I grew up in a Baptist church. Every Sunday just before the weekly offering was taken, the entire congregation of hundreds of people, read together out loud, Malachi 3:10
“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “And see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room for it.”
We were very poor. I often had no lunch to take to school. My hunger diminished my academic performance, affected my health and humiliated me before my friends.
In contrast our pastors lived very well. Yet every Sunday, I was taught that my family should take ten percent of it’s totally inadequate income and give that money to the church. I believed that failure by my family to do so, would result in the worsening of our poverty.
Tithing was to me, a dour and harsh imposition. It was just one more condemning, religious demand. In contrast, looking at Biblical tithing as an adult, has given me a very different and joyful picture of what scripture intended.
First of all, tithing as a command, is not in the New Testament. Tithing is mentioned several times in the New Testament, but not as a law to be obeyed.
For example, In Hebrews 7:2, Abraham, in tithing to the ancient, mysterious priest, Melchizedek, gives Melchizedek raised status. If the great Abraham deferred to Melchizedek by tithing to him, then Melchizedek was a higher order priest than ordinary priests.
Another mention of tithing is in the Gospels. Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for tithing meticulously, as a means of avoiding their responsibilities for what Christ calls the “Heavier” issues of justice. Christ does not command tithing. He instead rebukes the use of tithing in order to allow oneself to act unjustly.
The church, in which I grew up, like the Pharisees, used the tithing law in an unjust way. My family was asked to give at a level that was damaging to our financial situation. In demanding my family tithe to the church, the church was being unfair.
The New Testament advice in regard to money is, “Be generous.” If your family has more than they need, they will find joy if they share their excess with people who do not have enough.
The Old Testament does command tithing, but it is a very different kind of tithing when compared to the teaching I was given as a boy. One expression of the tithing law is found in Deuteronomy 14:22-29. In this text, tithing was set up in a three year cycle.
In the first two years of the cycle, the Jewish people were commanded to bring a tenth of what their farms produced to a celebration to be held in Jerusalem, [referred to as,”A place to be named later,” in the text]. If they lived near Jerusalem, they were to bring their one tenth to Jerusalem at a designated time each year. If they lived too far from Jerusalem to easily haul all that food, they were to sell their tithe locally. Then they would take the money to Jerusalem.
Then comes the surprise. The first and second year, the people would take part in a giant feast and eat their tithe in celebration of the goodness of God. Let me emphasize that. People consumed their tithe themselves. They did not give the tithe food to the priests. Instead, along with their fellow countrymen, they took part in a huge feast. The point of the feast was to remind the entire population of the great love of God who had so bountifully supplied for them.
There is another surprise. The folks that brought their tithe to Jerusalem in cash were told to spend the money on whatever food and drink that appealed to them. Look at this text.
“Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there, in the presence of the LORD your God, and rejoice.” Deut 14:26
This was not a Baptist family Thanksgiving dinner. This was a real party, with all your friends, lots of food and lots of booze. There is no trace of the Protestant distrust of physical pleasure here. This was an all night, dancing, singing, feeling a buzz, overeating, look forward to it all year celebration of God’s grace.
If it was my third year in the three year tithing cycle, I was to give my tithe to the priests. However, the tithe was to be used by the priests in a specific manner.
First of all, the priest did not own any land. His family’s need for food was to be met out of everyone’s tithe given on their third year in the tithing cycle. Also this third year tithe was to be used to feed the needy.
“So that the Levites [Who have no allotment or inheritance of their own] and the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.” Duet 14:29
That means that tithing was meant to help relieve the suffering of the poor. Tithing was never meant to be a burden to needy people, it was meant to be a blessing to them.
What is meant by the idea that if you tithed correctly that God would bless the work of your hands. Does that mean that if we tithe correctly, God will wave some kind of Heavenly magic wand so that we will be guaranteed prosperity? Religions have always sought to get some leverage on God that would make God our do our will. Tithing does not put something behind God that allows me to get Him to do what I want. That is a wicked thought for me to have. Let me suggest an alternate understanding.
Years ago I asked a good friend of mine a question. This friend had a PHD in history from the University of Southern California.
I said,” Suppose that because of the life and teaching of Jesus, the American Christian population had decided before the Civil War to free the slaves. Suppose they then worked and committed their resources to integrate the black people into the mainstream of American society, economics, education, politics and religion. What difference would repentance at that level had made in the history of our country?”
