The concept of stewardship does not resonate well with modern democratic ears. The implied necessity of subserviency, of having responsibility only in lieu of the presence of a higher authority, smacks of ancient hierarchy and seems contrary to our independent and individual times. The only abatement in the term’s long decline comes when it is paired with a vague and impersonal idea – stewardship of the environment, stewardship of the economy – where no other being can seemingly claim mastery or kingship over it. Alas for the harsh critique of stewardship, for the denigrated and decayed understanding of its essence.
What does it mean to be a steward? Certainly something seems off with the words of Denethor, son of Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor:
“Yet the Lord of Gondor is not to be made the tool of other men’s purposes, however worthy. And to him there is no purpose higher in the world as it now stands than the good of Gondor; and the rule of Gondor, my lord, is mine and no other man’s, unless the king should come again.”
Unless the king should come again: even when forgotten or intentionally disregarded, the very idea of stewardship requires the existence of a king, the potential presence of a higher power. The life of no man or woman should be lessened to that of a tool, with lesser dignity and value: and yet, a steward is an instrument of another’s purpose, of a cause greater than himself. The steward does not own or command, but instead oversees and preserves. It is a subtle distinction, one that can easily be corrupted in the long-simmering fires of pride.
Stewardship is a form of service, one performed with humility and anonymity. For the steward works diligently and passionately not for his own sake, but for the sake of his master: of the king, of the cause. The glory does not belong to him: the fruits of his labor are not his to enjoy be right. The steward has been given gifts that he does not deserved, charged to cultivate them and share them with the other subjects of the authority, and then return them to their proper owner at a time perhaps unforeseen. It is not surprising, then, how jarring stewardship should appear in our times and culture.
Further, we must recognize the truth in Gandalf’s description of his own work and stewardship:
“The rule of no realm is mine, neither of Gondor nor any other, great or small. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair and bear fruit and flower again in the days to come. For I also am a steward.”
How then are we, the Lenten pilgrims, to live as stewards on our journey? We are both the Denethors and Gandalfs of our age. Like Denethor, we have been given stewardship over particular domains which, at times, we guard with jealousy. Yet we are also tasked to care for all worthy things that are in peril. In this, though, we must be wary of diluting stewardship so as to believe, for example, that stewardship of the environment is a good in itself. Stewardship only endures as it points to the ultimate owner, master, and king of that which is preserved: the ultimate king of all, God Himself.
The forms of stewardship are diverse and vary: the responsibilities doled out to each are to their ability and their nature. To labor at dutifully, to maintain loyally, and to cultivate in faith of the coming of the King: these are the joys of the steward. The true sign of stewardship, ultimately, is this: the longing to see that which we love – those things both at home and scattered abroad, all good things of worth – endure, even beyond ourselves.