Cross-cultural life & work are exhilarating. Asking what it means, practically speaking, to live with Jesus from the view point of a different language and culture can open your eyes to the teachings of Scripture in new and profound ways. We have found this to be especially true as we have struggled with culturally relevant and biblically faithful ways to teach stewardship.
In many western contexts, teaching on stewardship can be summarized like this:
That stuff you think you own? It’s not really yours; it’s God’s. So treat “your” resources accordingly.
This approach captures part – but not all – of the biblical teaching on stewardship. But in East African contexts, as soon as you say “it’s not really yours” you’ve lost your audience and thrown in the towel. The Maasai have a proverb that explains this: The cow says, “don’t lend me. Just give me away.” This is because the cow knows that if it is lent, it will not be well cared for. Only when there is ownership is there also proper stewardship. We also see this in the teaching of Jesus in John 10.12-13.
The hired hand, who is not a shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and abandons the sheep and flees. So the wolf attacks the sheep and scatters them. He runs away because he is only a hired hand and has no concern for the sheep.
Only when you can say “it is mine” or “it is ours” can stewardship be faithfully practiced. There is another Maasai proverb that emphasizes this: All things which their owners care for endure. The twofold implication (which is clear in the Maa) is that only owners properly care for possessions and only proper stewardship enables things to last.
There is a place to teach that stewardship is the management of someone else’s resources. (See, for example, Matthew 25.14-3.) But it is also necessary to recognize we are the recipients of God’s gifts. What God has given you is now yours.
ORE TINIATA MENYE, MIMURATA
Another Maasai cultural proverb suggests an alternative approach to the traditional western interpretation. Now if you have a father, it observes, you’re not really circumcised. For many tribes in East Africa, including the Maasai, boys are ritually circumcised during adolescence. This event marks a major transition. No longer a boy, the circumcised male is now a warrior and a man. So the proverb is saying that if your father is still alive, it is as if you are still a boy. Culturally, if your father is alive, it’s as though you are still a youth.
Why is this? Because you show natural respect for your old father. You honor him by consulting with him before you so much as a sell a goat to obtain school fees for your children. Are you 60 and a grandfather? If your dad is still alive, you will consult with him before you sell a goat to obtain school fees for your grandchildren.
Traditionally this is NOT abusive patriarchy. It is not just that the old man remains the nominal head of the extended family. Rather, he is recognized to have wisdom. He can guide the younger generations in the best way forward. Being past the point of self-seeking desire, he has a broader perspective about what is best for the whole family. The primary interest of the old man is in the well-being of his whole family. So he will advise them accordingly. He receives enkanyit (proper respect and honor) and gives in return counsel and blessing.
(Western cultures used to practice something similar. We called it “filial piety.”)
For those of us who follow Jesus, we know that our Father Papa God is alive. This does not mean we are not responsible adults. It DOES mean we should invite God into the process as we consider the management of our resources.
That stuff you own? It really is yours. But your Father in heaven is very much alive. Will you consult with him about how you use your resources?
[Updated September 2018: We just learned the second proverb mentioned above.]