It was the spring of 1964. I was a sophomore mathematics major at East Texas State University. I wanted to do more than just attend worship and the devotionals at the local Bible Chair, so I let the elders know my desire. They responded quickly—cut out the pictures in the visual aids packet for the Vacation Bible School teachers.
Imagine my disappointment! Who did they think they were dealing with? I was the best student in my calculus classes—just ask Dr. Stuth. Didn’t they know I had a brain? Were they just asking me to do that because I was female? Would they have asked a young man to do something so menial? What were they thinking? I cut out the pictures, while all these thoughts ran through my mind. For years, I used this as an example of how women are treated in the church—basically as “second class citizens” who can only do jobs that don’t require a brain and who can just teach children. I didn’t understand what God was teaching me.
Six years later, in 1970, we moved to a small West Texas town. I was a young preacher’s wife, the mother of a nine-month-old, and eager to be the “perfect” preacher’s wife. I was assigned to teach a children’s class on Sundays because that’s the class the former preacher’s wife taught. In searching for pictures and worksheets to use, I noticed the teacher’s workroom/storeroom was a total mess—pictures scattered everywhere, no organization, no orderly filing system. I asked the elders if I could clean and organize the room. They were happy to oblige.
For an entire week, I brought Tonya’s port-a-crib to the building and worked all day on the room. I vacuumed and dusted the area. I sorted and filed pictures, worksheets, extra booklets, etc. One afternoon, a deacon’s wife came and helped me. On the following Sunday, one of the elders announced that they wanted to thank this deacon’s wife for cleaning and organizing the teachers’ workroom.
Imagine my disappointment! I had worked five whole days! She had worked one afternoon! I was livid, but tried hard not to show it. Didn’t they know I was the one who volunteered to do the work? Why didn’t they give me credit for the job? What were they thinking? For years, this just “stuck in my craw” to use an old country expression. Again, I didn’t understand what God was teaching me.
In the summer of 2006, I was asked to teach lessons on “Phoebe, Servant of the Church” at the 2007 European Christian Women’s Retreat in Spyer, Germany. A lot had happened in my life prior to this invitation. I had spent seventeen years as a preacher’s wife, nurturing my children in the Lord, teaching children’s classes, ladies’ classes, home Bible studies, VBS, going on campaigns, and speaking for ladies’ days and retreats. Later, I was blessed to be working beside my husband in a school of preaching, mentoring young preachers’ wives and teaching their classes while teaching mathematics in high school and later in the local community college. And, after our children were grown, my husband entered another phase of ministry—teaching in schools of preaching for the Bear Valley Foreign Extensions Program. In the summers, I was privileged to go with him and fulfill a dream I’d had since I was 18—helping the missionaries throughout the world. Thus, the invitation came to speak on “Phoebe, Servant of the Church.”
The email from the sister organizing the program stated, “We want you to encourage the women to use their talents to serve the Lord.” And so my study began. I reread the book of Acts and studied my notes from having taught the book. I highlighted in blue every time women were mentioned and made a chart of the time, events and women involved. I went through my files and found notes on many of the lessons I’d heard about using our talents. Of course, Jesus’ parable of the talents was the basis for most of these lessons. I had known that parable from my childhood, but I read it once again, this time meditating on it and praying for wisdom.
[Tweet “Have we focused so much on “using our talents” that we’ve come to praise “talented” people?”]
As I studied, several things stood out to me. Perhaps we have focused so much on “using our talents” that we had come to praise “talented” people. Look at how many church websites focus on their “talented staff.” Many ministries advertise that they are led by “talented” writers, speakers, etc. I remembered one of my friends who wanted to take the focus off of “talented” and began to use the word “gifted,” but she was making the same point. In all our talk about “talents” or “gifts” the emphasis was on the person with such talents or gifts. We compare preachers, teachers and speakers, using words like “interesting and enjoyable,” “eloquent,” “dynamic,” “intelligent,” and many others that place the emphasis on the person, not on the message. Churches advertise for a preacher talented in speaking and motivating members to “use their talents.” It almost looks like we are having a talent show or sending out talent scouts like the coaches do before the new football season or the directors do before staging a show. Then I asked myself if I was just being picky or even tacky in making these observations. All these thoughts and self-examination brought me back to the parable. What was Jesus teaching us?
Stewardship is hard for us to understand in America. We own things—land, houses, cars. We earn money so we can own even more and bigger things. Slavery or servitude has a bad connotation. Like the Jews of Jesus’ day, we like to say, “We have never been in bondage…” Because of this, our interpretation of Jesus’ parable is usually on “using our talents” in the kingdom.
