For the Love of God and Money

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.

Worry

I have a confession to make: sometimes I have trouble believing Jesus.

Not believing in Jesus, but believing him. Like what he says. Like that he’s telling the truth.

I’m sitting on my living room couch reading chapter six of Matthew’s Jesus story right now, because they include Jesus’ teachings on worrying. These particular teachings have always raised doubts in my head, ever since the first time I read them as a young Christian back in high school.

The idea in this chapter essentially comes down to this argument: don’t worry about what you will eat. Look at the birds – God takes care of them and feeds them, and you are more important than a bird. And don’t worry about what you will wear. Look at how God clothes the grass with beautiful flowers – and you are more important than grass.

In other words, God takes care of nature. You’re more important than nature. Therefore, God will take care of you.

It seems to me, though, that sometimes God doesn’t take care of nature. Sometimes birds and grass die because they don’t have enough food or enough water. So how good, truly, is this promise?

How good is this promise when you are unemployed because of a bad economy? Or worse, how good is this promise when you live in Africa and you have to watch your children die of starvation? Would you speak these words of Jesus to a parent who is unable to scavenge enough food together to feed all their children and is forced to choose which one gets to eat that day? Would you tell a family not to worry about what they will drink when the only source of water they have is full of bacteria that is literally killing them from the inside out?

Where are the pretty pictures of birds and flowers in those situations?

And so I sit awake at 1:00 in the morning unable to sleep, pondering. Thinking when my brain should be shut off. I can’t sleep because this passage (at some incredibly small level compared to those examples) is becoming personal. Even though Jesus told me not to, I am worrying.

It’s a strange sensation, honestly. One of my spiritual gifts is faith, which means when I’m faced with hard times I generally don’t get ruffled and I have an overarching sense of peace that everything is going to be okay.

But for whatever reason, that sense isn’t kicking in at the moment.

I currently have a part-time job. That was by design, so I could finish writing the book I had been working on. I took this part-time job as a step of faith, fully believing God would take care of us if we took this crazy leap into the unknown to chase a dream.

The book is done. I am shopping it around to agents and publishers. But in the meantime, we burned through a lot of our savings and now have just two months’ worth left in the bank.

Anyone else who is looking for a job in this economy knows how tough the search can be. I’ve applied for five jobs in the past week, but I know there are dozens of other people applying for the same ones. I want to believe everything is going to be okay. I really, truly do. But then I go and read things like there are currently fifteen million Americans who are unemployed – and five million who have been unemployed for more than a year.

Five million. Where are their birds and grass?

And if they don’t get birds and grass, what makes me think I will? Do they not believe in God? Do they not pray enough?

Is Jesus telling the truth?

There are parts of this lesson that Jesus teaches that do give me comfort and peace, however. Jesus asks, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” And that is true. That resonates in my soul. My worry at one in the morning isn’t accomplishing anything except robbing me of sleep. Checking my email every ten minutes to see if someone has gotten back to me about a job isn’t going to make the messages appear any faster. There is absolutely nothing productive about worry. That alone makes me want to breathe deeply and quit.

The other part that resonates with me is this line: “But seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well.” See, the context of Jesus telling us not to worry in this passage is interesting: he talks about giving to the needy and storing up treasures in heaven and our inability to serve God if our master is money. And then he says not to worry.

Oh, and if you are worrying, he explains, seek the Kingdom. Seek the Kingdom and store up treasures in heaven by giving to the needy. Seek the Kingdom by helping others and focusing on them instead of focusing on yourself. Not in order to trigger some kind of blessing — definitely not. But because it reminds us and recenters us on what life in the Kingdom is all about.

My problems seem to become a little smaller when I see them out of my peripheral vision rather than looking at them straight on. And I think maybe what Jesus is saying is that’s just how he prefers it. Because the Kingdom isn’t about ourselves. It’s about sacrifice for the sake of others. Maybe if I stop worrying so much about getting a new job, I’d be able to focus on the people and the needs around me.

So as I sat here tonight pondering, I went and re-lent some Kiva credit we had, and I donated some money to charity:water so someone has clean drinking water — because what I’m worried about seems wildly insignificant compared to the thought of someone not even having clean water to drink.

And it struck me: maybe this is what Jesus is talking about after all. The Kingdom is intended to be lived out by all of us, not just through supernatural miracles performed from on high, but through profane everyday acts of small sacrifice. Through a donation of just twenty bucks, there is someone, most likely in Africa, that will now know what it means to not have to worry about what they will drink. That one person will probably understand Jesus’ words better than I do. Because I take them for granted.

Until I can’t anymore. Until I am forced to look at them square in the face and ask myself: “Do I really believe this is true?”

Honestly, I don’t know. But what I do know after this late night pondering session is that worrying doesn’t accomplish anything. I know that I want to live a lifestyle of giving for the sake of seeking the Kingdom so these sorts of stressful moments don’t choke out my faith any longer. And that conclusion, while not the final word on the subject in my heart, is good enough for now.