He said, “It certainly would have prevented the Civil War and probably also prevented the First World War.” Whether or not his analysis was correct, the difference to world history would have been staggering.
If in response to the love of God, Christians became lovers of justice, we would all be safer and happier. Suppose Britain had sent a Mother Theresa to India for every soldier and administrator they did send. Suppose that America had spent its resources in Latin America to develop rather than to exploit. Suppose the West had been able to develop the petroleum resources in the Middle East in a way that gave the developers a solid profit, and also was fair and just in regard to the people of the Middle East.
If we had done those things with the help and guidance of God, I feel certain we would all be safer and happier. I think we would feel the hand of God had blessed everything we had done.
What I think is being said is, that if our handling of the tithe shows we care deeply about our fellow human beings, then we have aligned ourselves with the heart of God. A partnership between us and God would then emerge, that would bless the people of the world.
If our hearts are selfish, God can only align himself with us in a limited way. God must in some sense oppose us in order to keep us from ruining our own lives. If our hearts are generous and lovingly free, then God can throw his weight behind our efforts to give ourselves a prosperous life, and then behind our efforts to effectively share our prosperity.
The tithe says come together and celebrate the abundance of my blessing to you. Then help the needy and join with me to seek justice in the world. If we enter into that partnership with God, our life is going to be like the exciting party the the Jewish people were invited to, on the first and second year of their tithing cycle. We will have a marvelously enjoyable life.
At this point I’d like to look again at Malachi 3:10, quoted above.”Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse,” is a reference to what was supposed to happen on the third year of the three year tithing cycle. The party on the first two years is not mentioned, but it still is a part of the tithing plan.
Somehow to me, that eases things up a lot. If the idea was to give my tithe to the priests every single year, that would feel terribly burdensome. However, if I only am being asked to do it once every three years, it feels to me like I am just doing my fair share.
When I worked on Skid Row, my wife and I budgeted what we thought was reasonable for us to give away to homeless people each month, given our limited income and our desire to care for our four wonderful daughters. If I never personally helped out street people, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself. On the other hand, I could not have met the needs I saw every day, if I had given away $10,000.
By budgeting in advance each month, we could meet our obligations to our kids, and at the same time do a reasonable job helping out downtown.. Our spiritual giving was manageable and enjoyable.
In that same spirit, having a party the first two years with the tithe, then giving it to the priests on the third year would not weigh the people down. They could then do their part to help other people on the third year, for fun and for free.
My experience with the tithing I was taught as a boy, made giving a weighty, guilt provoking, burden. Tithing, as presented by the Old Testament is always joyful.
Mal 3:10 also says,” That there may be food in my house.” The best way to understand that phrase is to take it literally. If people did not contribute food, the priests and their families could not eat. Not only that, the other people like refugees, widows, and orphans, who did not have a farm would be without food. The third year of the tithe cycle lets everyone do their part in a reasonable way.
There is another important point to be made from Malachi. Look at this text which directly precedes the Malachi text at which we have been looking.
“Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me.
But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’
In tithes and offerings” Mal 3:8-9
The text seems to be saying that we rob God when we don’t pay our tithes and offerings. To me, if tithing is given in these terms, it loses its joyfulness. Either give me your tithe or else I will curse you makes the tithe a whole lot like a tax.
That is how our government treats me. Pay your tax. If you don’t, I will make you sorry. It has to be done. We may well be thankful for our country, but a tax is never fun.
There is another way to look at this text. All punctuation in the Bible is added by the editors. Ancient semitic languages did not have punctuation. To make our English translations readable, scholars insert punctuation where it seems to be needed.
Let’s change the punctuation a little bit.
“How do we rob you with tithes and offerings?”
If we punctuate the text in this manner, it changes the spirit of what is being said. We are no longer saying that you rob God and will be punished if you don’t tithe.
Now we are saying,” Yes you did tithe. Yes you did give your offerings. However, you are doing it in a way that robs God of his joy. The act of paying tithes as a bribe given to God to insure his financial blessing, steals from God. It steals from God what he wants most.
What does God want? God wants us to join with him in caring for the poor. God is saying bring your fair share and join your generosity with my generosity. Then we can have the pleasure of working together to love those in need.
It is the partnership in righteousness between God and his people that God has always valued. If we turn tithing into a tax, we have robbed God of that which is closest to his heart; we rob Him of a loving, righteous oneness with his people.