It’s October, so it must be stewardship season at your local church. Every sermon is centered on the theme of giving. The choir or band rolls out its most impressive pieces. Musicians playing brass instruments appear to sway the emotions of the crowd. Pledge cards are collected. And the same few Bible verses pop up to stress the need to give.
I’ve sat through more than two hundred stewardship services, and the more I hear sermons reflecting on those verses, the less sense they make to me. The verses don’t say what the pastors want them to say. Or, at least, I think they don’t. Last Sunday at my own church the sermon featured the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee tithes and is proud of his faithfulness; the tax collector proclaims his sinfulness and begs forgiveness. Jesus says that it’s the tax collector who goes home justified: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Note: In this story, the guy who tithes is the bad guy! The guy who doesn’t is saved! It’s hard to square that with a stewardship appeal.
(Incidentally, this parable appears only in Luke, who seems to have his own source or sources, generally called L, that were unavailable to the writers of Mark, Matthew, and John. The L parables often concern what today would be called social justice, and are a major source for the social gospel. Even when stories are shared, Luke puts a distinctive social justice spin on them.)
Or take the story of the rich young man, which appears in Mark 10 and Matthew 19. He asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. “Keep the commandments,” Jesus answers. The young man says that he has done that all his life. In Matthew’s version, he then asks, “What do I still lack?” In Mark’s, there is no such question, but Jesus looks at him and loves him, and then says that he still lacks one thing. Jesus says, “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew adds the important qualifier, “If you would be perfect.”) The young man, crestfallen, walks away.
Sermons on this story tend to provoke an ad hominem reaction in me. Not once have pastors using this to urge me to give to the church been numbered among the homeless. Not once have pastors of mine sold everything they have and given it to the poor, before or after preaching such a sermon. That alone leads me to suspect insincerity.
But that’s just part of a larger issue. Jesus doesn’t urge the rich young man to tithe. He asks him to give everything. Even the most aggressive stewardship campaigns don’t do that.
Moreover, Jesus tells the rich young man that, if he wants eternal life, he should keep the commandments. In Matthew’s version, at least, that seems to be enough. Giving up everything seems to be a matter of perfection rather than a requirement.
There’s another aspect of the story that no one mentions but that strikes me as central. The rich young man has a chance to join Jesus’s group. That’s a remarkable opportunity–a chance to get in on Christianity at the ground floor, if you will, and to become a disciple–that you and I don’t have. We can be followers in a more indirect sense, but he had a chance to talk to Jesus, hear his sermons, be with him day and night, and know him as well as anyone could. That was priceless, and well worth surrendering a fortune for. We don’t get that opportunity in this life, and it seems odd to me to use this story to argue, in effect, that the indirect opportunity we do get is worth 10% of income rather than the full 100% of wealth Jesus asks from the young man.
In both Mark and Matthew, the story continues, and Jesus proclaims that it is harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Pastors are fond of quoting that to promote guilt. Set aside the question of whether the average parishioner ought to be considered rich. The disciples are astounded by Jesus’s words, and ask, “Who then can be saved?” If the story were really a stewardship story, the answer would be, “Those who support the mission of the church with their time, talents, and treasure,” or something of the sort. If it were a social justice story, it would be, “The poor,” or, “Those who give what they have to the poor.” But Jesus says neither of these things (which is perhaps why Luke chose not to include this story, even though he probably had access to Mark’s gospel). He says, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” In short, this is a story about grace. We can’t do anything to earn eternal life. It’s a gift.
I have heard one stewardship sermon on the story of the rich young man, about ten of fifteen years ago, that said roughly what I’ve said above. That’s one in over two hundred, but sometimes, at least, a pastor confronts the Bible passages squarely and honestly. That too is priceless, and a gift.