“There are three conversions necessary to every man: the head, the heart and the purse.”
That’s from Martin Luther, who knew a thing or two about human nature. Luther understood that even those who have given their life to Christ and accepted salvation still have difficulty sharing their financial resources.
Why is generosity so difficult for us? Not just generosity, but biblical generosity.
Scripture talks about the tithe. The term means “one-tenth,” and the idea in ancient times was that God’s people were to give back to God one tenth of all that they were blessed with, whether that was income, produce, livestock or precious jewels. Even household herbs like mint and cumin were included in the percentage that would be given back to God.
The concept first shows up in Genesis (14:20) when Abram presents to Melchizedek the King one-tenth of the spoils of war he has received. We also see it later in Genesis 28:22 when Jacob, after a vision, offers a tenth of his property to God in return for the promise of safety on his journey. Tithing becomes institutionalized in the Law of Moses. Leviticus 27:30 tells us “A tithe of everything . . . belongs to the LORD; it is holy to the LORD.” Ultimately the tithe was collected by the priestly tribe called the Levites.
Have your eyes glazed over? Here comes the cool stuff . . .
Even some theologians think that tithing was strictly an Old Testament requirement. After all, they argue, Jesus came to free us from the law. No more animal sacrifice or avoiding people with skin diseases or prohibitions against mixing certain foods.
Yet are they overlooking how Jesus validates the tithe when, in Matthew 23:23, he tells hypocritical religious leaders, “You give a tenth of your spices . . . But you have neglected the important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” In my reading, Jesus isn’t dissing the tithe, he’s simply deepening the ways in which we engage with God. That’s consistent with Paul in Romans 12 when he writes, “Therefore, I urge you . . . to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God . . .” God doesn’t just want our dollars; he wants us – all of us, heart, body and soul.
Some argue that a tithe would have made more sense in earlier times before the advent of income taxes, import duties, health insurance premiums, utility surcharges and countless other taxes Americans pay. They believe the tithe is simply impractical today when most people are already overtaxed and overcommitted financially.
Yet, look at the financial ledger in Jesus’s time. First Century Jews offered up to 25 percent to God
when the temple tax, the land sabbath, Jubilee years, first-fruits and various freewill offerings were tallied. And then Roman taxes were heaped on top of that. Tithing was even more difficult in those days.
I’ll leave you with a final thought . . .
Ten percent of our earnings is a big nut. Some of us spend most of our lives trying to grow to that level of giving. It’s difficult. It involves sacrifice. It’s countercultural.
Could God have come up with the tithe so that we would have to depend on him instead of ourselves?
When we tithe or are even more generous are we not saying to God that we are thankful for the 90 percent he has allowed us to keep? Does it not acknowledge that all that we have is a gift from God anyway? Does it not require us to trust that our generosity will be repaid a thousand-fold (not necessarily financially!) and that we will be blessed in some way?
Perhaps it’s helpful to remember David’s “God owns it all anyway” prayer:
“Wealth and honor come from you (God);
you are the ruler of all things.
In your hands are strength and power
to exalt and give strength to all.
Now, our God, we give you thanks,
and praise your glorious name.
“But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this?
Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.” (1 Chron. 29: 12-14, emphasis added).
Our generosity is made possible only by the blessings of a generous God. And, in the process, we become participants in those blessings as we give of our time, our talents and our financial resources.
© Ed Klodt, 2018
(Views from the Pews are occasional insights written by Ed Klodt. He and his family are longtime members of Ascension. Ed earned his Master’s Degree in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, has served as an interim pastor and has been a longtime lay minister at Ascension. Questions and insights can be addressed to him in the blog post on Ascension’s website or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)