Should You Be a Debtor or a Steward?

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Sermon 51 in the standard numbering of John Wesley’s sermons is titled “The Good Steward.” His text is Luke 16:2: “And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward” (KJV).

Wesley spends no time in seeking to explain the difficult parable, but instead zeroes in on the reality that someday, all of us must “give an account” of our stewardship. In doing that, his opening move is an interesting one. He begins with a reflection on human identity. All of us as sinners are debtors. We are born into this life owing a debt to God who has created us. The problem of course is that it is a debt which cannot be repaid. That’s the basic bad news of our human plight. We lack the basic ability to atone for sins, to repay our debts. The good news of the gospel, of course, is that God has repaid the debt which we cannot. Jesus clears the books and gives us a new beginning.

The really interesting move Wesley makes, however, is this: Christ transforms us from debtors into stewards. We are given the new identity of a particular type of servant: a steward. Wesley says, “We are now indebted to him for all that we have; but although a debtor is obliged to return what he has received, yet until the time of payment comes he is at liberty to use it as he pleases.” In other words, debtors have a certain kind of freedom. They can use what they have in any way that they desire until repayment is due. The problem of course, is that eventually repayment always comes due!

Wesley continues: “It is not so with a steward: he is not at liberty to use what is lodged in his hands as he pleases, but as his master pleases.” In other words, Christians forfeit a particular type of freedom when they are transformed from debtors into stewards. Our relationship to all that we are and all that we have undergoes a recalibration with our redemption. We lose the illusion of independence, of self-containment and self-sufficiency. And we gain a new vision that we are blessed in order to do particular things. We have been entrusted with “bodies, souls, good, and other talents” to be used for God’s purposes.

Many of us seem to struggle with this new identity. As Christians, we have been transformed into stewards, but we want to live as if we are still debtors. That is, we want to live as if we can do anything with our things. We want to keep the illusion of freedom even when we ought to know better. So often, we don’t sound all that different from those who are still in debt: “It’s my money. I’ve worked hard for it and I’ll use it as I see fit!” Or, even worse, “It’s my life and I’ll live how I want. I’ll live according to what feels right for me!” And so on…

Perhaps one way of understanding the long work of being made perfect in love is our ongoing waking up to the reality that Christ has taken away our illusion of freedom in order to give us true freedom. Perhaps the sanctified life is our slow realization that we have gained a new freedom in the Lord. That is, in Christ, we have been given his freedom which is the freedom to give. We need no longer need to cling to this or that, knowing that ultimately we cannot. Perhaps missionary martyr Jim Elliott said it best: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” That freedom to give ourselves completely can never be taken away by anyone or anything else because only Christ can give it to us.

Our ministry of encouraging good stewardship is important, but its importance goes far beyond paying the bills or maintaining the church. Ultimately, encouraging stewardship is helping Christians to embrace a new identity in Christ and to experience the freedom which he alone can give. Thank you, Father Wesley, for always reminding us of that!

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Philip Jamieson became President of the United Methodist Foundation for the Memphis and Tennessee Annual Conferences in 2013. He holds degrees from Taylor University, Asbury Theological Seminary and Boston College. He is a member of the East Ohio Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. After serving local churches for eleven years, he taught pastoral theology at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. He is married to Jan and they are the parents of two children. They are also the coauthors of Ministry and Money: A Practical Guide for Pastors and the 2012 United Methodist Guidelines for Finance Committees.

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