunningly as one of these. If that’s how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, won’t He clothe you much more—you of little faith? So don’t worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ The people who don’t know God are always chasing after all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need to eat and drink and wear clothes and He cares for your needs. But seek God’s Kingdom first and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:24-34).

Tithing

God’s Pattern for the Care of His Temple and its Ministries…and Also Care for the Poor
When God gave His instructions to Israel for their Stewardship in the building of the Tabernacle (their place of worship), the care of the priestly tribe (the Levites), and for the ministries that would happen from there, He commanded that His people should give 10% of the first fruits (in other words that they should pay God before anything else) of their harvest. To this agricultural community He instructed, “Now all the tithe of the land, whether seed of the land or fruit of the tree, is the Lord’s. It is holy to the Lord” (Leviticus 27:30). Notice, there is something Liturgical in God’s command for them to give one tenth of their earnings. When Orthodox Christians participate in various liturgical services, there is a fixed quality to them, where we pray the words that the Holy Spirit has given the Church. We’re not there to do our own thing. Rather, we participate in those firmly-immovable, rigidly-fixed prayers, because those prayers help to form us into the shape of Christ-likeness. Without that fixed structure, we’d just stay the way we are. Likewise, the Tithe is also liturgical. God, in His grace, offers us this tool with a fixed quality to it, the Tithe, so that we are formed by it into Christ-likeness, the Generous Offeror, who gives proper attentiveness to the care of God’s Temple and its ministries. Thus, before we pay any of the rest of our bills, God wants our hearts to regard that first 10% as liturgically HOLY to the Lord (set apart for His purposes). The *Holy* Tithe is far more than a mere financial transaction. It’s a beautiful act of synergy between the Divine and the human, a giving and receiving, in a Divine/human dance that’s meant to permeate creation.

God commanded that the place where the Israelites came to worship should be constructed with extraordinary beauty! It was meant to be an icon of the worship in heaven; therefore, God intended for it to elevate the spirit of the worshipper to that heavenly state of being. Our own Orthodox worship space is also meant to be such a transcendent space, lifting our spirits to something, “not of this world.” We should be offering ourselves to the beautifying of this worship space, in and of itself, as an act of worship. We all love the story of about Russian envoys who Prince Vladimir of Kiev sent to investigate various religions all over the world. When they came to observe the worship taking place at the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, they were transported in their being. They reported back to Prince Vladimir that, unlike their experience with all the other religions, “When we walked into the worship taking place at this wonderful church, we could no longer tell whether we were in heaven or on earth.” Of course, this became the impetus for the Slavic regions wanting to become Orthodox…a part of that Divine/human dance permeating creation with transcendent beauty.

Obviously, in the Old Testament, the person who gave the tenth to God was meant to understand that the nine-tenths *didn’t* belong to themself, giving themselves the right to spend that nine-tenths in any way they pleased. Rather, the Tithe was an offering given to demonstrate that it all belongs to God. It provided the offeror with a way of beginning the process of growing in God’s-likeness… growing in the grace of giving…growing in participation with God’s ministry to the world.

Below, the Prophet Malachi expresses God’s exasperation with His people in the tragic costs they unwittingly incurred upon themselves by not participating with God in this Holy Liturgical work. And yet, Malachi also expresses God’s heartfelt desire to draw His people towards repentance (to “return to Him”) and to receive from Him that blessed life that God had intended for them all along:

Will a man rob God? Surely not! And yet you have robbed Me.”
“‘What do You mean? When did we ever rob You?
You have robbed Me of the Tithes and Offerings due Me.
And so, your deeds have become a curse to you…for all of you.
Return to Me now in this. Bring all the Tithes into the storehouse so that there will be proper provisions for My Temple; if you do, I will open up the floodgates of heaven for you and pour out an overflowing of My blessing to you!
Test Me in this! Let Me prove it to you!
I will cause you to flourish, and I will guard you from the devourer. Nothing you do will fail to bear fruit,” says the Lord Almighty. And all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a people who delight in flourishing. These are the promises of the Lord Almighty
” (Malachi 3:8-12).

Notice something remarkable above…God’s invitation for us to test Him in this. When Jesus was being tempted by the evil one to throw Himself down from the topmost part of the temple, our Lord quotes Deuteronomy 6:16, rebuking the devil with, “It is written, ‘do not put the LORD your God to the test…’” (Luke 4:12). And yet, through the Prophet Malachi, God gives the one exception to this. God asks us to test Him in this one commandment…to Tithe to our place of worship and to support its ministries.

