How Did I Miss That?
Part 28: Tithing is not Enough
But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others. Luke 11:42
Of all the expectations placed on the churchgoers among us, few cause as much discomfort and difference of opinion as the obligation to financially support our houses of worship. Tithes and offerings are spoken of regularly in both Old and New Testaments, although the expectation to tithe is more explicit in the Old. A tithe means a tenth; thus, the common understanding that we are to give a tenth of our income in support of our church. In previous generations, that may have been clear-cut, but not anymore. Are we to tithe on our gross or our net income? Do donations to other worthy causes count as part of our tithe? If we have an unusual expense one year, can the “tenth” be reduced? If we find $20.00 lying in the street, must we tithe on that, too?
Historically, one of the 12 tribes of Israel, the Levites, were designated as the keepers of the Temple. Because their livelihood was the business of the Temple, they could not make a living in other ways. The Levites were dependent on the people of the other 11 tribes for their support. The concept remains in place today, with members of a church providing financial support to pay the salaries of the staff and expenses of the church. Often overlooked is that the Biblical expectation for giving went well beyond the tithe. Separate offerings were also requested at various times, and those offerings could add another ten to twenty percent of income or wealth on top of the tithe. Today, I believe the percent of income given by the average church member is about 2%. Five percent is considered generous, although a tithe is still held out as the standard.
Jesus, however, held a much different measure for giving. He did not request a simple tithe; he wanted followers who willingly and happily gave everything. A rich man (Mark 10:17-22) tells Jesus he has followed every commandment and asks what else he must do to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus tells him to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. The man walks away, disappointed, for he was not willing to give up his many possessions. In a parable found in Matthew 13:44, Jesus tells of a field with treasure such that someone desires to sell everything he or she owns in return for that one field. In the next verse, he tells of a pearl of great value such that one desires to sell everything else in order to obtain. For Jesus, the important matter is not how much we have or give, but of where our heart is – what do we most desire? Do we prefer our “stuff” to the life Jesus offers? The treasure-filled field and the pearl of great value represent the kingdom he encourages us to seek. When our heart is in the right place, nothing else will matter.
Far be it from me to imply churches are the only organizations worthy of financial support. Actually, I think that line of reasoning misses the point. Where is our heart? Where is our desire? Tithing – supporting our houses of worship – is a good start, but it is not enough. The key is to find ways to make every act of every day an offering for God to use for good. Whether we are eating, exercising, playing, getting ready for bed, or working, offer everything to God’s purposes. Whatever we do, our actions and decisions impact others. Making our life an offering is recognizing that God is with us all the time, in every circumstance, whether we want or sense God there or not. God will not be locked in a church. God is an active presence in our lives, no matter how mundane or profane some of our moments may be. Jesus reminds us in the Gospel of Luke that we cannot neglect justice or love. Jesus tells us when we willingly dedicate our heart and life to following him, the rest will fall into place. It is not that where our money goes is unimportant, but it is more important to examine the desire of our heart. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)
Tithing is not enough. How did I miss that?