The Tithe Challenge

Aug 27th  |  The Reverend Kevin Scott Fleming |  2 Corinthians 9:6-14

You’re probably not going to believe this, but this sermon is a response to a direct request, from one of our members, for a sermon on tithing.  I’m not going to tell you which member requested it, because I have a feeling that they would be shunned, or that their tires might not be as inflated when they left the church as when they arrived.  But it’s totally true – and it’s a first.  For the first time in 31 years of pastoral ministry – and for the first time in my nearly 20 years as pastor of this congregation – someone actually asked for a sermon on tithing.  And you thought the sun going out this week was something.

So, don’t worry.  No one is going to require anything of you, other than an attentive ear and an open heart.  That’s all a preacher can ever ask of those who listen.  We’re not locking the doors.  We’re not passing out supplemental pledge cards.  We’re not even having a second offering.  Remain calm and let us move forward.

Let’s start with a definition.  What is a “tithe?”  A tithe is a tenth – ten percent.  To tithe is to give ten percent of property or produce for the support of a priesthood or other religious institution.  Tithing was widespread in the ancient world, with references to tithing found in culture and religious traditions beyond Israel and other Semitic people.

There are two stories about tithing in the book of Genesis.  One story is of Abraham giving ten percent of the spoils he gained in war to the mysterious priest Melchizedek.  The other story is of Jacob promising God a tenth of all the material blessings he would receive, following his vision of a ladder extending from earth to heaven.

Jump ahead and in 1 Samuel, the tithe is mentioned as one of the abuses Israel will suffer under a king.  Some have speculated that the tithe was originally paid to the king for the support of the royal sanctuaries and were later paid directly to the officials at the holy places.  In this case, the tithe sounds almost like a tax.

It is when you get to the book of Deuteronomy that the tithe is more fully explained.  In on tradition, the tithe was a ten of the agricultural products, culminating in a feast at which the household of the farmer joins in, held at a sanctuary, and to which the priests and Levites were to be invited.  According to another tradition, the tithe was to be offered in every third year for the benefit of the priests and Levites, the sojourner in their midst, the widow, the orphan, and all those who did not possess land to produce crops for themselves. 

Now, we could go on and on, nut really – that’s enough.  When you boil it all down, the tithe and all giving was a response to the giving of God.  As people of faith grew in their understanding of God and as they began to express that understanding, they realized that a response to God’s goodness was appropriate.  Their giving grew out of an awareness of what God had done for them.

And that leaves the question at “how much?”  How much should we give?  A widow gave two copper coins – a mere pittance – and was praised by Jesus as giving the greatest gift.  The Pharisees gave a tenth and were criticized by Jesus.  A rich man sought to follow Jesus and was instructed to sell all that he owned and give the money to the poor.  The early church held everything in common and met the needs that would arise.  Barnabas owned a field, sold it, and gave the proceeds to the apostles.  The earliest disciples abandoned their boats and their nets to follow Jesus.  The question comes down to “how much?”  Are we still talking about ten percent?

And then the subordinate questions begin.  “Should I tithe gross or net?”  “Is the tithe based on pre-tax income or what’s in my take-home pay?”  “Should I tithe the gains on my portfolio, and should that be monthly or quarterly, or based on a daily average?”  “Do I need to tithe my Christmas bonus?”  “If I hit the lottery, will I need to tithe the total amount or the monthly installments?”  Believe me, I have heard variations on every one of those themes.

            So, let’s talk about how much.

Let’s begin with Jesus.  Jesus does criticize the religious people of his day for giving only ten percent of their income – their tithe – and neglecting what he calls “the weightier matters.”  Jesus is telling us that ten percent of what we have will never be enough to be true and faithful disciples.  Jesus is teaching us that discipleship requires one hundred percent – holding nothing back.  Jesus is painting with broad strokes.

Paul gets a little more specific.  In writing to the Corinthian Christians, Paul says:

For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have.  I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. (2 Cor. 8:12-14)

Paul seems to continue in the tradition of the tithe, but rather than insisting on a particular percentage, he leaves that matter to the individual.  Paul teaches “give what is acceptable according to what you have.”  If you have more, give more.  If you don’t have as much, give what you can.

            The question remains, “How much?”

Let’s begin with this: we give according to our means.  This implies a proportionate response.  When we have more, we give more.  When we have less, we give less.  Paul’s call for fairness still applies. 

And let’s quickly add this: whatever we give, we should feel it.  This is an expression of the Biblical idea of renunciation.  Jesus called us, again and again, to give up our passion for materialism.  Jesus saw how easily our possessions eventually possess us.  We must avoid giving God whatever is left over after we have enjoyed all the distractions we set out to enjoy.  We must sidestep the trap that invites us to live more highly than we ought to live, in order to be of help to those who are in deep need.  When we are giving like that, we begin to experience true generosity, and we begin to feel the bond between ourselves and God strengthen and grow. 

The principle is that we should give sacrificially.  No one likes that word, but the idea runs all through the scriptures.  If our giving is not enough – if we don’t experience a challenge in our giving – we are probably not giving enough.  Giving is actually most beneficial when we actually feel the effect of our giving.  When we have to do without something, we begin to experience what so very many people in our world experience as a normal part of life.  Let’s be clear: our affluence and comforts must never be allowed to get in between our love for God and our love for neighbor.

And though this takes some time, our sacrifice should be a cheerful sacrifice.  Those words are not necessarily words we would use together.  They sound a bit like one of George Carlin’s oxymorons: “mandatory option,” “non-dairy creamer,” “jumbo shrimp,” “military intelligence” – “cheerful sacrifice.”  Our giving should bring us joy.  Our giving should bring us delight.  Our giving should bring us enjoyment.  When we see and experience what our giving is doing – how it is changing the lives of others – how it is impacting the world in positive ways – then we can find that measure of cheerfulness that giving must always have.  You know, the word we translate as cheerful in the Greek is hilarion,  It is the word from we which take our English word, “hilarious.”  Imagine if we translated the verse: “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a hilarious giver.”

How much should we give?  We should give sacrificially.  We should feel it.  We should notice our giving and feel its impact. 

And we should give joyfully, cheerfully, with a smile on our face and a song in our hearts. 

And should you want to try to take up the tithe challenge, choose a percentage and begin.  Start at 5% and add a percentage every year until you are at the full 10%.  Begin to think about what proportional giving might be like for you.

In his book, Giving to God, Mark Allan Powell tells a story about John Wesley.  Powell writes:

As a young man, John Wesley reportedly earned thirty pounds at his first job.  He kept 28 pounds and gave two away.  Later, when his salary had doubled, he still kept 28 pounds but now gave 32 away.  Eventually, he was earning 120 pounds, still living on 28 and giving away the rest.  Wesley’s motto regarding finances was, “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”[i]

Let us take stock of our lives.  Let us begin to notice and to name the affluence in which we live.  Then, let us begin to see the needs of the world – to poor, the sick, the lonely, the oppressed, the hungry, the homeless – and all those who live so very differently from us. 

And then, let each of us make up our mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a hilarious giver.  As one of my friends told me, “give until you laugh.”  For now and evermore.  Amen.

 

[i][i] Mark Allan Powell, Giving to God – The Bible’s Good News about Living a Generous Life, p. 168