The Beauty of the Tithe
2 Chronicles 31:4-8, Malachi 3:10, Psalm 1, 1 Timothy 6:17-19, Mark 12:41-44
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 24, 2006
Heritage Congregational Church, Madison, Wi
The Biblical concept of tithing is something that is tricky to talk about. We sometimes think of it as a sort of mysterious, other-worldly thing that was part of the Old Testament life, but has no relevance for today. It is difficult to translate the concept of tithing from the language and culture of 600 BC to the language and culture we live now. The definition of tithing from the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms is: The practice of giving on-tenth of oneŐs property or resources to support a religious institution as response to God for GodŐs blessings. It was done in Israel (Deut 14:22) and at the time of Jesus (Mt. 23:23).
In reality, the Biblical concept of tithing begins all the way back in Genesis 14, with Abraham, then Abram, giving one tenth of his worldly goods to the King Melchizadek after God had granted him victory in battle. Abram knew to give back to God and understood that everything we have belongs to God. He was willing to give back ten percent. The practice of tithing continues throughout the Biblical witness, and we find the last reference to tithing in the letter to the Hebrews.
In the Old Testament, the tithe was often practiced as a sacramental offering in worship to God. It was also practices to support the Levites, the Priests, so they could devote themselves completely to GodŐs work, and share the bounty of the tithe with those in needŃthe widows and orphans, those who were ill. In the New Testament tithes or monies collected were often given to the various churches in support of the ministry done in GodŐs name through the churches.
But, there is more to the character of the tithe than just the amountŃten percent, and we find some of these references in our reading from 2 Chronicles. A tithe was always to be the best of what one hadŃunblemished animals, the first fruits of the crop. And the giving of the tithe always resulted in the appearance of an abundance. Did you notice in our reading that it took months to gather the tithe of the people. They gathered their tithe from the third month to the seventh month. We have an entire year to gather our tithe together, but the people of Israel brought it all in a few months. As the months went on, the piles of offered tithes became heaps, and the heaps so large that they had to be gathered together. Right in front of them was GodŐs generosity, GodŐs bounty. Right in front of them was also a visible demonstration of their devotion to God.
In speaking of tithing there are always some commonly asked questions that appear. So before we go any further, letŐs look at some of those questions. The first is this: How do animals and produce in the OT translate into money today? First of all, we have to look at the kind of economy society was operating with in Biblical times. It was very much a trade economy, people dealing in animals and the produce from the field or orchard. Think of the way some of the Old Testament people are depicted. Their wealth is noted by the largeness of their flocks, the enormity of grain stored in their warehouses, not by the amount of money they have in the bank. Think of Job, and his wealthŃlarge herds, many servants, an abundance of children. Job was a rich man. In our culture we might think of movies depicting the old west where the doctor is paid with a chicken. Would that work for us now? Could we take a chicken to pay our doctor? No, we deal in cold hard cash. It is the way our society measures wealth.
A second question that emerges quite often is that of net and gross income. Which does the tithe apply to? I donŐt know if that truly matters. It is the intent that is the thing. And perhaps a question is in order. If we all gave ten percent of our net income, would there be enough money to GodŐs work through the life of the church? Of course there would! There would be more than enough. Just something to think about.
The next question that come my way quite often is about charitable giving. Does that count as a part of our tithe? I believe we can only answer that by asking ourselves if our charitable giving is doing GodŐs work, helping GodŐs will to be fulfilled. Are the monies we are giving helping the realization of GodŐs Kingdom on earth. A very wise young person in this congregation pointed out to me last year that in Madison, Wisconsin we have more non-profit organizations than any other city of our size in the United States. And we can believe it, canŐt we? How many of us receive large amounts of mail from these organizations? And do our contributions to them count as part of our tithe? Certainly they do, as long as GodŐs work is being done through the giving of the gift. Imagine if we each gave five percent of our net income to the church and another five percent to other venues. We would have more than enough to do GodŐs work at Heritage, and we would be reaching out to help GodŐs people in other significant ways as well.
The last question has to do with the whole of stewardship--time, talent, and treasure. The question is this: CanŐt we just give our time and have that count as our offering? My answer would be no, for the three are not the same. Time, talent and treasure are like three legs of the stewardship stool. Each has their function. Each is necessary. You cannot substitute one for the other. If you do, the stool cannot stand. Treasure means treasure, not time, not talent. When we share our talent we sing in the choir or bake pies. When we share our time we volunteer. When we give money we are sharing our treasure. We are to offer our whole selves to God, from each area of our abundance. As our covenant says, we give of our selves and our substance.
