Stewardship as a Privilege
The Earth Is the Lord’s, and Everything in It
By A. Rahel Schafer
When Christians hear the word stewardship, many associate it with an image of God demanding 10 percent of all income. While God does expect responsible use of the money He has given us, the biblical picture of stewardship is broader and much more positive. The sabbatical year in Leviticus 25 encompasses environmental resources, money/possessions, and time/opportunities, showcasing the stewardship principles that should pervade our lives and hearts. Here are a number of important facets of biblical stewardship:
1. Earth-care is our primary responsibility: “The land shall keep a sabbath to the Lord. Six years you shall sow your field . . . but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land. . . . What grows of its own accord of your harvest you shall not reap” (Lev. 25:2-5).
The injunction for the sabbatical year begins with a reminder that humans are to be caretakers of the earth. We are made in God’s image, and can even be considered the climax of Creation, but our purpose is not to exalt ourselves and/or exploit the environmental resources under our dominion. Indeed, humans are to act as God’s representatives on the earth, ruling it as He would if He were in our place. The Hebrew verbs in Genesis 1:26-28 do not give license to abuse, but demand a just and wise rule over God’s creation. Genesis 2:15 reiterates this principle of environmental stewardship by using Hebrew verbs for humanity’s care of the garden that are normally associated with the priestly care of the temple.
When animals are in need, Jesus instructs us to take care of them, even when doing so on the Sabbath requires what would normally be considered work (Matt. 12:11; Luke 13:15; 14:5). Humans are held responsible for the state of the earth and all the creatures that live on it (Rom. 8:19-22; Rev. 11:18).
2. People (and animals) are more important than profit: “And the sabbath produce of the land shall be food for you: for you, your male and female servants, your hired man, and the stranger who dwells with you, for your livestock and the [animals] that are in your land—all its produce shall be for food” (Lev. 25:6, 7).
The sabbatical year does not just entail rest for the land, but its yield during that time is to be given to all those who are in need or oppressed, including the animals. Thus, helping the poor is much more important to God than making money or accumulating possessions. In Deuteronomy 26:12-14 the people were to give even their tithes to those who were poor and hungry.
Jesus reiterates the heart-changing intention of the law in Matthew 23:23, when he states that justice and mercy are inseparable from acceptable tithing. Paul implies that we should not become destitute ourselves in order to help the destitute, but that we should give as much as we are able, not just what is required (2 Cor. 8:12-14).
3. Any advantages in this world are only temporary: “And if you say, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, since we shall not sow nor gather in our produce?’ Then I will command My blessing on you in the sixth year, and it will bring forth produce enough for three years” (Lev. 25:20, 21).
The year of jubilee was a special type of sabbatical year, when slaves were freed and land was returned to its original owner. Even more than during the typical sabbatical year, however, anyone who lived off the land would likely be worried about how they were to survive this lengthy period with no agricultural activity. Thus, God reminds the Israelites that He has promised blessing and sustenance to those who are faithful to follow His law and let the land rest. The language here is similar to Malachi 3:8-12, where God promises to pour out blessings on all those who return their tithes to Him faithfully. Trusting God thus involves relinquishing not only one’s possessions and money, but even one’s time and opportunities for advancement (three years off from agriculture, release of all slaves, return of any acquired land, usury/bribery forbidden).
In the New Testament the church realized the value of these jubilee principles, and attempted to make them applicable at all times as they shared everything in common, helped the needy, and supported freedom from slavery (Acts 2:42-46; 4:34, 35; 5:14-16; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11; Philemon 15-17).
4. Everything we own actually belongs to God: “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine” (Lev. 25:23).
While it is important to detail stewardship requirements concerning the environment, money, possessions, time, and opportunities, the most crucial principle is God’s ownership of the world and everything in it. We usually think that only the tithe must go to God (Lev. 27:30), but in reality, all that we have belongs to God (Ps. 24:1; 1 Chron. 29:14). Indeed, even our bodies are not our own, as we have been joined with Christ and bought by His blood (1 Cor. 6:15-20).
5. Stewardship is the ultimate call to rejoice in redemption: “Therefore . . . you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God” “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God” (Lev. 25:17, 38).
In reality we are privileged to practice stewardship. Deuteronomy 14:22-29 calls for rejoicing when bringing tithes/gifts to God. For that is what tithing truly is, giving to God what He has given to us in trust, which instills in our hearts a spirit of thankfulness and delight in the God who redeemed us from destruction and who has given us so many good gifts.
In addition, God requests that we use these gifts to further the gospel and to help those who are in need. Our thankfulness for redemption leads others to that same redemption, spreading the good news and hastening God’s return. Just as the tithes supported the priests in the Old Testament (Num. 18:26; 2 Chron. 31:4-6), our support of those who minister the gospel is equivalent to supporting God Himself (2 Cor. 8; 1 Cor. 9:8-14), and we should rejoice in our privilege to do so (Rom. 15:26).
Recently, I have been commuting through downtown Chicago, and the many homeless and hurting people remind me of how blessed and rich I am. However, even if we were to lose our homes and all our possessions, Christians are rich in the things of God. We are always God’s stewards of our time and opportunities, giving every moment to our Savior who gave all for us.
A. Rahel Schafer is an assistant professor in the Religion Department at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States. She and her husband, Kirk, love to backpack, climb mountains, and lead church youth groups.