#20 of a Series on Psalm 50
I’m taking a brief pause from the verse-by-verse walk through Psalm 50 to address a question that came to my mind, namely,
“What has penance got to do with Christian stewardship?”
I figured it to be an appropriate question here because, after all, I do title this blog Stewardship Now, with the subtitle, Orthodox Christian Reflections on Life and Stewardship. Embedded within the titling is the sense I have of the importance of a lived Christianity now, and in daily life. Stewardship is central to that way of living. But what does stewarship have to do with the theme of Psalm 50 – repentance?
First, a word about how I view stewardship for those who may not have read elsewhere. Taking the imagery from the creation narrative where God establishes man and woman in the Garden of Eden as its caretaker, symbolic of the ‘dominion’ given to him over all the earth and the creatures of it (Gen. 1, 2).
But when I explore the biblical roots of this idea, I run into the problem of the nuances of language. Many translations of Gen. 1:26: Let Us make man in our image … Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of heaven,…”(Orthodox Study Bible) use terms like ‘dominion’ or ‘rule.’ ‘‘Dominion’ in the English language implies a total power or authority as it is linguistically derived from ‘Dominus’ in Latin, meaning ‘God’. But Man is not God so he does not have godly dominion! Rather he is to serve in the image of God as His worldly and royal representative. It’s precisely in this point of departure – understanding empowerment by God of a type of authority and responsibility that we lay a groundwork for a right understanding of stewardship – or not. When man becomes ‘dominus’, creation will be used for sinful purposes. This is at the heart of the story of the Fall in the Garden in the Garden of Eden, and the relationship of God-man-creation is ruined. Who will be Dominus?
So what is sin then, if not a failure of stewardship? In the simple imagery of fall of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, the sin is an abuse of a gift (the fruit in the Garden) taken (stolen) because it was not entrusted to man by God, rather explicitly forbidden to him by God, unlike all of the other fruits. God’s directive is either obeyed – leading to faithful stewardship, or not. Furthermore, the eating of the fruit internalized the sinful act establishing the corruption literally within Adam and Eve. It is no accident, that Christ, in restoring humankind to purity and holiness, would do it by giving us something to eat – the Eucharist.[ii]
Forgiveness is necessary because the Original Sin was a failure in this fundamental human stewardship vocation. If we see that our life consists fully and only of what God has entrusted to us, then all of our sins will somehow relate to how we fail to carry out the divine mandate to live in a way that is pleasing to God, in every dimension of life.
How Have I Failed You? Let me Count the Ways
Here are a few simple of examples drawn out from this premise:
1. Pride and Vainglory – Pride is a failure to submit to God’s dominion over us, everyone else, and the world He created, preferring personal dominion over our ourselves and all things. This is a failure of the most basic gift entrusted to us – the gift of a right relationship with God Himself. Related to this is the sin of vainglory, which is the drive of the ego to exultation of one’s self above others – putting us above them in our own minds reflecting self-aggrandizement inwardly and also in external actions. In essence, I am better than you… rather than, I am here to serve you.
2. Theft – Is simply taking that which has not been entrusted to us, but instead often intended for others. It can take every imaginable form – not only of simple things like a piece of candy in the store or embezzlement at work to the theft of less tangible things like intellectual property, to societally authorized theft, such as corporate or governmental exploitation of the poor.
3. Lust – Adultery–Fornication: These sins of sexual desire are a failure of the will to accept the boundaries established by the Lord in human relationships where a woman is entrusted to a man (and vice versa) in the sexual expression of marriage. The penitential prayer of David is required because of his fall into this sin. In the case of fornication, it also means the defilement of the body of another person who is engaged in this activity contrary to God’s will. These sexual sins called porneia in the New Testament, also take countless forms in things like pornography, homosexuality, incest and any other actions that promote lustful thoughts and feelings. These are all failures of stewardship of our bodies, which have been blessed by God in their sexual nature and expression, intended for holiness and love.
4. Lying – The Truth is a great gift of God. It is the essence of His Nature which Jesus affirmed when He said, “I am the Truth.” (Jn.14:6) Therefore, lying is the opposite – the failure to affirm, steward and transmit the Truth, most often for a certain fallen/egotistical intention. I lie to get something I want. Lying destroys another great Gift of God – which is Trust. When the atmosphere of relationships is tainted with lies, there can be no trust. This is perhaps the greatest evil of our age.
8. Relationship Failures with Others – Every relationship is entrusted to us by God in some fashion. The most powerful and lasting are those closest to us – our spouses and families. Simply put, if the marriage relationship is not cared for, it will result in anger, violence and disruption followed by dissolution and divorce. Close relationships like parent-child relationships, are to be stewarded with great care and, failing that, children wind up abused and neglected. But the Lord has a commandment for children going the other way – ‘Honor your Father and your Mother’ (Ex. 20:12) means that the relationship is two ways in its ability to bring the very experience of love to another. Love is to be the heart of every relationship as found in the great commandments to love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. (Mk. 12:31) We gift of relationship is everywhere! It’s part of the essence of Christian-church life (fellowship). Our extended families, employment, public service, social circles, neighborhoods, schools, etc. all become the realm of relationship – and hold the temptations that lead to relationship failures. Our new technology allows us to see the possibility of ‘neighbors’ around the globe, with whom we can enter into some form of relationship, characterized by love, or something else.[iii]
5. Murder – Violence: Is a breakdown of the stewardship of the precious gift of life. Perhaps there is never a more clear example of this than abortion which is infanticide– when the precious life of another is willfully and selfishly taken. Violence becomes the ‘air’ which is breathed when an appreciation of the gift of life is lost. We see that, increasingly, as murder is legally permitted in the streets of America, the atmosphere of violence becomes more toxic to all who inhabit it. This is because so many people in recent generations have been sent to war, ostensibly for ‘good’ reasons, but themselves are wounded by the violence.
