Pentecost + 21 November 6, 2011
Deuteronomy 14:22-29; Matthew 23:23-24
Practices are actions and activities that Christians do together, that, when done over time, shape a way of life
I have preached on two different Christian practices over the past few months.
The first practice I covered was Bible reading. The Bible informs our faith and gives us rootedness. The second practice was singing our faith. We lift our hearts and minds to God in song as Christians. Now I would like to examine a third Christian practice: Proportional giving. Help me get started by putting away for the moment any prejudice about this practice, for there are many distractions, distortions and misunderstandings.
The late comedian George Carlin delighted many audiences with his blast on religion. In one of his gigs he ridiculed religion mercilessly. I will tone down his language with a few bleeps a bit to make it palatable.
When it comes to “bleep”, big-time, major league “bleep”, you have to stand in awe of the all-time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims, religion. No contest. No contest. Religion. Religion easily has the greatest “bleep” story ever told. Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time!
But He loves you. He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can’t handle money! Religion takes in billions of dollars, they pay no taxes, and they always need a little more. Now, you talk about a good “bleep” story. Holy “Bleep”! source_http://www.rense.com/general69/obj.htm)
He reflects the views of many unbelievers and many for whom religion has been a turned off. The foolish antics of some ministers and the gullibility of the people who support them make religion look foolish. It appeals to the simpleminded and easily deceived. I watch the televangelists with their blessing plans and I have to say they turn me off, too. Some people think that is what God is about and walked away from both the church and God. Didn’t the Apostle Paul warn us long ago that in the last days that some people would come using religion to make a fast buck? He referred to them as “…men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.” (1 Timothy 6:5) The American church battles this attitude for a long time. God becomes the Santa Clause who serves us instead of the other way around.
Let us examine the Bible to see what is says about giving. I don’t like to talk about money much, because inevitably someone has a loved one who they begged to come to church. Their loved one always resisted and said, “Oh, all the church wants is your money.” “No it’s not that way!” you protest. So, reluctantly they decided to come to the church on the one Sunday the pastor spoke about Christian stewardship. “See,” they say, “What did I tell you!” Yet I must speak of giving as part of the Christian practices that comprise discipleship. Our Lord spoke often about material wealth and giving. The Bible speaks of tithes, offerings, and alms. The most spiritual thing someone can do, according to the Bible, is to give. Giving is a practice that goes back to the beginning of the biblical story. Giving was a way to offer tangible expression to love and honor of God.
A brief survey of giving to God in the Bible
One early account of giving was Cain and Abel. Both brought gifts to offer to God. Cain brought fruit from his garden as he was a farmer. Abel, the shepherd offered sheep from his flock. Noah built a stone altar and offered gifts to God on it when we came out of the ark. When Abraham returned from the slaughter of the kings with spoil, he met Melchizedeck, King of Salem (ancient Jerusalem). This mysterious figure brought Abraham bread and wine (ya get it?) and so he offered Melchizedek a tithe of the spoil. Melchizedek blessed Abraham. Jacob dreamt of a ladder going up to heaven. Angels ascended and descended the ladder. It was a holy moment of revelation. Jacob called the place Bethel, “the House of God”. He cut a deal with God: Jacob made a vow, saying,
“If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s house, then the LORD will be my God and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth.” Genesis 28:20-22 By the way, the word tithe means one tenth. Later, giving a tithe became an ancient law. Let us think about this law a moment.
God does not need our offerings.(Psalm 50)
First, let us be clear: We know that God doesn’t need the money or the offerings of grain or of sheep, goats or oxen. Psalm 50 put it this way:
I have no need of a bull from your stall
or of goats from your pens,
for every animal of the forest is mine,
and the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know every bird in the mountains,
and the creatures of the field are mine.
If I were hungry I would not tell you,
for the world is mine, and all that is in it.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?
Sacrifice thank offerings to God,
fulfill your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”
God needs nothing. However, we need to give. Giving has to do with the heart, with the attitude toward God. Our patterns of giving reflect our attitudes toward God and towards things. Do we possess things or do things possess us? We need to learn the discipline of generosity. God enrolled Israel in a school of generosity. Their courses taught them how to give generously, extravagantly. God schooled them in how to give and how not to feel driven to squeeze every buck and pinch every penny. God prescribed rest. Take a Sabbath. It teaches us to not maximize profits and drain life and energy until life becomes inhuman. God taught them to open their hands generously. The way they harvested their fields, cancelled debts every six years, provided liberally for the poor, the strangers, the fatherless and widows provided a school teaching them to think communally, think of others, not just themselves. Let us examine for a minute the legislation regarding the tithes.
