Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Blessed Be The Tithe That Binds

Money.  We all need it, in some form or another, to survive, much less thrive.

I think most people know instinctively that money is not, in fact, the solutions to all of one's problems; nor can it but you happiness.  Now, I don't know that most people act on this instinctive belief; but I do think most people acknowledge that money isn't everything in life. 

We do live in a consumer culture and it can be problematic for us an individuals as well as in our families, places we live, and faith communities.  In fact, it's popular right now to rip on our society for how obsessively materialistic we have all become.

Except I am not so sure that is always the case; I'd like to think that we could be a little more positive, and believe in people a little bit more than to just dump everyone into the same consumer-driven-materialistic-obsessive-compulsive-money-and-stuff-is-everything category.

Nevertheless, it does seem true, at least in my own local community, that people are very, very sensitive about their money (or as is increasingly the case, their benefits).

I think I understand that, barring a pretty substantial and radical cultural shift (always possible...but in this case, seemingly not likely) most people are never just going to broadcast how much money they make (or don't make), and what level of benefits they are receiving from either working, government assistance, or charities.  Money tends to be a "private matter" in our culture. 

Even in my own household my wife and I have separate checking accounts, payment means, budgets, etc.  We kind of know where the other is at (sort of like two people stuck in a deep, dark hole!), and if we really wanted to find out, we could ask (or snoop); yet we usually don't.  I have great hope that this is because we trust each other to do the best we can and make the best decisions we can; however, I am realistic enough to know that there is probably at least an element of cultural-financial-privacy going on there, too.

So when pastors or other spiritual or ministry leaders begin to talk about money, there is often an automatic culturally-conditioned defense mechanism that goes up.  This is only enhanced when the words "tithe" or "tithing" are brought up.  Now not only are we talking about my money, but we are talking about someone else laying claim to it.

If there is one thing I have heard consistently from people across all different socio-economic conditions in the town I have lived in for the last five years, it is this:  People hate it when churches are always asking for money; and they do have the perception, justified or not, that churches are always asking for money.  

For example, this fact has made me extremely reticent to ask people to directly contribute money to the work of our local organic-based church plant, even those directly benefiting from her ministries.  We don't want to turn anyone off, or turn anyone away, so...we just don't ask.  That is about to change, but that's not the point of this post, either.

I think the problem is two-fold:

First, many people in our community hide behind the "money is a private matter" facade and then spend their money frivolously only to ask for hand outs later, all the while condemning churches and other charitable organizations for always asking for money.  I don't think I need to explain the hypocrisy and lack of transparency or accountability here.  It's pervasive, and I wonder just how pervasive it is in other communities around our country, particularly in these extremely difficult economic conditions of the last four years.

Second, churches and other charitable organizations do focus on the wrong thing:  Money, rather than giving.  They are not one and the same, even if one combines them to form the phrase, "give money."

While Jesus talks about both quite a bit, He always focuses on giving, rather than money.

Again, the Kingdom of God is like...
I have read a number of Christian writers and pastors who have claimed that Jesus never talked about or advocated tithing (giving 10% of one's income and/or possessions to the work of the ministry).  It always surprises me, because it simply isn't true.  In Matthew's gospel, in the middle of a long discourse chewing the Pharisees and teachers of the law (the religious leaders of Jesus' day) up one side and down the other, Jesus says this:

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel" (Matthew 23:23-24).

I am not sure what part about "without neglecting the former" these writers and pastors are missing, but whatever part it is, they are indeed missing it.  And it is consistent with Jesus' other practices and teachings.  But what is interesting here is what Jesus says are the more important matters of the law that he juxtaposes with tithing:  Justice, mercy, and faithfulness.

I'd like to point out that all three of these are intricately related to what Jesus focused on rather than money specifically, and that is, giving.

There are an incredible amount of injustices in our world.  Jesus disciples are called to help Jesus set right that which is wrong - this is the essence of redemption, restoration, and re-creation.  In order to do that we must give of ourselves.

Our world is not a very merciful place.  Whether it is the crushing weight of dictatorial rule or the much-too-heavy-burden of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps unbridled capitalist systems, we shouldn't expect much mercy to be shown by the powers that rule the kingdoms of this world.  Jesus disciples, however, are called to live in and share the power of the Ruler of the Kingdom of God, and because of this, they should be the first to show mercy, compassion, kindness, selflessness, and inspire hope.  All this comes only when we give of ourselves.

Our consumption-based, materialistic, tell-me-what's-the-latest-and-greatest-so-I-can-have-it-right-now cultural values do not lend themselves well to faithfulness - a steady, daily, long-term, stick-with-it-to-the-very-end-come-what-may commitment to the others in our lives.   But Jesus disciples are called to such a faithfulness, and such a steady commitment will always mean steadily giving ourselves away.

Because ultimately, giving ourselves away is what love really is.  And for Jesus, the greatest commandment is love.  When we love, we give.  And when we give, we love.  That's why giving is so incredibly important to Jesus - much more important than any amount of money.

It's also why tithing (not necessarily a legalistic 10%, but a consistent giving of a specific amount (percentage or otherwise) of our money, possessions, time, and talents) is a foundational practice of faith for Jesus disciples.  It grounds us in faithfulness, giving, and love.

Jesus disciples always practice the latter, without neglecting the former.

Blessed be the tithe that binds. 

And blessed be the just, merciful, faithful, love-giver.

So if you are reading this and happen to be one of those people-in-my-community I was talking about earlier...don't worry, this is not another desperate appeal for more money. 

Instead, it is a call to love and give much more fully, practicing the latter, without neglecting the former.


This is no private matter - rather it is faithful action that must be lived out in the context of community.

In the end that is much more costly than any appeal for money.  And much more rewarding, too.

phil

P.S. - What's your reaction?  Comments are open, below...

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