The word ‘tithe’ comes from the Old English word meaning ‘tenth.’ The first time we see tithing practiced in the Scriptures is when Abram gives a tenth of his possessions to the priest Melchizedek in Genesis 14. A similar offering is given by Abram’s grandson Jacob in Genesis
28. The Mosaic Law took this example and codified it, as recorded in Leviticus 27 and
Deuteronomy 14, requiring the children of Israel to give the firstfruits of their harvest or herds to the Lord. By the word of God as recorded in Numbers 18, the tithes offered to Him came under the stewardship of the Levitical priests, who were to allocate the offerings for the support of the tabernacle in which they served and for the sustaining of their own families. Beyond this tithe, another tithe was expected from what remained after the first tithe, a special generosity offering given at least every three years during the so-called Year of Tithes as recorded in Deuteronomy 26. This time, the tithes went to support those who were in need, the orphans and widows in particular. The tithe of firstfruits was a grateful acknowledgment of the provision of God and was practiced through the incarnational discipline of giving back a tenth of everything to God, not because that was His share, but because it acted as an offering of thanksgiving that would redeem the whole of one’s income and possessions, consecrating them to holy use. The tithe to the needy was a recognition of Israel’s privilege of being God’s own people, through whom the whole world and all nations should be blessed, but starting with the strangers and the downtrodden right in front of them.
Early Christians seem to have picked up this practice without hesitation. We know from Acts 2 and 4 that converts to Christianity made generous gifts of their possessions for the growth of their local churches and for churches in distant cities. We know that St. Paul speaks in I Corinthians 9 about the right of those who labor for a church to be supported by the church they serve and in II Corinthians 9 about the spiritual and practical benefits of giving generously to the support of the churches. There remains in the Christian movement nothing controversial about the idea that the service of God involves a financial dimension. What is striking about the Christian expression of tithing, however, is its emphasis on the transformation of the heart in addition to the action of giving. This is really nothing new, as we learned from Malachi 3 that God requires justice and mercy as the validation of the act of giving, not just going through the motions. But our Lord’s own teaching on this in the Sermon on the Mount when He joins the condition of our very souls on the use of our treasure and in His praise of the poor widow whose generosity shamed the rich of Jerusalem teaches us that God is serious about the importance of generosity in both deed and in truth as a necessary dimension of a faithful life. As Christians, we do not evade the the Old Testament’s call to tithe in service to God and neighbor. If anything, we are called to see the tithe as a baseline, a given, a starting point from which to exercise a more radical generosity that expresses in action a love for justice and mercy that is meant to permeate all of our actions. The failure to exercise justice and mercy through generous giving is a threat to our friendship with God and to our very souls.
As Christians, we confess that God is Trinity , a unity of three divine persons who exist in an eternal relationship of self-giving. The Father eternally begets the Son, the Son submits Himself eternally to the Father, who gives all Creation to the Son, who in turn gives all things back to the Father with perfect thanksgiving in the eternal communion of gift that is the very being of the Holy Spirit. We confess that this Triune God is the creator of all things. This means that He is the author and owner of everything. He gives as He sees fit to us so that we may hold and use it in trust and creativity. We confess that God made us humans in His likeness to be icons of Him to the world He gave us. Our whole existence, seen this way, is one of a gift-shaped life. Our very being is given, the world that conditions our existence is given. There is nothing we know that is not grounded in the gift of God. So when it comes to God’s call for our generosity, He is speaking the command from the perspective that to be generous is the most natural thing possible for a being created in His image. Why wouldn’t an icon of a life-giving, self-giving God do what that God does?
In Revelation 3, our Lord tells the Church of Laodicea: “‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.” When it comes to wealth and possessions, we are often likewise blind. We see our wealth and possessions ultimately as our own. We see them as the inevitable fruit of our hard work and good choices. We see them as unconditional personal property under our authority to be doled out by our own standards. We see them as the totems that safeguard our lives from accidents and tragedies. We marshall them as a shield against the forces of the unforeseen, and we use them as a ring of power to exert change that we see fit and to form institutions according to our notions of what is right and proper. Yet for all the ways we use wealth to vaunt our own existence in the making of our pristine worlds, this remains what it has always been: vanity. The last twenty years of this nation’s economic history should show us what the Scriptures have always taken for granted: that we are not in control and our money won’t save us in a crisis, it can abandon us in the space of a single day. Wealth and possessions will not protect us from everything, and they have approximately zero ability to save us in the hour of the great cataclysm of our deaths. Mammon makes a poor god because he has no answer for the riddle of death–he bids us to keep the party going when we should be numbering our days. Ultimately, all notions of wealth that do not acknowledge the foundational truth of God’s gift to us will destroy our souls. Only a return to Jesus the true Lord of all wealth and possessions can save us.
Giving in our tithes and abundant generosity is the way we pray with our money. It is the only way that money does not lead us into spiritual danger. To practice generosity is to proclaim the Gospel truth that anything which does not become a part of God’s new world will die, and to embrace life we must loosely hold the things of that dying world and offer them to Him for redemption. To cling to the things of this dying world will result at best in disappointment as they are burned away in the Judgment, and at worst in horror as they drag us into death with them. But when we return to God as Giver and to our place as His icons made to be givers, we return to the peace of God that passes understanding. We begin to worry less about what we will eat or drink or what we will wear. We begin to know that our Father knows what we need before we ask Him. We begin to trust and to live as the small, humble stewards of a big, magnificent cosmos. Mammon is an old dragon, one of the oldest, and service to him makes us old and tired like him, perched upon our hoard of gold with no will left to enjoy it. The life of gift that is the life of God makes us new again everyday, sets us free in communion with that eternal joy of the Triune God that has only been the joy of giving. For God has given all, and of what is His own we have given Him, and as our Lord has promised us: “give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”