“My Father is Alive” – an approach to stewardship

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?

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[Updated September 2018:  We just learned the second proverb mentioned above.]

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Osotua

LANGUAGE IS FUN
If a stranger stops to ask for directions in parts of southern Appalachia, he might be told, “honey, you can’t get there from here.”  Communicating in a different language can be the same way.  Concepts that are as common as dirt in one culture might be unheard of in another.  So you want to learn how to say “please” in Maa?  Well, there isn’t a word for that.  Or maybe you want to say “thank you” in NgaTurkana?  Again, that vocabulary just isn’t there.  But sometimes it’s the other way around.  Turkana or Maasai cultures may have nailed down a concept in a single word that would take us a paragraph or a page to wrap our minds around.

OSOTUA
This is one of my favorite Maasai words.  If google translator worked for Maa (it doesn’t), it might translate osotua as “peace” or perhaps as “testament.”  The first is inadequate and the second is misleading.  Osotua is derived from the verb <asot>, “to join together.”  The root meaning of osotua is “umbilical cord” (the thing which joins the mother and infant together).  Consequently, one meaning is also “belly button” (the place where the thing which joins the mother and infant together was previously attached).  But this is just scratching the surface.

Osotua also refers to “a deep relationship of shared profound peace” (think the hebrew shalom, שלמ) “that is characterized by a closeness, tied-together-ness, and unity like that shared between a mother and an infant while the cord is still attached.”

A common Maasai blessing is Osotua le Nkai! (“Osotua of God”).  It means, “may you share osotua with God!”  It means, “may you be bound so closely together in a relationship with God that it is like that between a mother and infant when the cord is still attached!”

Another way to put it is that osotua is that type of relational peace and well-being that can only be found within a covenantal relationship.  Thus you will find that the Maa translation of the bible is divided into two parts:  Osotua Musana and Osotua Ng’ejuk (“The Old Osotua” and “the New Osotua”).  There isn’t really a word for covenant in Maa.  Olning’o, which means “kept agreement,” is commonly used.  But the bible translators recognized that a covenant is (or should be) something even stronger than an unbroken agreement.  A covenant is an olning’o that results in shared osotua.

A common Maasai proverb says Enkoshoke naata osotua:  “It is the stomach which has osotua.”  When I’m teaching in Maa, if I say “enkoshoke naata …” then the whole congregation or class spontaneously answers in unison:  OSOTUA.”  At one level this is as obvious as it is humorous:  “It’s the belly that’s got a belly button.”  Or you could say it more staidly, “the umbilical cord attaches to the belly.”  But both of those miss the point.  Another translation is “the stomach creates friendships.” 1  This is a proverb about table fellowship.  When we eat together, we have the opportunity to begin to build osotua in our relationships.  This is, of course, perfectly realized by christians when we share together in the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, Communion.  When we partake of loaf and cup, ah! (“taste and see that the LORD is good!”) then we see that it is true:  enkoshoke naata osotua.  When we break and eat the bread together, when we bless and drink the cup together, then we experience true osotuathat deep communion within a covenantal relationship characterized by holy peace and a closeness that is like that between a mother and an infant while the cord is still attached.

And so to each of you I bid:  Osotua of God to you!  Osotua of Christ to you!

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Note:  “Maasai” is the name of the people and the culture.  “Maa” is the name of the language.

1 So S. S. ole Sankan, p. 92 in The Maasai (Kenya Literature Bureau, 1971).

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