Now, letŐs get back to the tithe itself. IŐd like us to think about the purpose of the tithe, why God has commanded it. First of all, it is a test of obedience. In 2 Chronicles, we find GodŐs people commanded to worship in this way. They are not asked. It is not suggested. It is commanded. If we tithe, we are obeying God. And what happens when people tithe? They think of God! They think of God when gathering in their crops, when their animals are giving birth, when trading goods. When the fruit is being picked, the first of every ten would be set aside for God. When the shepherd was out in the field with the animals, they kept their eye out for the best one to offer before God.
Therefore, tithing is not just about obedience, but also about thinking of God before anything else, giving God the first and the bestŃthe freshest, the unblemished. Tithing helps to put God first and foremost in the minds of the people. In the book of Leviticus, we find detailed descriptions of the correct way to make offerings to God. There are pages and pages of instructions! Is that just to make GodŐs people follow a lot of instructions, or is it to put God in the mind of GodŐs people and help God to stay there! Anything that can keep our minds on God instead of the world, anything that helps us to put God first is a good thing. The tithe is therefore a gift from God for the benefit of humankind, helping us to get focused on God and then stay there.
From obedience comes putting God first. And from putting God first, humanity learns to trust God. We might not think we have enough, that we are unable to do without that ten percent, but God tells us to put Him to the test. In our reading from Malachi (3:10), God challenges the people to give the titheŃwhether they thought they could or notŃand see what happens. God says Ňput me to the test!Ó and the result will be overflowing blessing and the windows of Heaven opened.
I have a good friend who told me a story about trusting GodŃabout putting God to the test. Karl Schimpf is the Senior Pastor at North Shore Congregational Church in Fox Point, just north of Milwaukee. He told me about a time when he and Dottie were newly married. He was just beginning seminary, and they were trying to live off DottieŐs salary as a nurse. This was their only income. When she received her first check, the began to pay their bills and found they did not enough money. They ran out of money. Karl wondered what they would do, and was worried greatly about how they would be able to survive seminary life. But Dottie knew about the tithe. She told Karl that the next time she was paid, he was to write a check for ten percent to the church first. Dottie urged Karl to put God to the test. He didnŐt know what would happen, but being a faithful man, he gave it a try. The next month they tithed to the church, paid all of their bills and had money left over to live on. Karl told me that since that day they have followed the same practice, and have never been without.
When thinking of tithing, the question to us is about trust. Do we place our lives in GodŐs hand? We say we trust, but do we trust God with everythingŃwith our money! Today in MarkŐs gospel we read the story of the poor widow. She had almost nothing in life, but trusted God. She gave all she hadŃnot ten percent, but one hundred percent! She gave God her life. She understood the attitude of obedience, trust and generosity. Somehow she trusted that God could do more with her money than she could. She stored up a treasure of a good foundation for the future, as we are told in 1 Timothy, taking hold of the life that really is life, life lived in trust of God.
As I see it, we have three choices when it comes to our offering to God. We could figure out the rest of our bills first, then give God what is left over. Many people do this, and that is why we have many pledges of $100. Could the church survive if everyone pledged $100? Of course not! We would not even be able to pay the electric bill with that, much less do GodŐs work in the world. Secondly, we could figure in our offering to God along with the other bills, deciding on them all together. Our offering to God might be a little higher this way, but I doubt it would be enough to follow our calling from God completely. Our third choice is that we could put God first, trusting that the bills will be paid. We could think of GodŐs Kingdom first when we get our paycheck or receive a gift. When we tithe, we remember GodŐs abundance to us and receive it with an attitude of thanksgiving and generosity that results in sharing.
And what is the result of tithing? What happens when we trust and obey? In 2 Chronicles the answer is clear. The people are obedient, they trust God and give a tithe. And as a result, an abundance appears. Imagine seeing that! GodŐs people faithfully bringing their tithe, day after day, week after week, month after month, the piles in heaps! Just picture it! GodŐs blessings visible, right in front of us!
Tithing is not easy. We have many demands made on our pocketbooks. But it is a goal to work toward. It is holy work to grow in sharing the abundance we have been given. If everyone gave two or three percent of our net income, would we have enough to meet the budget of our church? If everyone gave five percent, think what we could do to fulfill our calling from God to reach out. And if we ever worked up to tithing, to each of us giving ten percent, just think what God could do through the generosity of Heritage Church!
When everyone gives a little, the result is a lot. There is an abundance far greater than we could ever imagine on our own. In the abundance we see GodŐs grace before our eyes, and we see our devotion to God. This is the beauty of the tithe. Amen.