“So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house. – Deuteronomy 26:10-11 (NRSV)
The last command we have in the books of the Law regarding the tithe only adds liturgy to be said when the tithe was brought (Deuteronomy 26:10-15). And this is also my last reflection on the tithe. I’ve learned the tithe was an offering from what the Land provided (flocks and fields) – the Land that God provided. The tithe was to be an act of community worship and celebration. It also served to support those who could not support themselves from the Land because they were non-land owning folk: Levites, orphans, widows and aliens.
When considering who gets the tithe, it seems that it’s for more than me and the church. In fact, if I believe I am commanded to tithe, it seems that I am also commanded to feed and care for the widow, orphan and alien.
But am I required to tithe?
When Jesus heard this, he said, “There’s one more thing. Sell everything you own and distribute the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” – Luke 18:22 (CEB)
Wait! This is more than 10%! I don’t think that’s what Jesus is instituting a 100% tithe (although some of us may be called to sell it all). This guy had obeyed the Big 10 all his life – so much that it doesn’t seem like he really needed to think about it anymore. But Jesus wants us to think. And Jesus wanted this man – and us – to think about the poor. Like the Old Testament commands to tithe, Jesus was inviting this man to come into the presence of God, be cared for as part of a community – to even find joy in his giving. Would Jesus have prohibited the man from following him if he didn’t sell everything? I don’t think so. I think the man created that barrier.
The early Church didn’t tithe. They saw it as a Jewish thing (especially after the Temple was destroyed in the mid-first century). It really wasn’t until the Church became more formalized in the third and fourth centuries that tithe was lifted up as a Christian practice.
Jesus replied, “The most important one is Israel, listen! Our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, You will love your neighbor as yourself. No other commandment is greater than these.” – Mark 12:29-31 (CEB)
One way we love God is by bringing the tithe to church. One way we love others is by giving the tithe to those in need. Maybe this is why Jesus was always feeding hungry people (Mark 6:42, etc.). And why Jesus condemned the Pharisees for tithing their herbs and neglecting love and justice (Luke 11:42). And why Jesus told Peter, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:17)
I think we cheat ourselves when we focus the tithe simply on money. Our inheritance from God is more than money. We bring more than money to worship and our community. It’s actually kind of the easy way out to just write a check but not offer ourselves. If we can’t feed ourselves, we may not write a check but rather offer our time to serve others. Regardless of how much we give of our time, talent and treasure, our return to God should be an act of worship and an occasion for celebration.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have been reflecting on the tithe because I am now part of a small worshipping community rather than an institutional church. When I do worship at a church, I give an offering because it is part of my worship. But as our family shifted our planned giving to this new community, it was clear that it didn’t make sense to give at this same level. Our community has very few expenses (other than my salary).
So, we decided to give a portion to the new community and a larger portion to other people and groups doing God’s work in the world. Each month, we sit down together to talk about where God is working in the world and how we can be a part of it. It is exciting and joyous to give to organizations and people that we are in relationship with – especially knowing that our offering makes an impact. The tithe has become personal. And it is joyful. And it feels much more like coming into the presence of God than I have experienced before. Thanks be to God.