Malachi 3:6-12; Mark 12:41-44
Pentecost +22 November 13, 2011
Tithing Laws in the Old Testament
Last week I spoke about how the Old Testament Law prescribed that every Israelite must bring a tithe as a regular contribution along with additional offerings.
New Testament teaching about tithing
Today I will talk about the New Testament teaching. This may come as a shock to you, especially during our Stewardship Pledge drive, but if you search through the whole of the New Testament, you will find little information about tithing. It is only mentioned in four places. Jesus told the parable on the Pharisee and the Tax collector (Luke 18:12) wherein the Pharisee boasted about how he tithed everything and fasted twice a week. In Mathew’s Gospel Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for meticulous tithing while neglecting the ‘weightier matters of the law like justice, mercy and faithfulness’. (Matthew 23:23) Luke’s Gospel adds in their neglect of the ‘love of God’ meaning the kind of love that God desires us to practice between people, especially with the poor (Luke 11:43). In both of these passages Jesus mentioned that the Pharisees ought to attend to the more important matters and not neglect their tithing. His point was that they had majored in the minors. They “strained out gnats while swallowing camels”
The writer of Hebrews reflects on Genesis 14 about how Abraham paid a tithe to that shadowy figure, Melchizedeck. (Heb. 7:5-9)
Nowhere did a New Testament writer teach tithing as a legalistic requirement. Paul was the ‘missionary to the Gentiles.’ We have thirteen letters all bearing the name of Paul in the New Testament. Not once does Paul mention tithing. Not once does he require the Gentile Christians to offer tithes. Why not?
It could be they did not negate the law, but rather, they upheld it, not under obligation but under grace that had freed their hearts and minds to serve because of love and not as a legalistic demand. I think is reasonable to assume that these Early Christians approached giving with a completely new attitude.
Tithing and attitude of the heart
Brothers and sisters, how we give reflects our attitude towards God! All along God looks at the heart and not at the amount actually given. The Pharisees tithed even the spices and herbs that the law did not require them to tithe. However, inwardly they had little love for others, little concern for the poor. Small hearts offered tithes meticulously, but closed in its mercy towards the poor and the outcasts, the sinners and the destitute. God examines the heart. God sees not just what we give but God sees why we give. God sees not only what we give but what we keep and why we keep it. That is why Paul can tell his congregation at Corinth to give, “…not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”(2 Corinthians 9:6) Jesus stationed himself at the Temple near the treasury as he observed a poor widow who contributed two copper coins (or leptons in the Greek. It took 128 leptons to make one denarius, a day’s wage). Jesus watched the rich putting in large amounts; he also saw a widow drop in an insignificant offering. He commented, “This poor widow has given more than all of them. The others contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty, gave all that she had.” (Mark 12: 44) God looks at the heart. Is it filled with joy in giving? Is it like pulling teeth to get you to give? God knows the secrets of the human heart.
We are in our Faith pledge at BSUMC. This brings us to our passage in Malachi, a favorite passage for stewardship drives all over the world. Preachers like this text, so do the finance chairpersons and church treasurers. Malachi thunders, “Will a man rob God?” Preachers love to fume and fuss about how the church is not giving. “You are robbing God!” they thunder. That makes a good message, a great sermon. For thirty minutes a preacher can whip the people in shape and create enough guilt to get people to raise their 4% pledge to 5%…sometimes. Guilt works in church on some people! I can’t say it isn’t effective. Tell people that they are cursed for not tithing, and a few weak souls, a few of the little ones who belong to Jesus will feel compelled to do more. I could reach into my churchly bag of tricks and pull out the old guilt stick and flog the congregation a while. I may get the people to pledge a little more than they had planned. Looking at our budget I am almost tempted to do that, but then, somehow the Holy Spirit gently says, “That isn’t my way. I came to turn you on, not to turn your off; I came to set you free, not to bind you in guilt; I came to fill you with confidence, not fear.”
The promise of Abundance?
There is another way! Preachers sometimes use the tithing text to urge folk to strike a deal with God. Invite them to test God! Ah, I have my text. Didn’t God promise to open the door of heaven and pour out a blessing so great that you cannot receive it?” Many a preacher has offered this as a way to appeal to the listeners’ desire to get more, to gain more. Preachers who use the Bible that way appeal to the same motive that says, “Hey, this is a good deal. I give and God gives back.” Many charlatans and hucksters promote a Gospel like that. They promise a ten-fold return in their blessing plan.
“Send me a check for $10 dollars and God will give you $100. Send me a check for $100 and God will give back $1000. Send me a check for $1000 and God will give back $10,000!” Televangelists have made a killing pulling off such schemes.
Rev Ike promised prosperity to his contributors. He sent Rev. Ike Prayer Cloths to donors. “You can’t lose with the stuff I use!” he declared. They parade folk across the front who will testify that “This blessing plan works! We gave and look what happened to us! God blessed us ten-fold, hallelujah!” And the checks start pouring in from poor souls hoping against hope that this preacher and his God offer a better chance than winning the lottery. They had those types of hucksters even in Bible days. Paul warned Timothy of the false teachers who are men “…of corrupt minds, who have been robbed of the truth and who think godliness is a means of financial gain”. (1Timothy 6:6) You don’t often hear the stories of those who did not get their expected return.
