The Essence of Stewardship – The Rev. Michelle Meech
October 23, 2022
I think God might be playing some kind of joke… that we are given this particular Gospel reading on the same day we begin our Stewardship campaign.
This is a parable called the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in which we are given a “right-wrong comparison” and set up to think of the one who gives 10% of their income (or what we call a tithe) to the Temple as the bad one. I’m here to say that if you tithe, if you’d like to give 10%… or more… of your income, I will not think of you as the bad one. But it’s really not that simple either.
The Pharisee in today’s story is praying to God, thanking God that he is not like those who steal, those who practice adultery, or those who are tax collectors… he follows commandments and he tithes. And, in his prayer, we find out that he believes that this is about being in favor with God. But what isn’t explicit in the text is that Pharisees were widely admired amongst the Jewish people at that time as exemplars of faith and teachers of God’s commandments. They were role models.
Tax collectors, on the other hand, were greatly despised by Jewish people. Being a tax collector wasn’t at all like being an employee of the IRS in today’s world. A tax collector was someone who bid for the right to be a tax collector in an auction. Their bid was their claim to be able to raise a certain amount of taxes. And the highest bid won the auction.
This means a tax collector was colluding with the corrupt leadership of the Roman Empire to exploit people and he was gaining from that exploitation because it was expected that he would take his pay from the taxes he raised. Being a tax collector was a for-profit business venture.
So, while on first glance, we, with our 21st century ears, may be aggravated by the Pharisees’ seeming self-righteousness and think that the tax collector was really the good guy here, we have to hear this story as first century Jewish people would hear this story. They would have completely understood the feelings of the Pharisee and agreed with him. The question is then, if Jesus was a first century Jew, why is he offering this parable? Why is he making the tax collector out to be the “good guy” when he is someone who exploits people? What point is he making?
The lesson is in the extremes here. Had Jesus used other characters in his parable, his point would not have been made so clearly. Instead of the Pharisee, imagine of Jesus had used the character of a faithful farmer, or carpenter, or metalsmith? Even the most faithful of these people would not have been so widely admired and held up as an example of righteousness as a Pharisee. And imagine if Jesus had used the occupation of a farmer instead of the tax collector. Or even the occupation of a shepherd, or a woodcarver, or a weaver. None of these occupations were hated as deeply or understood to be as evil as the tax collector.
It is not what the Pharisee does that Jesus sees as the problem here. The Pharisee knows scripture, teaches, tithes his income, fasts, prays. He is an active and faithful member of the Jewish community. This is not the problem. And it’s clearly not what the tax collector does that is to be held as an example of righteousness. Exploiting others is not a just or righteous way to make a living.
The question is: Who is truly walking with God here? Is it the Pharisee? If he sees his faithful acts through the lens of pride, ways to gain admiration from others and to believe that his actions make God love him, is this walking with God? Or is it the tax collector who finds himself, perhaps, in a crisis of faith, humbling himself before God by acknowledging that he is not right with God?
Perhaps God isn’t offering a joke today. Perhaps there is a deeper lesson about stewardship in this reading from Luke’s Gospel. Because the practice of Stewardship is meant to be a humbling one. Stewardship is a practice based in true gratitude for all that we have as we recognize that all we are, all we have, all that we can be and has ever been is not really ours to grasp and to own
Today’s Psalm so clearly articulates this:
5 Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness O God of our / salvation, *
O Hope of all the ends of the earth and of the seas that are far a / way.
9 You visit the earth and water it abundantly; you make it very / plenteous; *
the river of God is full of / water.
10 You prepare the / grain, *
for so you provide for the / earth.
11 You drench the furrows and smooth out the / ridges; *
with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its / increase.
12 You crown the year with your / goodness, *
and your paths overflow with / plenty.
13 May the fields of the wilderness be rich for / grazing, *
and the hills be clothed with / joy.
14 May the meadows cover themselves with flocks, and the valleys cloak themselves with grain; *
let them shout for joy and / sing.
What we have is not ours to own. It is ours only to give in honor of the one who gives us breath, the God of all life. God who is Love. The practice of Stewardship then starts at the manger. And this is why it’s a practice of humility. The manger is the place where the most vulnerable among us is revealed to us as God Incarnate.
The manger is the place where the wealth and privilege and power of the whole world all come to humbly kneel before the most vulnerable. Stewardship as a practice of humility reminds us of what a gift this life is. And, therefore, what a responsibility we have to one another and to God. We do not walk this path alone. We are bound to one another simply because we all breathe. And this… this awareness… is the essence of Stewardship.
Stewardship is a practice of moving away from perspectives and philosophies like the American narrative of “every man for himself” or “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or thinking of ourselves as somehow “self-made”… and moving towards practices that acknowledge and honor our interdependence. We are made of the same earth. We breathe the same air. We are responsible to and for one another. So it’s not just about church. Stewardship is about God’s justice in this world.
And, in our common life here at St. John’s, stewardship is about the community. It does help sometimes to consider the gifts we receive in being a part of the community of St. John’s. To understand the value of this community and its importance in your life. This is a good starting place for many of us. But stewardship cannot be only about what we get out of it because then it’s not stewardship, is it? It’s a transaction that starts to look like the Pharisee’s practice – a pride that leads to somehow believing that we have God on a leash.
Regardless, there is value here… for you. Something about this place, this community, is meaningful to you. And you continue to invest yourself in this community simply by being here and praying and learning and listening and ministering with the rest of the community.
Because none of us can find meaning on our own. We are meant to be in community. We are created to be in relationship with God and with one another.