The Glory and Futility of Stewardship

Sunrise over the fields in Southern Israel, near the city of Beer Sheva. (Photo: Edi Israel/Flash90)

Why loyal stewards struggle with redemption, and how the up-side-down logic of God’s Kingdom comes to our rescue.

Forgive me for the outrageous title – but I think it’s profoundly true – and intensely real for me and for many of my peers in the Kingdom of God. It holds both warning and promise as we seek to practice redemptive stewardship.

To start, let me share a story about 3 business partners:

The founder, Josh, diligently built a food packaging company with his bare hands over several decades. As the company prospered, he took on two high-potential apprentices, Ben and Stu, to train-up and eventually take over the business. Ben was energetic, creative and ambitious. Stu was hard-working, methodical and frugal. Ben was popular and knew how to motivate staff, while Stu’s consistent sound judgement ordered the business into profitable growth. Quickly both became junior partners, though Josh (the founder) stayed in charge for a long-time.

Eventually Ben got impatient, sold his shares in the company and used the proceeds to fund an exciting new venture. Unfortunately, this startup was more flash than substance, and when the economic bubble burst, the firm crashed and Ben found himself lonely, penniless and unemployed. After a string of low-paying jobs, he realized he was wasting his potential and decided to approach Josh and see if he could get his old job back. Josh, though naturally disappointed in Ben’s past choices, still loved him, believed in his potential and was worried about his situation. So when Ben showed up unannounced one afternoon, Josh got so excited he threw a huge impromptu office party to welcome him back.

Just then Stu came back from his daily inspection rounds through the factory departments. He was pleased the firm had finally recovered from the damage caused by Ben’s departure. Rounding the corner of the building, Stu was shocked to see a big party tent on the front lawn, replete with loud-music and BBQ pits. Flagging a passing accounting clerk, Stu wondered out loud if somehow he “missed the memo.” He was about to make a snide remark about waste and unproductive activity when the clerk related the actual reason, leaving him in stunned silence. Enraged, Stu just stood there at the edge of the parking lot, fuming as he recalled that Josh NEVER threw a party for him. Meanwhile Josh, noticing Stu standing there, excitedly rushed up to tell him the great news of Ben coming back…. And you know the rest of the story.

This parable has been named “The Prodigal Son”, but I am guessing Yeshua’s original title was “The Lost Steward”. The picture of the Father running to embrace the son who squandered his inheritance is a beautiful and grace-filled encouragement to us regarding God’s heart. However, it is not the climax of the story. Rather, Yeshua’s key punch-line is the Father pleading with the embittered older son to embrace the full measure of his identity: “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (Luke 15:31-32).

Both sons misunderstood their identity by equating it with their responsibility. Only one son found redemption, and it was by failure, honest confession and repentance. The older son, though obedient and excellent in stewardship, was measuring his worth the wrong way and couldn’t accept or extend grace.

Herein lays the dark-side of stewardship and the heart-ache, frustration and even seething anger I encounter among sincere servants of God. Though we consciously deny it, we have internalized the world’s logic that outcomes = value. We believe our faithful service is what undergirds our worth, and the “fruit” we produce is what God most values. It is this “good kid” psychology that drives us to perform for God by our own power, and corrupts the function and practice of stewardship by turning it into an unhealthy identity. Excellence driven by a needy zeal to win God’s approval becomes our slave- master. Ironically, the more accomplished we are, the more blind we become.

When we confuse our identity with our task, we take responsibility for outcomes rather than resting in simple obedience. Worse yet, we are not able to experience personally the very redemption we seek to facilitate. So, even at its pinnacle, stewardship without intimate identity results in bitterness, and an inability to receive and give God’s greatest gifts of sacrificial grace, acceptance, love, peace and joy.

We begin with great vision and noble intentions. But as results fall-short of our expectations and desires, we feel failure and frustration. Since God whom we serve so sincerely is perfect, we either internalize this as personal inadequacy, or we blame Him for not blessing the work we are doing on His behalf. In either case, we are now descending the distinctly UN-redemptive path of bitter judgement. Unrepentant, this path can end in burnout, depression, self-destructive, addictive and abusive behaviors, with severe personal and communal outcomes.

By contrast redemption is a process of rescuing, saving and/or ransoming (buying the freedom) of the one sold, trapped or enslaved. The Hebrew for redeem, Ga’al, is linguistically linked to being covered with blood. It is an action motivated by the duty and devotion of a family member or community leader. It requires the redeemer have a recognized identity, a blood-relationship to the redeemed (or inheritance rights to the property), and ability to pay. Clearly, Yeshua is the perfect redeemer:

1. His double identity as Son of God and Son of Man. 2. Being a Jewish man – having blood-kinship with the people of Israel and humanity in general. 3. Laying on the altar all of His divine glory and life-giving-life as substitutional payment – shedding and covering us with His atoning blood.

