Stewardship

Friday, June 7, 2013 — Week of Proper 4, Year One

The Pioneers of the Episcopal Anglican Church of Brazil, 1890

[Go to http://www.missionstclare.com/english/ for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 968

Psalms 40, 54 (morning) // 51 (evening)

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

2 Corinthians 8:16-24

Luke 18:9-14

We have several passages with references to money and wealth today.

In the reading from Deuteronomy the congregation is told to take the first fruits of the harvest and bring it to the priest. The priest sets the offering on the altar. There follows a fine liturgy, as those presenting the offering remember their ancient story: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…” They recite their sacred history — their sojourn as aliens in the land of Egypt and growth into a great nation; the oppression of harsh labor; their cry to God for deliverance; the Exodus from Egypt into “a land flowing with milk and honey.”

I know many people who have a “first fruits” ritual on payday. When they receive their check, they make their “first fruits” offering by writing the first check that will come from this income as their offering to God through the church. Many people who tithe write their check for 10% of their income. Others who may be working toward a tithe will write their check for whatever proportion they have pledged. In such a way they join this ancient Hebrew tradition of thanking God by giving a first-fruits offering for all that God has given us in this land flowing with milk and honey.

The end of the reading includes a celebration. Those offering gifts along with the priests bow down together before the Lord. “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given you and to your house.” Note the inclusion of the aliens in the bounty and the celebration of the community.

If we were to read the verses beyond those assigned for today, we would see that every third year, instead of taking the first fruits to the temple, the tithe is distributed among “the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so they may eat their fill within your towns.” The Levites were the priests, who had no land for their wealth and so were dependent upon the offerings of the congregation. The aliens, orphans and widows were poor and vulnerable. The whole people are given a responsibility to care for the poor and vulnerable. This is a consistent theme in scripture.

We see a similar theme picked up in Paul’s letter to Corinth. Yesterday’s reading included his powerful appeal to the wealthy Corinthian church to give generously toward his monetary collection for the needs of the struggling church in Israel. As is so often the case when money is involved, there is some tension about the project, and Paul declares his intent “that no one should blame us about this generous gift that we are administering, for we intend to do what is right not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of others.” Transparent accounting. That’s in the Bible too!

This large section about the money collection is significant. It focuses Paul’s energy for two full chapters (8 and 9).

Lest we become too legalistic about our offerings, we have the word from Luke’s gospel today where Jesus contrasts the piety of a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee is confident and self-satisfied, thanking God that he is not like other people. He goes beyond the legal requirements of the tithe. But the tax collector stands empty handed, humble in his appeal for God’s mercy. Jesus blesses the tax collector’s prayer.

The bottom line — Stewardship is a spiritual issue. What we do with what we get is important.

God has blessed us. Our thankful return of the first fruits is a grateful acknowledgment to God that God is the source of our wealth and blessing. And God has made us responsible for the welfare of our neighbor, especially the poor and vulnerable. We are to give generously and to do so humbly. As we heard Jesus say in Monday’s gospel reading: “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”

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