I read a true story of a man from Dade County Florida who brought a legal suit against the Church and a pastor. His complaint was this: “I delivered $800 of my saving to the church in response to the pastor’s promise that blessings, benefits and rewards would come to the person who did tithe 10 percent of his wealth. I did not and have not received these benefits.” The man demanded his $800 back. (Source: from Interpretation: Nahum-Malachi by Elizabeth Achtemeier, John Knox Press, Atlanta, Georgia1986, p.189)
All of that is so unworthy of God. That is a vending machine view of God. Put something in and get something out. God is not a cosmic bellhop that we pull God’s string and demand a response to our pleasing, “Give me this, I want that, give me, give me, give me.” We are not the center of the universe. Paul probably practiced tithing. As a Pharisee before becoming a Christian he was used to tithing meticulously. Paul gave much more than a tithe. I believe that he knew all of those words in Malachi. Yet look at a summary of his life in his own words:
To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless.
We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it;
when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world. (1 Corinthians 4:11-13 NIV) If that is the blessing that Paul got for all his sacrifice and tithing and giving many people might say, “No thank you!” God can and may prosper us materially. God is under no obligation to pay up in financial terms. God will see that our basic needs are met. Paul wrote, instead of the principle of sowing and reaping. He wrote: Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:6-8 NIV)
The Malachi text
“But pastor”, you say, “what about the promise in Malachi? Does it not stand? Is it not for us? We must place the text in Malachi in its total context. It is not about money. God was pleading with Israel in a time a deep spiritual apostasy and religious mediocrity. The people had returned from Babylon, from 70 years of captivity. They rebuilt their temple and established sacrifices. It was a time of religious revival. They had energy and joy to face the hardships of becoming a people again in their own land. However, days became weeks and weeks turned into months and months, years and years into decades. All that zeal and energy drained away. They lost their first love. They were in a spiritual slump. Soon, serving the Lord seemed such a bother. You know the feeling. “Dear, It’s Sunday.” (Yawn) “I really want to just sleep in today.” I don’t have to elaborate. You know what I mean. You just get tired of serving God. What a weariness it all is.
Paul wrote “…be not weary in well doing…” but we do get weary and bored and little by little the zeal subsides and the energy dissipates and good intentions go unfulfilled, just like when you began that new diet in January 2011. That was about where Israel was. They offered to God dutifully, but not from their hearts. They offered the left-overs, the lambs that were blind, sheep that were lame. The crops that were already about to go to seed and spoil. God’s messenger cried out, “Try offering that to your governor. See if he would receive that from your hands!” He said, “If I am a great King, where is my honor?” God asked.
Sometimes we see church as God’s second hand shop. Send your junk to the church and maybe some poor folk could use it. You know what I mean. Tip God. Do the least thing possible. Find out the bare minimum and put in your time. “Pastor, my family and I go to church regularly. We attend Christmas and Easter, every year.”
God doesn’t want our half-hearted sacrifices, God wants our hearts. God doesn’t want our money, he wants our hearts. Israel drifted far away from God. They practice easy divorce. They married foreign wives and began to worship their gods. They practiced gross social injustice. Just before the text beginning at verse 6 that we read today we should have included verse 5 “So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty.
God is not interested in just their money. Long before he even mentions their nonpayment of tithes he has a complaint about their general apathetic attitude toward divine things. This matter about tithes simply reflects a spiritual illness affecting the whole nation. God, who loves Israel, pleads with them through his messenger to return wholeheartedly. “Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD Almighty. (Mal. 3:7)
I hear the cry of the father’s heart in that verse. I see the Father that Jesus spoke about in Luke 15 whose eyes scanned the horizon day after day searching and longing for that younger son who had wandered away. He wasted his inheritance and brought shame on himself and his father’s name. The Father longed for him to return. “Return to me and I will return to you” Malachi pleaded.
I think of Jesus who longed over his own people in Jerusalem. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”
Can you not hear the heart throb of God in those words. They are words of love, words of deep longing. They are words filled with compassion and pain that Jesus Christ himself experienced as he faced the cross and endured the shame to reconcile us to God.
If all you see today is guilt and condemnation and if that guilt drives you to give money, then just keep it. If what you want is a heavenly get-rich-quick-scheme and you want more of what you now have, then just keep it. For God already knows your heart. And if such crass religious schemes turn you off, as they turn me off, then maybe you will go away and at least think that this is not what the verse is really about. Maybe you will leave disgusted. I think God leaves the Church disgusted sometimes.
However, if in your heart you long to return to God and to love God with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your strength, then maybe you can consider a pledge in a way that honors that commitment with your substance. Those who wholeheartedly return can rightly hear the words: “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 enough for it.” Amen