What if Christians Have Stewardship Wrong?

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When most Christians hear the word stewardship, their minds immediately head to Luke 19 and Matthew 25 — a pair of vexing parables about a nobleman who entrusts his servants with talents and rewards them for multiplying his Smaug-like hoard of money.

A talent in this story, it must be said, was not a skill. Rather, it was a weight of gold or silver. In the late Second Temple period, roughly between 516 B.C. and 70 A.D., a talanton weighed 63.49 pounds and worked out to about 75 years of wages for the common laborer. At today’s gold price, five of the parable’s talents would amount to around $9 million — and 375 years of labor for a commoner.

When many a modern, Western, capitalist-minded reader skims these two parables, they are left with the vague notion that the kingdom of heaven requires Christians to steward their possessions and multiply their assets for the sake of their king.

But that is not the point of the parable.

Luke 19:11 makes it clear that this is not a parable about the kingdom of heaven. Jesus and company are nearing Jerusalem. His disciples were convinced that “the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” Picture a posse of passionate young people, having just spent several years in the politically charged Galilean backcountry, fomenting with rebellion toward the Jewish aristocrats and their Roman overlords, now descending on the capital city of Jerusalem, utterly convinced that their rabbi-messiah is going to call down heaven’s legions and set up a new Jewish empire to reign for all time.

So Jesus tells them a parable in which he describes a ruler who is hated by his subjects, who is self-admittedly so hard and severe that the people lobby against his reign. Is Jesus speaking about God? Surely not. The wicked nobleman man in the story gives his servants vast sums of money to speculate on his behalf while he is away. Some of them multiply the money, while a conscientious objector squirrels away the principal for safekeeping. When the evil ruler returns, he predictably praises and promotes those who produced a profit.

But what of the one who refused to participate? A first-century hearer of Jesus’ story would surely have known the near-impossibility of doubling multiple lifetimes of income in an agrarian context, at least not without aggressive exploitation of the weak and vulnerable. Who has ever produced 750 years of income while their boss was on vacation?

The servant who did not grow the talents given to him rightly defends his decision: “You reap where you have not planted, and gather where you have not scattered seed,” he says. In other words: Master, you are a lecherous extractor. The evil ruler rages at the servant — but notice that he doesn’t say the indictment is untrue: “You knew that I take out what I did not put in, and reap what I did not sow? Then why did you not put my money on deposit with the bank exchangers, so that when I came back, I could have collected it with interest?”

At this juncture we may be assured there would have been a chuckle from at least the moneymen of the group, Judas and Matthew. After all, Levitical law rightfully forbade the poverty-promoting practice of interest-taking from fellow Jews. (The Hebrew word for interest literally means “bite.”) “You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest,” Deuteronomy 23:19 says.

Depending on which version of the parable of the talents you read, the story concludes with the wicked ruler either hurling the humble protestor into homelessness and deprivation or having him slaughtered while he watches. In both cases, the ruler proudly declares, “To everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Luke 19:26).



So what is the point of this strange story whose stated intention is to remind Jesus’s disciples that the kingdom of God will not immediately appear when they step foot in Jerusalem? It is that when people play an active role in exploitation, “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” It was Percy Bysshe Shelley who said it this way in his 19th century essay “A Defence of Poetry,” referring to the Parable of the Talents. He is not the only one to read this: When those with advantages tend to gain more advantages, it is often called the “Matthew Effect.”

As if to emphasize his point, not 20 verses later, Luke records Jesus overturns the money changers’ tables in the temple, only to later be put to death by that same crime family. Jesus’ mind is not focused on overthrowing the Romans — he is thinking about the high priestly House of Annas and intolerable corruption of the House of God.

Though long-enculturated churchgoers may be apt to chafe at this interpretation of these passages, we will all do well to set aside our modern economic biases and study the texts at length. In this case, the reader will reach the unsettling conclusion that this is not a parable about a heavenly king or how his perfect economy will operate, but one about how evil men treat the powerless. Jesus never sides with the exploiter.

A steward does not manage money for his or her personal benefit, but solely for the profit of the one to whom the wealth belongs. Ownership, like perfection, is not a human term — it only belongs to God. The Greek word for stewardship is oikonomos, meaning “household manager.” And many Christians today believe they are being good “stewards,” not realizing the word applies only to the portion we steward for the sake of our good King and his great kingdom.

Everything else is mere mammon management.

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