However, the parable is not about using our talents. It is about stewardship. And, there is more than a subtle difference in the two! Notice in the parable the talents (money) belonged to the master. The servants owned absolutely nothing prior to being given the talents. And, they owned absolutely nothing after receiving the talents. Nowhere in the parable do you find the master telling his servants to use their talents. They knew what to do because they knew they were servants (or stewards). They knew the money belonged to the master, and they knew they were accountable to use it to increase the master’s wealth. The only one who focused on how much he had been given and who misunderstood the concept of stewardship was the man who received just one talent. He refused to use it to increase his master’s wealth. He just returned what he had been given. Even in doing that, he acknowledged that it did not belong to him – “Look, there you have what is yours” (Matt. 25:25).
When properly understood, stewardship keeps us from comparing talents, from searching for “my talents,” and from being idle. Each Christian is a steward of the Master’s goods to increase the Master’s business. Whatever you have that you may call yours is really not yours, but belongs to God—education, job, lands, houses, ability, etc. It has been entrusted to you to use in His kingdom.
[Tweet “Each Christian is a steward of the Master’s goods to increase the Master’s business.”]
However, there is one very special trust that we all share—we have been entrusted with the gospel. Paul describes that trust in 2 Cor. 4:7, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” Notice his emphasis: we are just “earthen vessels”—not “talented, eloquent speakers.” Why? So the glory and power goes to God and not to us! When we understand, as did Paul, that we are “…servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4;1), we will be more concerned about increasing Christ’s kingdom through spreading the gospel in any way we can, than in seeking honor and advancement for ourselves. Peter agrees and applies the concept of stewardship to preaching and other aspects of ministry: “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:10-11). Notice, again, Peter’s emphasis—we are to fulfill our stewardship according to whatever God has given us to do. And, the purpose is not that we may be honored or praised, but that “God may be glorified…”
Now, I want to return to those two experiences with which I began—cutting out VBS visuals and cleaning and organizing the teachers’ workroom. It took me a long time to learn the lesson, but in 2006, I finally understood what God was teaching me in those experiences.
- First, servants do what needs to be done. It doesn’t have to be a “showy” or “important” work. It doesn’t matter how menial and insignificant it might seem to be to the smart math major, if the job needs to be done and if I can do it, then as a steward of Christ, I do it.
- Second, servants do the work without concern for who gets the credit. Oh, that was a hard one for me! I was used to making the highest grade on the tests, to being praised by my professors, and I had to learn that there is no “grading system” and no competition among stewards. We each give all that we have and are to do the very best we can do as a bond servant of Christ. However, I must always remember there is a fine line between doing my best because I’m working for Christ to bring glory to Him and doing my best because I enjoy the praise for what I have accomplished. Paul concluded his discussion of stewardship in 1 Cor. 4 with the statement, “Moreover, it is required in stewards that one be found faithful” (v. 2). Notice that Paul said the requirement is not “talented,” “gifted,” “intelligent,” or “eloquent,” but faithful. And, I’m also reminded of Jesus’ statement in Luke 16:10, “He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much.”
[Tweet “Servants do the work without concern for who gets the credit.”]
Thinking back to the “treasure” of the gospel in 2 Cor. 4:7 and to all that God has entrusted to us, I want to close with an illustration about an earthly steward and his absolute faithfulness to his master in protecting his master’s “treasure”, his fortune. This illustration is from my favorite movie of all time—“Ben Hur.” The story is about a wealthy Jew, Judah Ben Hur, who is falsely accused by the Romans. His steward is arrested, his mother and sister are imprisoned in Jerusalem, and he is banished to serve as a galley slave, rowing in Roman battle ships. Through a series of unusual events, he is adopted by a Roman general and given his freedom. Judah then returns to Jerusalem to find his mother and sister. He goes to his house, which is deserted except for one room where his steward, a friend from prison, and the steward’s daughter are living. Judah’s steward is frail and crippled. He explains his situation: “The Romans tortured me; they beat me severely with rods; and finally, they broke my legs. But I wouldn’t tell them where your fortune is.” Then, smiling, and reaching out a hand to Judah, he says, “Your fortune is safe with me!” This is a question I ask myself and I want to ask you: “Is God’s fortune safe with you?”
by Sarah Fallis
Sarah Fallis is the author of The Drama of Redemption: Walking With Jesus From Creation to Canaan and The Drama of Redemption: Walking With Jesus Through The Prophets.