Tithes provided an extravagant community feast
Notice the Law commanded them to do it together annually. This formed a community. If they were too far away, they could turn their tithe into silver (money) and travel to Jerusalem for the feast. Eat and drink before the LORD. That means it was a cultic meal, a religious festival. Tithing in Israel provided a huge community feast, a festival which included the weak and poor, the fatherless and widows, strangers and the Levites who served at the Temple. All participate. It was extravagant. What a feast!
Tithes provided a safety net for the poor and disadvantaged
The tithe also provided a means of social welfare for the disadvantaged. Every third year they dedicated the tithes especially for the fatherless, widows, the aliens and the Temple helpers, the Priests and Levites. Tithes were a primitive social system of welfare that served as a safety net for those who were economically impoverished or under some threat.
Tithing formed a community of generosity
The practice of tithing formed a community of generosity. By laying claim to a portion of the fruit of what everyone produced, be it fruits, grains, wines, and livestock, God was saying, in effect, you don’t need it all. Share. Do not pinch pennies. Stop being miserly. Lighten up. Become generous. Share. Open your hands. Hold one gigantic hoedown every year except the third year. Dedicate that to the fatherless, widows, aliens, the priests and the Levites. Rejoice before me. Take joy in this communal feast. Throw yourselves one gigantic party. Enjoy! Bon apatite!
Learn that the secret of living is giving. A society like this, schooled in such extravagant celebration and community consciousness would find God’s blessings. It is the opposite of “get what you can and can what you get.” It militates against, “I made it, I earned it, It’s mine and I’m gonna keep it.”
Jesus’ attack on legalism
We often turn something meant to enhance human life into something that burdens human life. Religion does that a lot. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for their legalistic attitude towards the tithes and their neglect of the fundamental human commitments to justice, mercy, and faithful living. Legalism spoils everything. It separates us from God with our self-righteous attitudes. It separates us from one another with our judgmental “holier than thou” mind-set. The Pharisees were the “separated ones”, holier than thou. They practiced meticulous tithing, even tithing the mint and rue and cummin, little spices that grew on their windowsills. However, according to Jesus they missed the main point. Jesus said that justice (fairness), mercy (beyond fairness) and faithfulness are values that are far more important. They should have attended these virtues and not neglected their tithes. They placed the emphasis on the wrong syllable.
Extravagant and Holy Waste
Think about this extravagant feast that those ancient Israelites were to throw for themselves once a year. Some might argue that it was an extravagant waste. Some argue that giving to a church is wasteful. Sometimes it is. However, let me tell you a story from the Gospel of John. Jesus was eating in Bethany. Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha was present. She entered the room and brought with her an expensive bottle of perfume, about a half of a liter. The estimated cost was nearly the wages for one whole year. That is extravagant. She broke open the seal and poured the pure nard on Jesus’ feet. She began to wipe them with her hair. This was an extravagant waste, excessive, a demonstration of affection that was way over the top.
Now this occurred near the time of the Passover when the Jewish pilgrims came from all over the Empire to celebrate the feast. During these days, Jews tried to be especially caring of the poor. One disciple, Judas, took offense at this holy waste. He rebuked the woman for pouring out a life’s saving. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages”. (John 12:5 ) His advice was practical and common sense. That is a lot of money and would do more good if sold and the proceeds dedicated elsewhere. I can see his point. Other Gospel writers have the whole of the disciples raising their voices against this little act of devotion. But Jesus saw greater significance in what Mary was doing. She didn’t know the significance, not really. No one understood what was really going on in her act of love and devotion. Jesus saw something more profound in her practice. Jesus came to Mary’s defense:
“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:7-8) Marks account of the same event added these words, “She has done a beautiful thing to me.” Mark 14:6
What to some appeared as profligate waste, a useless gesture of squandering good resources, Jesus saw something else. Jesus accepted her gift as an extravagant holy waste, a lavish outpouring of love. May our gifts and our giving reflect such an attitude of love and devotion. May we offer our extravagant holy waste as an outpouring of love on the crucified Jew, the poor man of Nazareth, the one who bore the cross and the grave for us and for our salvation. Amen