Stewardship is the practice of guarding, cultivating and growing someone else’s treasures, on their behalf. The word steward in Hebrew, Sochen, means agent, representative and even power-of- attorney. It is a position of trust, requiring the trustee be faithful (Ne’eman) and reliable (Amin). In the Hebrew, these two words come from the same root as the word FAITH (Emunah), and its origin word – nursemaid (Omenet) – the one entrusted to nurture and raise the household’ most precious members, its children. The Greek word, oikonomos, expands the concept to management, meaning overseer or superintendent of household affairs. Thus, stewardship in the Greek is closely associated with providing for the needs of the extended family or community – economics.

Stewardship is an honorable function, often reserved for the most capable servants in a household. It was the highest rank a devoted slave or ambitious hired-man could hope for.

Yet, no steward, however capable and trustworthy, can redeem of their own accord. Only a free person, owner of their own resources and blood-relative of the captive can truly perform this function. It is an act rooted in identity, requiring personal sacrifice.

When studying Biblical examples of stewardship, one of the foremost characters is Joseph, son of Israel. And for good reason: Joseph is an arch-type of the Messiah – sold into slavery, unrecognized by his own brothers, yet bringing salvation not only to his family, but to all of Egypt and the entire ancient near- east. Furthermore, we see in him a perfect picture of calling, giftedness and faithfulness combined with hard-work. A man who with great grit, devotion, integrity and excellence, remained faithful despite circumstances that would have embittered most others (myself included). He is a model of stewardship, par-excellence. In fact, he is TOO perfect – inhumanly so.

The Bible notes that in his drive to maximize profit for Pharaoh (perhaps to prove his fealty and worth?), Joseph hyper-monetizes the “redemptive process” God originally intended to preserve life (Genesis 47:13-26). Joseph proceeds to impoverish the Egyptian people, moving them in-mass from a free land- holding agrarian society into feudally-bound urbanized serfs of Pharaoh. It is the very opposite of the Biblical picture of societal righteousness – “each man under his own vine and fig tree”. Joseph’s very gift, his highly-skilled stewardship overworked and unconstrained by healthy boundaries, may have been the direct cause of Egyptians antipathy towards the Hebrews – slavery begetting slavery.

By contrast, there is another man whose story intertwines with Joseph’s – his half-brother Judah – a man in search of redemption. 4th son of Jacob, Judah is born into a family whose members for two generations have been deceiving and competing with one another for the father’s attention, love and favor (Genesis 25, 27, 29-30). Judah is the first to suggest selling Joseph for profit rather than killing him. Perhaps he felt pity for Joseph or thought killing a family member went too far, but he couched his argument in pure economic logic advising they capitalize on the opportunity (Genesis 37:26-27)

We next find Judah abandoning his family (Genesis 38:1). Joseph is sold into exile against his will, but Judah goes into self-exile unable to face his father. Belatedly he realizes the terrible impact his actions had on his family. Likely, Judah is not able to handle his father’s grief knowing he caused it, and the collective stress and shame of maintaining the ongoing deception is too much to bear. So, leaving his father’s household, Judah tries to build his own separate community and family. His attempts at creating his own peace fail miserably: Judah’s two older sons are put to death by God for their wickedness, his wife dies prematurely, and in his low moral state he unwittingly impregnates his own daughter-in-law. Judah, humbled and broken, confesses that pagan and conniving Tamar is more righteous than himself (v. 26).

Like the prodigal son, Judah rejoins his family a changed man, acting with increasing responsibility and leadership. He is able to forebear Jacob’s serial dysfunctional favoritism and over-protectiveness of Benjamin, rather than resent it – as it no longer threatens his own identity. Before, as a needy, spiteful and greedy man, he sold into slavery a half-brother he resented for getting all of his father’s attention. Now, as a son with deep love for his father, Judah sacrifices his own freedom as a substitute offering in place of the other unfairly favored half-brother (Genesis 44:18-34).

It is Judah, not Joseph, who steps into the role of redeemer. A leader of his brothers, Judah offers up himself to ransom a kinsman out of bondage, while Joseph, the accomplished steward who provides for his family, is still struggling to find his way home. Judah, who tried and failed to build his own legacy, is now secure in his identity as son, and can therefore act as a redeemed redeemer. It is at this time that the meaning of his name is fulfilled – “I praise the Lord”.

This is reason leadership and the monarchy of Israel remained within the tribe of Judah– and it is from this line that the Princes of Israel – King David down to the Messiah Yeshua came.

Interestingly, the Hebrew word for prince embodies the very qualities of a redeemer, and lights the way to true redemptive stewardship. The word PRINCE – Nasich – means anointed AND poured-out-one (literally libation offering). As children of God and co-heirs with the Messiah (Romans 8:13-17), this is our profound identity: royal sons of the king anointed to be poured-out as a representative offering for the people.

The highest form of redemptive leadership is therefore sacrificial – to risk ourselves in faith, creating a safe environment for others to gain freedom, be healed and grow. This redemptive effect is amplified by effective stewardship skills. However, excelling in stewardship can become a trap unless practiced within the protective boundaries of secure identity, meek dependence on God’s spirit, freedom from outcomes based self-value, and motives sourced in love.