Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Aug. 7, 2022.)

JRR Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings trilogy presents his story in the world of Middle-earth. One of the lands is the Kingdom of Gondor. In the absence of a king, the land is ruled by a steward. At the time of the story, this steward is Denethor.

Tolkien makes it clear in his narrative that the steward is not the king. His role of him is to rule the land until the king returns. He is to take care of it and its people, protecting them from the enemy.

Unfortunately, Denethor was not a good steward. He lost his focus and was obsessed with preserving his power from him, not properly caring for or protecting the people and lands of Gondor. He wanted to be king rather than steward, a role he could never attain, and the quest consumed and destroyed him.

Jesus speaks about stewardship in today’s Gospel. The concept is not a new one; it goes all the way back to Genesis. In the first creation story, man (male and female) was created last of all creatures. The author describes the wonders and beauty of the created world in the days leading up to the creation of man. Then, on that sixth day, man is created and given the responsibility to care for and cultivate the whole of creation (Gen 1:26-31).

God gives man the world as a gift. The gift is to be used for the good of all and to be cared for properly, and man is to be the steward of all God’s creation.

Jesus takes the concept of stewardship to a new level. The stewardship is not just of the earth and its creatures, but of the kingdom of God.

Jesus begins the instruction by saying: “Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.” He then highlights the value of the kingdom. It is more valuable than any possession. Possessions will wear out and fade away, but the kingdom will endure eternally. Jesus urges us to respect, value and protect this gift, “for where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”

He illustrates the concept by using the Parable of the Faithful Servants. In the parable, he describes the servants who are prepared to welcome the master on his return from him, whenever that might be. They live in readiness or vigilance. They keep watch for the return. They are prepared for his return from him.

When Peter asks Jesus about the parable, Jesus offers another illustration in which he uses the phrase “faithful and prudent steward,” which seems to refer to the steward in the earlier parable. This steward will be rewarded on the return of the king, for he took care of his responsibility from him well. Poor, neglected or abandoned stewardship is illustrated by the servant who, thinking that the master is delayed, “begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants, to eat and drink and get drunk.”

The stewardship of which Jesus speaks in this passage is given to all his disciples. The kingdom of God is described elsewhere as a “great treasure.” All of Jesus’ teachings on life and how to live life in a good way, God’s way, reflect and help make manifest the kingdom of God.

Jesus gives us these gifts to be cultivated in ourselves. Good stewardship entails the ongoing incorporation of these teachings, indeed the Way, into our lives. In doing so, we fulfill the responsibility of stewardship.

Jesus identifies some of the obstacles to good stewardship as a warning or a “heads up” because they are easy to fall into. Distraction, fatigue, disillusion, indifference, neglect or carelessness are some examples — hence the call to vigilance with regard to good stewardship, for “much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.”

In the passage leading up to this one, Jesus says: “Do not worry about your life and what you will eat, or about your body and what you will wear. For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Notice the ravens: they do not sow or reap; they have neither storehouse nor barn, yet God feeds them. How much more important are you than birds! … As for you, do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink and do not worry anymore. … Instead, seek his kingdom from him, and these other things will be given to you besides. Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.”

Jesus gives us the kingdom. We are the stewards awaiting the King’s return. He encourages us to be good stewards by caring for, cultivating and sharing the great gift that has been given to us.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.