There are countless other examples – here are but a few more:
6. Waste – A steward who is aware is diligent seeking to care for all entrusted to her or him. Hence whenever we waste something, it is a failure of stewardship. Over the years, especially as I get older (!), I become aware that Time is one of the greatest gifts of God to us that we are most likely to waste. When we squander it, some day we come to regret it and we run out of it. This happens to almost all as they get older, when they look back and see how they wasted their time, which means that they wasted their lives. Another thing that we can easily squander is our health. God’s gift of health (even if imperfect) is easily wasted when we trash our bodies with what we eat or drink, when laziness keeps us from exercise, or through a lifestyle that deprives our bodies of what we really need, even sleep. Our materialistic lifestyles has led to great waste and a disruption of the physical world and we trash our life-sustaining ecosystems in materialistic pursuit. The beautiful life-sustaining earth becomes a toxic trash heap.
7. Sins of the Mind – Our inner rational thought capabilities are among the greatest gifts to us in our human condition. The Apostle Paul exhorts,
“Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Phil. 4:8 NIV)
In the entertainment and Internet age, it is easy to focus our minds on things with no lasting importance, all the while ignoring things like growing in our understanding of Scripture and the spiritual life. Evil thoughts can take many, many forms – but in the end our thoughts couple with some other inner desire within, and we end up using our minds for evil and not for good. That coupling of our minds with desire is called covetousness – where we then focus our life energies and resources on acquiring things only of limited, short-term earthly value or pleasure. The mind’s great power can be corrupted in other ways if there is no inner, moral formation. The one who is capable of great scientific discovery is also capable of failing to direct it in such a way that the very discovery brings great harm to others, instead of help.
9. The Care of our Soul – In a sense, all of the above come under the broad umbrella of our fundamental relationship with God which can be either focused and nourished, or abused and ignored. God’s gift of Himself in Christ is the most precious gift – our Faith in Christ and the life in the Spirit. As stewards of the spiritual life our souls will be nourished by prayer, reading of God’s Word, participation in Church life, exercise of spiritual gifts unto eternal life and salvation, or ignored or discarded unto our damnation.
This is a very short list of some of the gifts entrusted to us all, in different and even distinctive ways to each of us. Often, we are unaware of them or worse, see these somehow as entitlements.[iv] The sins for which we must repent in the Spirit of Psalm 50, are any and all of the above – they are all failures to steward the blessings of God. The coming to an awareness of God, as the source of “every good and perfect gift that comes from above” (Jas 1:17) leads us to an awareness of how we have not lived in a way worthy of our calling to steward these gifts. In some cases, that failure leads to the gift being taken from us (like the death of the ill-conceived child of David and Bathsheba – see 2Sam. 12:15ff) and a descent into the heart in sorrow can lead to a resurrection of the spirit of surrender to God of all things in life and the change of heart described as repentance in the scriptures.
Conclusion – The Answer
So, to answer the question, ‘What does penance have to do with stewardship?’ we can say everything! We can see that penance is our only way to be restored when we have failed (sinned) in any and all of these areas of stewardship which is the heart of Christian living. Because each of us is entrusted with different gifts and uses them (or misuses them) distinctly, our penance must be personal and reflective of our personal life, our own failures. No one else can confess my sins but me.[v] David’s sin led to the disruption and destruction of his soul. His repentance was the restoration of his soul, his mind and his will to once again carry out God’s gift of his relationship with Him, and the rest of his life.
Penance means turning back to this fundamental orientation from creation – where God is the Lord and has dominion over us once again. Christian stewardship is the recognition of this, returning to God and offering penance is the first step of making sacred the offering of our life to Him again, purified through repentance. Ω
Note: For those who may wish to explore this topic further, I have developed a Stewardship Examination of Conscience, that explores many facets of living as invitations by God to be faithful stewards of His gifts – and listing them, we can quickly see how, where and sometimes why we fall short and sin. To acquire a copy at not expense, simple contact me here: https://www.orthodoxsteward.com/contact/ .
[ii] Much of this follows the thought of the late, Fr. Alexander Schmemann. His chapter on the Eucharist in For the Life of the World and The Eucharist, provide rich reflection on this basic act of eating. (Both published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press)
[iii] I’ve found that in my Facebook account, there are a large number of African folks who just want to be ‘friends’ so I say OK! But then I find that they have hopes, dreams, sorrows and souls. How does one steward that from a distance?
[iv] With the rise of an ‘entitlement mentality’ in America today, it is very easy to confuse what we think belongs to us by right, and what is actually a gift of God. At the moment of death we learn that everything has been a gift and that we have either accepted and used it wisely, or abused it in one way or another.
[v] Sometimes we face a big challenge teaching children how to confess their sins. We use formulaic expressions and general categories of things they might do wrong. But what is needed for children and adults to really grow through true penance is when they are touched with how they have personally and distinctly failed before the face of God. This opens the door to the experience of a very personal experience of the mercy of God in His forgiveness of the very sins confessed and His distinctively personal love not only for ‘all of us’, but for me. This is when the opening lines of the Psalm ring true, “Have mercy on me.”