Money is such a sticky subject in churches these days. Nobody likes to talk about it or ask for money, really – or, at least, we’d rather talk about something else. It seems that churches, by and large, tend to take one of a few different approaches to this concept of “tithing”: they never talk about it, they talk about it in the context of blessings and prosperity, or they talk about it in the context of being a commandment and obedience issue.
No wonder nobody likes to talk about it if those are our only options.
I wonder if part of the problem isn’t a lack of historical connection of what tithing is all about. And I’m not just talking about a “biblical” history of tithing, I mean a more inclusive history of tithing.
Because tithing isn’t an inherently Jewish or Christian notion. Tons of ancient religions practiced tithing. Ancient Chinese, Egyptian, Babylonian, and Greek religions (among others) all practiced this idea of giving ten percent of whatever you had to their priests. The reason was largely twofold: you had to assuage the gods’ wrath, and on a practical level you had to fund the religion.
So when Abraham gives ten percent of his war plunder (not his own possessions) to some randomly mentioned priest/king named Melchizedek, it probably wasn’t some great prophetic glimpse into the Mosaic Law-to-come. He was probably just following local religious traditions of the time.
Later when the nation of Israel was established, Moses and his brother Aaron – carrying out the instructions of God – set up the country as a theocracy. The priests were the educated, ruling class of the country. In order to fund the nation’s political and religious activity, the Israelites borrowed the idea of the tithe from other religions and enacted it for themselves. Everyone in the nation was to bring ten percent of whatever increase they had experienced (new cattle, grown crops, new land, new houses, etc) and give it to the local Levites (the priest’s servants). The Levites in turn took that to the Temple in Jerusalem, the political and spiritual capital of Israel. (Scholars differ as to just how many tithes the Israelites were required to make… some think it was only one, while others think it was as many as three, totaling as much as 23%.)
All of this was codified in the Law of Moses, which is understood as the crux of the Old Covenant God had made with his people.
So what about us today? Obviously, we don’t live in a theocracy (much as some fundamentalist Christians would like to). We as “religious” folks don’t need to fund political activity as the Israelites did (thank goodness) — our government does that through a mixture of taxes, tariffs, and other revenue streams. But we have set up quite an expansive religious institution that requires financial gain to survive.
So is that what a tithe boils down to? Is that all it is? A funding mechanism to keep religion going? To pay the priests/pastors and keep the lights on?
To hear some people talk about giving or tithing, you would sure think so.
To hear other people tell it, tithing is a way to coerce God to bless you – or, on the flip side, to appease his wrath. “Give, and you’ll be blessed!” some pronounce. Others look at the glass half-empty: “If you don’t give, you’re robbing God and you will be cursed!”
Sounds an awful lot like the ancient pagan religions this post started with, to me. And so it makes me wonder: if Jesus came to make all things new and to restore this world to what it was meant to be, shouldn’t our view of giving be different, too? If he didn’t come to perpetuate an institution, but rather to institute his Kingdom, shouldn’t our approach to money reflect that, at least on some level?
What if giving wasn’t about keeping organized religion going? What if it wasn’t about tapping into the blessings, or avoiding the curses, of God? What if it wasn’t just some ritual to do out of pure obedience? What if… what if it were so much more than all of that?
What if Jesus was serious when he said he came to defeat death and to give people abundant life and freedom, and to start his Kingdom? What if the earliest Christian writers were serious when they said God was love and was in the business of restoring shalom?
What if we looked at giving through those lenses?
What if giving was a way to experience abundant life… what if we give corporately, as a church, in order to more powerfully and effectively help others experience that life in the Kingdom… what if we take seriously the New Testament encouragement to give cheerfully out of our hearts rather than out of a sense of duty or compulsion…
And what if, drawing upon all of those things, we were able to talk about giving by casting an inspiring vision of what Jesus was all about? By painting a vibrant and beautiful picture of what could be?
If we do that, we might just find it easier to talk about giving – and find that people actually want to listen and want to give when we do.