Also, pay close attention to another part of Malachi’s message from God. Our Lord says that when we come back to Him (repent) in this way, He will protect us from the devourer…from the Locusts that come in and eat away at our life so that we can never get to the point of flourishing. Have you noticed a devouring spirit eating away at your life like a plague of locusts? Does it seem like, as soon as you take care of one impediment, two more begin eating away at your life, devouring it so that you have no rest? Why do you suppose that this devourer has taken up such a prominent place in your life? Why isn’t God protecting you from this devourer? Could it be that God is merely hoping to recapture your attention, so that you might come back to Him…so that you might begin to trust Him instead of trusting the other things that have diverted your attention away from Him…so that you might begin to see that 10% as set apart to Him for His purposes…so that you might join Him in realizing the vital importance of that Divine/human liturgical dance?

Old Testament Objections

Some people will object to the use of the above Bible passages, saying, “Well that’s all part of the Old Law, and we Christians are under the New Testament, so none of this stuff about Tithing should apply to any of us.” Notice the lengths that some people will go through in order to be stingy with God. Some people are so anxious to withhold their money from the care and ministries of God’s Temple that they will even go so far as to adopt the heresy of Marcionism. Marcion was a 2nd century theologian who also taught that Christians should reject the Old Testament. He taught that the Christian God of the New Testament was distinctly different than the Old Testament’s Jewish God. Of course, the Church declared that Marcion and his teachings were heretical.

Nevertheless, even if one of these objectors accepts that the God of the Old Testament is the same as the New Testament God, but that the Old Testament should still no longer apply to us Christians… who in their right mind would suggest that God made a mistake when He set this liturgical pattern of Tithing in place for His people? Does God make mistakes? It’s an absurd position to take.

Obviously, the Old Testament was the scripture that Jesus and His Apostles used. And besides all that, one might credibly maintain that the pre-incarnate Christ (The Logos) was actually the author of the Old Testament scriptures anyway. Thus, as it turns out, the early Church Fathers inexhaustibly utilized the wisdom and divine patterns revealed to us from the Old Testament, especially since there was no New Testament canon for nearly 300 years.

New Testament Teaching About Tithing

Did Jesus teach that Tithing should be practiced? In His heated interaction with the Pharisees over their self-absorbed manipulation of God’s law, our Lord scolded them saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay Tithe of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, WITHOUT leaving the others undone” (Matthew 23:23). Notice, Jesus says they should focus more on the weightier matters like justice and mercy and faith, without neglecting the giving of their Tithe. Thus, even in the New Testament, Jesus endorsed God’s command to offer one tenth of our income to our place of worship and its ministries.

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also assured, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not even one period nor one comma will pass from the law until all is fulfilled. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches these commandments, they shall be regarded as great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19). As you can see here, Jesus didn’t come to get rid of Tithing or the law of God. In fact, He even promoted and upheld it. Except for things like circumcision, Jesus instructs us to obey the patterns of God’s Old Testament commandments, because doing so will help to shape us into His likeness.

When Jesus instructed His disciples to “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21), of course we’re fine with acknowledging that God intends for us to obey the law of the land and to pay our fair share of taxes. But how often do we acknowledge the second part of that verse, that we are also supposed to “render to God the things that are God’s”? Jesus was saying that not only should we pay taxes, but that we also need to “render to God what belongs to Him”! Do you know what belongs to God? Our Tithes and Offerings! Our Lord insists that we need to give our Tithe to God because it is Holy. It’s not for us to decide how to spend our Tithe. It belongs to God and therefore it must be given back to Him.

Merciful Giving

Of course, at this point of considering our Stewardship of the things God has entrusted to us, we have to highlight another beautiful facet to the Economy of the Kingdom of Heaven. God’s Old Testament law also commanded His people (Deuteronomy 14:28-29) another Tithe, given only every third year, regarding their merciful care for those in need. God commands that special compassionate consideration be given for out of town guests; widows and fatherless orphans who had no means of supporting themselves in those circumstances in that ancient agrarian culture. Distribution of this Tithe wasn’t left to the individual, but rather, was a community project to which everybody contributed.

In our reckoning of it now-a-days, we might consider setting aside an extra 3.3% on top of our normal yearly Tithe as an offering to our parish’s Philoptochos ministry (Friends of the Poor), to provide for their efforts to minister to those in need. In our contemporary circumstances, we should regard this Tithe to be used for parishioners in dire financial need; for neighbors who have been displaced; for victims of domestic violence; or for helping the most innocent (the unborn)…providing for the needs of unwed mothers. In the Old Testament, God reminds the offerors of this Tithe that doing so “would cause the Lord your God to bless you.”

