Friday, September 21, 2012

Unless you want my tomatoes, quit asking for my tithe!

Seeing Father Tim's great post asking for music to put on a Stewardship Soundtrack made me realize I'd better get in quick if I wanted to get this off my chest:

It is just as inaccurate to talk about the Biblical tithe as proof you should give 10 percent of your income to the church as it is to talk about selected passages in Leviticus as proof that homosexuality is a sin.

I ask you: how many times has your church talked about tithing as the Biblical standard of stewardship? And that tithing means you should give 10 percent of your income away? In all that time, has anyone actually ever even shown you the passages where it says that? It was only a couple of years ago that I realized I'd never actually looked at the texts, and since then each year I've only grown more peeved at how we have abused the Bible to, frankly, no good end.

Let's visit our old friend Leviticus, shall we? Here's Leviticus 27:30-32:
All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord's; they are holy to the Lord. If person wish to redeem any of their tithes, they must add one-fifth to them. All tithes of herd and flock, every tenth one that passes under the shepherd's staff, shall be holy to the Lord.
Now from Numbers 18:11-13, 21
[The Lord spoke to Aaron:] This also is yours: I have given to you, togther with your sons and daughters, as a perpetual due, whatever is set aside from the gifts of all the elevation offerings of the Israelites; everyone who is clean in your house may eat them. All the best of the oil and all the best of the wine and of the grain, the choice produce that they give to the Lord, I have given to you. The first fruits of all that is in their land, which they bring to the Lord, shall be yours; everyone who is clean in your house may eat of it...To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for a possession in return for the service that they perform, the service in the tent of meeting.
And Deuteronomy 14:22-27
Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field. In the presence of the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. But if, when the Lord your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the Lord your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you, then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the Lord your God will choose; spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your household rejoicing together. As for the Levites resident in your towns, do not neglect them, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you.
Got that? Tithing applies to agricultural products. This is why Jesus talks to the Pharisees about tithing "mint and rue and herbs of all kinds." And if you preferred to do cash instead, well, it cost 20 percent more, according to the Leviticus reading above.

Seriously, can you take those passages above and make a case for saying "This means today that you should give 10 percent of your income to your local parish"? If we are serious about Biblical context for other Old Testament texts, it's rather sloppy of us to say there's an easy equivalence between these texts and the annual pledge drive.

Here's the context: Unless you owned land and had crops and flocks, tithing did not apply to you. What applied to you non-landowner types was offerings.

Take a look at Exodus as an example. In Exodus 25,
The Lord said to Moses: Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receive the offering for me. This is the offering that you shall receive from them: gold, silver, and bronze, blue, purple, and crimson yarns and fine linen, goats' hair, tanned rams' skins, fine leather, acacia wood, oil for the lamps, spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense, onyx stones and gems to be set in the ephod and for the breastpiece. And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.
So here you see that gifts are asked of people--in no particular amount, but for the specific purpose of worship, "from all whose hearts prompt them."

But here's what's particularly interesting to me: in Exodus 36:2-6, we read
Moses then called Bezalel and Oholiab and every skillful one to whom the Lord had given skill, everyone whose heart was stirred to come do the work; and they received from Moses all the free-will offerings that the Israelites had brought for doing the work on the sanctuary. They still kept bringing him freewill offerings every morning, so that all the artisans who were doing every sort of task on the sanctuary came, each from the task being performed, and said to Moses, "The people are bringing much more than enough for doing the work that the Lord has commanded us to do." So Moses gave the command, and word was proclaimed throughout the camp: "No man or woman is to make anything else as an offering for the sanctuary." So the people were restrained from bringing; for what they had already brought was more than enough to do all the work.
So you've got two kinds of freewill offerings: the offerings of goods, and the offerings of services. And at a certain point, they had enough to do the work God wanted of them. It wasn't a set percentage based on income; it only had to do with the actual ministry and tasks to be performed!

Tithing is a quick and easy short-cut; 10 percent, done. You know you're set with God and the church for the year. But a) should we be bound by Old Testament law in the first place? and b) does setting the tithe as a standard do anything to help us examine either our hearts or understand our ministries? I would argue no, and no.

I feel that using the tithing short-cut actually damages our churches. Tithing sets up a disconnect between stewardship and mission, making giving all about "how much" and not what the gifts are supposed to do. In asking for a tithe, we ask church members to conform to an external standard rather than the more challenging work of coming to terms with God and one's own conscience.  It encourages guilty giving rather than joyful and generous giving. How can we be generous people if all we know is the demand of a certain dollar amount?

I really wish churches would think about stewardship in terms of getting the resources to do mission that stirs people's hearts to give rather than targeting people to commit a particular percentage amount of income to the church. The case for the Biblical tithe is flimsy at best, to begin with. Given that as Christians, we are no longer bound by the Law, it's irresponsible to use the tithe as our standard of giving, even if it weren't applicable to agricultural products.

On the other hand, I do have some zucchini to share.


jennifer anderson said...


Margaret Trezevant said...

Yes, thanks. That includes ALL giving to do the work of God, not just to ones particular parish. All of which must be done in prayerful discernment, which takes a lot more work and engagement than a pat 10%.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this thoughtful post - which, I must admit, raises questions for me about many more issues than simply the specific one of tithing. Here's the big one: when, if ever, do we decide to obey the literal words of the Bible? when, if ever, do we decide to abandon the exact words of the Bible and forget about them altogether? when, if ever, do we decide to work with the words of the Bible, written in one time, hoping that if we expand upon them in this time we can still find wisdom there for another time?

My hunch is that all Bible readers use all of these three strategies at one time or another - the question is how we decide which times are which.

I'm still working on the answer for myself - do you happen to have an answer, or an inkling of an answer, or even just an inkling of an inkling of an answer that you would be willing to share?