Can’t entirely explain it. I’ve had the overwhelming urge to write about money management recently. It might be the fact that my church will soon be partnering with a generosity/stewardship consultant for the upcoming year. Or, it might be the consumer freakout that is Amazon Prime Day – an important annual holiday in which we American consumers are reminded not to pay full price for pressure washers, flatscreens, and survivalist party straws like idiots, when we could be saving 16% off. And this all with that Amazon doomsday clock ticking down in the upper righthand corner of your browser. Yes, the digital sales Rapture is more panic than excitement; more an opportunity to brag to others of the deal you got rather than fill a legitimate need in life.
But this is the sickness of American consumer mentality. It’s literally an addiction. A paranoia. An apocalypse.
So, yeah, the idea that we Christians probably need some financial guidance is warranted. And considering the climate, the idea that some of the Bible’s directives may possibly offend the consumer shouldn’t surprise us either.
Why not begin with the point that will likely be most controversial?
The first thing that probably needs to be said is that in the history of God’s people, a “tithe” (a giving away to God of 10% of what has been received as blessing) has not been controversial to God’s people. Even prior to the Mosaic Law, Abraham gave “King Melchizedek, Priest of God Most High” a tenth of everything he had (Gen. 14:18-20). Upon receiving a vision from God at Bethel, Jacob promises to give God a tenth of everything God blesses him with.
The tithe system is later codified into Mosaic Law for God’s people in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. From the regularly collected tithe, God provided for worship celebrations, for the Levites (who had no allotment of land in Canaan), and for the marginalized of the believing community (i.e. widows, orphans, foreigners, and poor). You can read all about this in Deuteronomy 14:22-29.
For a few thousand years, God’s people got into a regular rhythm of giving to the Lord their tithes, their firstfruit offerings (Lev. 23:9-14), their best. This didn’t come naturally. The Children of Israel needed to be taught to express gratitude and trust in the same way that your children do. No one thinks it’s legalistic to teach a child to say “thank you” when someone gives them a ride or holds the door open for them. We understand that gratefulness is a necessary, learned attitude and behavior. So God programmed opportunities for his children to grow in this way. The tithe was one of these chief opportunities. The tithe was what God said was an appropriate way for believers to express 1) GRATITUDE for all that the gracious Lord had already poured out into their lives, and 2) TRUST that this same God would continue to meet all of their needs moving forward.
The tithe wasn’t controversial for Old Testament believers, but that doesn’t mean they always liked it. In one of the most scathing, but nonetheless hopeful, rebukes in Scripture, God says through the prophet Malachi:
“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In tithes and offerings. 9 You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”Malachi 3:8-10
No question. For the Israelites, tithes were good. And necessary. And blessed.
The question for modern believers, however, is “Does this still apply to me?”
The tithe fell under the Old Covenant of God’s people. This included Sabbath regulations, dietary restrictions, guidelines for circumcision, etc. Most Christians are (rightfully) not overly concerned with obedience to such commands. Why should the tithe be any different if it’s baked into that Mosaic code?
The transition from Old Covenant Judaism to New Covenant Christianity is admittedly a challenging study. For our purposes here, however, as a general rule, the New Testament specifically and overtly mentions the aspects of of the Old Covenant that were culturally conditioned for that particular time and place. So, for instance, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that festival regulations and dietary restrictions and Sabbath rules are no longer necessary for God’s people when he says, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day.” (Col. 2:16) Or, Stephen and Paul make it clear that Temple treks and special ceremonies are no longer necessary when they say “(God) does not live in temples built by human hands”. (Acts 7:48; 17:24) The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear that special sacrifices are no longer necessary when he says, “Unlike the other high priests, (Jesus) does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.” (Heb. 7:27)
These are big changes. No Temple. No sacrifices. No diet restrictions. No worship day regulations. No circumcision (Gal. 5:1-12). Massive changes.
But when you come to the issue of tithing, you notice something fascinating, from the Man himself. During Holy Week, in the midst of one of Jesus’ fiesty interactions with the Pharisees, he calls the hypocritical religious leaders out on their financial management. He says:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.Matthew 23:23
Notice that the Pharisees were really fastidious about their tithing, right down to offering a tenth of the herbs out of their spice racks. Jesus’ rebuke here is that they used their tithing as an excuse to not feel guilty about overlooking care for the poor and needy. But look at what he says next: “You should have practiced the latter (i.e. mercy), WITHOUT NEGLECTING THE FORMER (i.e. tithing).”
Far from abolishing the tithe, Jesus appears to uphold it.
And even if one is still convinced that the tithe is strictly an Old Testament command…fine. Consider nonetheless the very premise of the tithe. God, at one point in the past, said to his people, “On the basis of all the grace you’ve received from me, it is appropriate for you to give a tenth of all you are blessed with as a way of expressing 1) gratitude for blessings that have been received and 2) confidence in future blessings that will be received.” Well what about us? As a New Testament, New Covenant believer, on the other side of the cross of Jesus Christ, have we received more or less grace than the Old Testament believer? I don’t know how one could argue we’ve received less grace. And if 10% was the appropriate expression of gratitude and faith for the Old Testament believer, how does that become anything but a starting point for New Testament believers?
I have zero doubts that some might consider me legalistic for even mentioning a percentage to Christians when it comes to their offerings. To that, I’d say, for starters, that I think we have very different definitions of legalism. I’m certainly not suggesting that someone is saved by their tithe. That’s ludicrous. I’m simply pointing out what makes sense in light of the gospel. It’s no different than when the Apostle Paul tells the Thessalonians to not grieve over deceased loved ones who have passed away in Christ in the same way that the pagans grieve for their departed. He basically says, “That doesn’t make gospel sense. You’ll see these people again! You’re not acting in line with the gospel!” (1 Thess. 4:13) Paul again uses the same technique with the Apostle Peter when Peter is guilty of racial insensitivity in Syrian Antioch (Gal. 2:11-13). Paul is not trying to shame people. He’s simply telling them that they’re not acting in line with liberating gospel truths.
What is the gospel truth about our financial management? It sounds like this: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor. 8:9) The idea that the king of heaven left his throne, to come and pour out his riches at the cross, so that I, who have spent so much of my life hoarding and thieving his planet, could be forgiven and now set free to live in eternal riches…that’s the crazy economics of the gospel of Jesus. And it radicalizes your finances. At that point, the only sensible thing to do then is “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, (knowing that) all these things (i.e. worldly needs) will be given to you as well.” (Matt. 6:33)
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