The Old Testament is chock-full of instructions from God that His people should practice righteousness by offering compassion and mercy to those around them who are in dire need, and that doing so always comes with a blessing. The wise Solomon says, “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord who will repay him for his deed” (Proverbs 19:17). In the New Testament, our Lord similarly continues teaching this pattern of Stewardship, saying, “Whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done for Me” (Matthew 25:40). Jesus puts an equal sign between the disadvantaged person and Himself, essentially reminding us of the image of God in each human person, and reminding us that our assistance to our down-and-out brothers or sisters is, essentially, an act of worshipping Him.

In the Orthodox Christian Wedding Ceremony, this same pattern of Stewardship in Merciful Offering is emphasized in one of the blessing prayers by the priest. “…give them of the dew from the Heavens above, and of the fatness of the earth. Fill their houses with bountiful food, and with every good thing, that they may have to give to them that are in need…” Notice, the very reason that God pours out His blessings upon the married couple, filling their houses with bountiful food and every good thing is so that they can be a blessing to those in need. Now, imagine a couple who misuses their stewardship of God’s bountiful blessings to them, keeping it all for themselves and forgetting the poor. Will God continue to bless that couple bountifully, or will He take away that blessing from them and give it to someone who will be faithful in their Stewardship, like He did in the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)?

Two Dangers To Mention Here

The Myth of “Christianity as a Social Justice Organization”: Sometimes there’s a misunderstanding that Christ established His Church to be purely a social justice organization. Did Jesus come to end all poverty? When His earthly ministry was over, there were clearly many people still in need that He never helped. Was Christianity put here to end poverty in the world? The focus of Christ’s Apostles was unquestionably not about ending all poverty in the Roman Empire. Both Christ and His Apostles were focused on transforming hearts to become less self-absorbed and more Christ-like in reconciling themselves and the world around them to God. The question for us today is, are our hearts being shaped into the likeness of the ultimate merciful offeror, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ? Are we becoming generous of heart as a participation in His generosity?

The Myth of the “Prosperity Gospel”: There’s a popular teaching (albeit heretical), even among some who call themselves Orthodox, that whenever we talk about our Lord “blessing us” that this automatically means that God will reward us by making us monetarily rich, or rich with possessions, or wildly successful in business. In the Orthodox Christian Tradition, however, anyone who has spent any time at all in the life of the Church will know without a doubt that God’s blessings, especially His most valuable ones, have little or nothing to do with Him enriching us financially. When things are blessed to become Holy (set apart unto God for His purposes), they in turn become a blessing to our lives. Consider for a moment when a priest blesses water to become Holy, it brings good things in our lives, but it certainly doesn’t become magic water that brings us good luck and prosperity. When the priest blesses the gifts on the altar to become the Holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus, it becomes a true blessing in our lives as we are being transformed into Christ-likeness by partaking of it in repentance. Receiving God’s blessing for “Good Stewardship” is meant to draw us toward our intended purpose…oneness with God through the work of the Holy Spirit in Christ.

Final Thoughts on Stewardship

For those who have never been taught these kinds of Holy patterns about Good Stewardship as a means of becoming Christ-like, it might feel a little terrifying to suddenly learn that God expects us to be Tithing…and especially of the 13%, taking into account the added 3-year Tithe to include merciful giving. Many of us have adopted lives where we live above our means because we thought that it all belonged to us, unwittingly acquiring foolish amounts of debt, making it currently impossible to be Good Stewards the way God intends us to be. Like the woman who was caught in the very act of adultery (John 8:1-11), our Lord’s goal isn’t to condemn you. Rather, He wants us to, as He told her, “Go and sin no more.” That means that we adopt a desire to live a life of repentance, converting a little more each day into Christ-likeness, as God gives us the grace to do so. That means we begin to reconsider the way we think of our money and possessions and the way that we manage them for God’s sake.

So, sit down today and consider the percentage of your income that you’re offering God. What percentage is it? If, because of the amount of debt you have, and the amount of bills your lifestyle demands is only 2% right now, begin the process of repentance, paying off your debt, with the intention of bringing yourself a little closer next year to a Holy Tithe. Make a plan, and ask God to help you repent towards His likeness of being a generous offeror. And may it bring great blessings to you!