Usufruct and the church

August 17, 2010 | Viewpoints | Number 15
Mike Strathdee |

Think much about use of fruit?

In January, Beryl Jantzi, a U.S. stewardship educator, told a gathering of pastors at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind., that they should spend some time pondering the concept of usufruct.

Usufruct is the legal right to use and derive profit from something that belongs to another person, so long as the property is not damaged. The concept dates back to Roman times.

The word doesn’t appear in the Bible, but it has great application to a Christian worldview. Spend some time with it and you will come to realize that there is a really rich vein to be mined. Usufruct comes from the Latin expression usus et fructus, meaning “using and enjoyment.”

We can also think of “use of fruit.” How do we use the fruits of our life for our enjoyment in ways that honour God and aren’t damaging to God’s property? We’re called to do both—and God’s property is everything we have been given.

As we accept God’s lordship and ownership of all, the conduct of our lives becomes pretty relevant to a discussion of the use of fruit.

In Leviticus, God told Moses that people working the land need to leave some of the harvest for the less fortunate: “Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your fields, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest” (Leviticus 19:9).

But the media and culture of our world encourage us to harvest right to the edge of the field, and often beyond, unfortunately. We live in a country where the average person spends $1.47 for every $1 they earn, where a staggering proportion of the trillion-dollar debt Canadians owe was put on credit cards for things that have no lasting temporal, let alone eternal, value.

Leaving anything around the edges, let alone for anyone else’s benefit, is a pretty countercultural concept. Part of me really is attracted by the arguments in Richard Swenson’s book Margin. Swenson stresses the need to leave space—or margin—in four areas of our lives: finances, physical energy, emotional energy and time. Part of that involves the word “no.” It’s also a question of will, of being committed to under-scheduling our lives and budgets, to “[leave] room to respond to the unexpected that God sends our way,” in Swenson’s words.

Swenson’s book has been around for decades. The cover on the edition I bought a few years back was incredibly compelling. It pictured an expired parking meter, a sad metaphor for how our society often lives.

To live in the heart of God, to experience or grow into a life of “faithful, joyful giving” that we are called to, means that we have to do the hard work of thinking about and working at things that aren’t so common: Things like not harvesting to the edge of the field of our lives, leaving some reserves of time, energy and money so we can respond to God’s call in our life; and things like margin and usufruct—use of fruit.

Mike Strathdee is a stewardship consultant at the Kitchener, Ont., office of Mennonite Foundation of Canada (MFC). For stewardship education and estate and charitable gift planning, contact your nearest MFC office or visit MennoFoundation.ca.

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