Was Jesus a Democrat or a Republican? A statist or a libertarian? Jesus' "economic theory" cannot be reduced to modern political alternatives. The economics of the kingdom can never be reduced to a worldly agenda. In Christ's teaching, neither wealth nor poverty is glorified. The kingdom is both a time of plenty (because it has arrived) and of suffering (because it is not yet consummated). It encompasses two important dimensions of stewardship: ecclesiology and eschatology.
The connection between giving and the church is evident in Jesus' encounter with the rich young ruler in Luke 18. The renunciation of the power of wealth is necessary in order to be a disciple of Jesus. The rich ruler was called upon, not simply to sell all, but to "follow me." Giving is always coupled with following. So renouncing the power and authority that come with wealth marks one's entry into the Christian community, displaying discipleship both in heavenly-mindedness and in radical trust.
We are stewards because we have been bought by Christ and brought near to him. His possession of us sets the priorities in our kingdom life. Those who demand God's favor in light of their wealth, or who demand a place of authority because they are successful businessmen, will receive their payment in full.
In the Old Testament and the New, the institution of the church was the major focus of the giving of the believer. The leadership then took the money or food and dispensed it to the needy among their flock. Practically speaking, how can we apply this general principle from the Old Testament (Mal. 3:8-10)?
First, we should not give out of a sense of guilt to those who use questionable techniques to obtain donations. If we have given our tithes and offerings to the church, we need not live in guilt. Secondly, while parachurch organizations may be supported by individuals, the principal share of our giving must be to the church. Parachurch organizations, if they are legitimate at all, exist to serve the church, not to take financial support away from her.
No less practical, the eschatological dimension reminds us that we are to be stewards because the end of the age is at hand. "the end of all things is near," Peter writes in 1 Peter 4:7. Therefore, "each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others" (vs. 10).
Luke 12:35-36 couples stewardship with watchfulness as mutually reinforcing characteristics of Christian discipleship. We must be dressed for service "like men waiting for their master." This is in contrast to those who use plastic money like there is no tomorrow. Because the time is at hand, because our Master is so near, we must be good stewards.
Stewardship is more than money. It is the right ordering of our entire lives and the proper employment of all our gifts for the building of the kingdom. And this perspective on stewardship defies all efforts to calculate it in terms of bottom-line financial lingo. Even the concept of tithing ten percent of our income as a benchmark for stewardship can be perverted if we do not see the full extent of Christ's lordship over our goods and resources.
From a worldly point of view, the question of stewardship - "What would Jesus donate?" - will always prove confounding. To paraphrase Marva Dawn's book, we must affirm that Christian giving is a "royal waste of money." That is, simply by giving we do not accomplish anything useful in the world's terms. In imitation of our Savior, who wasted himself for our salvation, we too are to become poor in order to make many rich. In so doing, we rejoice with Paul at what the world cannot understand: "having nothing, and yet possessing everything" (2 Cor 6:10).
The author is a ruling elder at Lake Sherwood OPC in Orlando, Fla. Adapted from Tabletalk, February 2000.