A Theological Reflection on Property and Ministry
Rev. J. P. Kang
The claim has been made that “a clear theme of scripture is that God gives us land to steward for ministry.” However, this is not obvious and is in fact questionable. The Scriptures do not articulate a universal and consistent teaching about land (or ground or earth) and our relationship to it, and so interpretation and discernment are always required when thinking about and making decisions about land.
The two creation accounts found at the beginning of Genesis characterize the relationship between human beings and land in significantly different ways. In the first account, humanity is commanded “to fill the earth and subdue (lit. ‘dominate’) it” (1:28)—as masters and owners. In the second account, Adam is placed in Eden to cultivate (lit. “serve”) and care for (lit. “guard”) it (2:15)—as servant and tenant. Differing visions of humanity’s place in creation are juxtaposed in these opening chapters, and the tension remains evident throughout the Bible.
In Genesis 11, the primary problems with the tower-builders of Babel are that (1) they chose to settle down, in open disobedience to the thrice-repeated command (Genesis 1:28; 9:1, 7) to fill the earth, and (2) they had no interaction with the LORD in their planning and building—until it was too late. For their defiance and self-reliance they were evicted, becoming a cautionary tale for projects undertaken without consulting the divine building inspector. Note that the story is not criticizing the otherwise natural human desires for stability or ambition, but it is an early reminder that wisdom is vindicated by listening and obeying (Matthew 7:24–27). In these examples, land is literally and figuratively a stage on which human motivations are exposed.
It is true that land, along with lineage, are the LORD’s oft-repeated promises to Abram (chapters 12–50). Abram’s descendants, however, realize the “promised land” through genocidal conquest (Joshua), which complicates, if not compromises, the value of the gift. The subsequent history of the land (Judges through 2 Kings) that ended in the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles shows that, far from being cultivated for holy use, the land was defiled by the idolatry of the Israelites and Judeans. God purges polluted land by removing its inhabitants, one time by flood (Genesis 6–7) and later, by a figurative vomiting out in the exile (Leviticus 18:25–28). Bottom line: the exile teaches us that land is not an ultimate good, and that God’s purposes are not frustrated even when God’s people are landless.
Thus we see a variety of attitudes toward land in the Old Testament, and we need to be on guard against readings that conclude that the value of land justifies any means of attaining or retaining it. Such readings of the Old Testament, transposing “promised land” onto contemporary maps, have been used to legitimate the imperialism of ideologies such as Manifest Destiny and Zionism.
The New Testament likewise expresses a variety of views about land.
In the parable of the sower (Mark 4; Matthew 13; Luke 8), the responses to the word that is sown are represented by different types of terrain: smooth, rocky, thorny, and good soil. Perhaps the most disquieting thing about this parable is that God is free to sow wherever God chooses, and that the terrain has no power to “improve” itself. This story is paired in all three accounts with the confounding word of Isaiah 6:9 (“Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand”) that divinely ordains deafness and blindness even for those who hear the good news. Humility and reverent fear should attend our reflections on the terrain represented by our lives.
If we seek models for how land is to be used for ministry, we might first consider the negative example found in the parable of the man who planted a fig tree, which repeatedly failed to produce fruit: “So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’” (13:7; compare Isaiah 5:1–7’s song of the vineyard). What do these parables suggest about a possible faithful response to a non-productive ministry?
Then there is the example of Acts 4:32–37, where the early church’s communal ethos extended even to real property for the sake of eliminating poverty: “for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold” (v. 34). Even if we don’t believe we are supposed to imitate them in this particular way, we can certainly learn from the spirit of the way they disposed of their assets as we consider the question of the proper disposition of property.
Land thus has potential to be a tool for ministry, but like any tool, its positive or negative value results from the way in which it is wielded. And as with tools, using the right tool at the right time can make all the difference in finishing a job well; conversely, using the wrong tool or using a tool in the wrong way usually leads to wasted effort and even damage. Land can be, like a sacrament, an ordinary substance that becomes a vehicle for God’s grace, but in and of itself land has no special properties or powers. What it is or will be depends on God first, and secondarily, our response to God’s word to us, here, in this place.
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