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As Paul says, people ought to regard us as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:1).
I sometimes wonder how history will look upon our lives – maybe it’s because I’m getting a bit older. How long will it be before everything about us is forgotten by the generations to come?
I remember my auntie taking me and my mother to the graveyard of her family church in Bedfordshire and pointing out various family graves. At one spot she indicated an area of green and told us, “That’s where my Uncle Jim is buried. They were too mean to get him a headstone so his grave is unmarked.”
She knew the exact spot because she had been there at the funeral many years earlier; but now she too has passed away, and soon nobody on the earth will remember that in that patch of grass Uncle Jim is buried.
Certainly 4,000 years on from now, I suspect that nobody will have any recollection of Michael Gowen. Yet, thanks to the Bible, there are people we still remember who lived on this earth four millennia ago.
Some of them we know by name: Joseph – reborn for a new generation by Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s technicolour dreamcoat musical – his 11 brothers, his father Jacob, and so on. And some we remember, but we don’t even know their name: Pharaoh (there are various suggestions of which one he might be), his cupbearer, his baker and … Joseph’s steward.
Joseph’s steward makes a walk-on appearance in the narrative of Genesis 43 & 44. We don't know his name, but we do know several things about him. It seems that he was a fair man (Genesis 43:19-23), a kind man (Genesis 43:24-25), a man who faithfully obeyed orders (Genesis 44:1-4), and a man who acknowledged God (Genesis 43:23).
Much more important than his name, though, is the role that he played. For it was to him that Joseph entrusted all his dealings with his brothers when they came to Egypt from the land of Canaan to buy food to help them through the famine.
A steward in biblical times was employed (or was a slave) to look after all the affairs of another person’s household: ensure that all the provisions were ordered and delivered, ensure that there was food on the table for meals, pay the bills, deal with the tradesmen, ensure that the place was clean and orderly, organise the duties of the servants and slaves and oversee them.
The Bible tells us that we too are stewards: Paul says, People ought to regard us as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God (1 Corinthians 4:1). Probably because ‘steward’ is a rather outdated word (unless you follow horse racing, then you know that the Jockey Club has stewards), the newer translations don't use the word; for example, NIV translates “stewards” as “those entrusted with the secret things of God.”
The next verse in 1 Corinthians tells us the crucial quality of a steward: It is required in stewards that a person be found faithful. Joseph’s steward was a faithful man: his faithfulness in carrying out the tasks which Joseph delegated to him led ultimately to the fulfilment of God’s purposes for Israel, with Jacob and his whole family settling in Egypt and surviving the famine which was ravaging the land of Canaan and could have easily wiped them out (Genesis 45:5-7, 46:3-4). So we see that faithfulness enables us to fulfil the purposes of God in our life.
In order to carry out his/her tasks effectively, a faithful steward needs two essential things: authority and resources. Without his master’s authority, nobody would take any notice of him and he would not be able to get anything done; and without resources (money, materials, labour), nothing could be achieved.
If we wish to be faithful stewards, both of these things are available to us. One of the last things which Jesus said to his disciples before his ascension was, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” and then he sends them out. When we go in his name, we go with his authority (Matthew 28:18-20), an authority which is “for building people up, not tearing people down” (2 Corinthians 10:8, 13:10).
As for resources, we have something far more valuable than money, materials or labour, all of which are transitory. We are called to be “servants to one another, as good stewards of the multicoloured grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10).
This grace of God is immensely powerful; it is the only power in the universe which can vanquish sin (Romans 5:19-20). It is also immensely rich: Paul speaks of the incomparable riches of his grace (Ephesians 2:7) – there is nothing like it! It is the one thing that Paul wishes for all the churches and individuals to whom he writes his letters.
It is all the more surprising, then, that I hear so few prayers where people are asking God for his grace. Without it we can never accomplish his purposes as faithful stewards; with it, there are no limits.
Through the faithfulness of Joseph’s steward, the race of the Jews, chosen by God for special purposes, was preserved and is still in existence some 4,000 years later.
Future generations may not remember our name or anything about us, but if we cooperate with God’s grace and faithfully steward it, who knows what purposes God will be able to fulfil, long after we have departed from this earth?