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“Someone told me with great amazement that so-and-so gives a tithe. How shameful it is that what was taken for granted among the Jews has now become an amazing thing among Christians” (John Chrysostom, 4th century).[1]

Over the past several months here I have sought to navigate the waters of faithful finances, even in a place as demanding as Southern California. I hope to have helped you “recapture a Scriptural understanding of money and then put that understanding into practice” (see “The Experience of Relative Deprivation”).

Our course to date has been roughly thus:

Southern California: We face special financial pressures, including high housing costs, a cultural demand to appear successful, and the burden of “perceived scarcity.” How are we to respond?

First Fruits: We respond by giving the first and best of our lives to God. “Faithful stewardship” may mean “prudent money management,” but it also means trusting God to take care of our needs. “Seek ye first…” (Matt. 6:33).

To Church Structures: Our first fruits belong to the flesh-and-blood church communities to which we belong.

As a Sanctifying Influence: Giving in this way—to a body that we did not choose, trusting God to make things right when human corruption looms—helps us prevail over the internal self who wants to rule and judge.

So we (a) give the first of our income (b) to the church structures to which we belong, (c) even when we disagree with their leadership, (d) in order that we might grow into generous people who trust God’s timing. But that leaves a critical question unanswered: How much of our first fruits are we to give?

The answer is not an easy one, but it begins simply enough. We are to give ten percent—to begin with.

That is the meaning of the English word “tithe” in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Greek New Testament: a “tenth.”[2] The Hebrew Bible exhorted God’s people by story and command to give the first ten percent of their produce to God. The New Testament does not relax the exhortation.[3]

How this plays out in Deuteronomy is particularly intriguing.[4] The people bring the tithe (in this case, their harvest) to God’s sanctuary, but not just to leave it there. Moses commands that they eat it there, sharing it with their families, their slaves, and the Levites (priestly class) who live among them.

Practically, such an action makes little sense. What is the difference between eating food in one place versus another? Yet the difference in outcome is dramatic.

Eating food at home is ordinary. But Moses’s instructions are extraordinary. The people remember that God is their ultimate landlord. They provide for those who have no access to land themselves. And when everyone gathers in the presence of God to eat, they “rejoice” (see Deut. 12:8-19; 14:22-28).

In other words, the occasion becomes a feast. A moment for joy for all people in the community—landholder, slave, priest, resident alien, widow or orphan. Ten percent of all the crops for everyone in town: Imagine what a party it would have been!

Now imagine what joy we might discover in our churches. What if everyone in a given congregation gave ten percent? How might such a congregation look? What moments of beauty and joy might emerge as gifts for those who don’t ordinarily experience them?

We don’t often think of tithing as a feast of beauty and joy, do we? Far more often, it feels like an obligation that we have failed to meet. Or, if we have met the obligation, it has become cause for pride. But when I consider passages like the ones in Deuteronomy, I wonder if American Christians have too often traded astonishing delight for a little extra financial security (or a little extra personal comfort or recreation), largely because they cannot imagine what they are missing.

None of this makes tithing easy, of course. Most of us are carrying significant debt, or living on a fixed income, or both. After decades of giving less than ten percent, many of us are stuck in financial habits that we will not escape overnight.

But we can begin. So I encourage you to carry the picture of a “tithing feast” in your heart. How have you seen rejoicing when you have given in the past? What kind of joy do you imagine coming out of increasing your gifts?[5] What kind of joy might emerge if many of us did so?

And how might you increase your giving to ten percent? Are you a “Band-Aid ripper” who finds it easier to take one decisive act or a “Band-Aid peeler” who reaches large goals through incremental steps?

May the Spirit of God be present to you as you consider these questions. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Somewhere along the Way—

Forrest

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[1] Quoted by J. Christian Wilson, “Tithe,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 6, David Noel Freedman, editor-in-chief (New York: Doubleday, 1992) p. 580. Sadly, some things seem not to change.

[2] Lev. 27:30, 31, 32; Num. 18:21, 24, 26, 28; Deut. 12:6, 11, 17; 14:22, 28; 26:12; 2 Chron. 31:5-6, 12; Neh. 10:37-38; 12:44; 13:5, 12; Amos 4:4; Mal. 3:8, 10; Matt. 23:23 (par. Luke 11:42); Heb. 7:5, 8-9. In Hebrew the word is ‘asar (verb) and ma‘aser (noun); in Greek it is apodekatow or dedekatow (verb) and dekatas (noun). See also the giving of a “tenth” (same word in the original languages) in the NRSV at Gen. 14:20; 28:22; Lev. 27:32; Luke 18:12; Heb. 7:4.

[3] If anything, the New Testament’s teachings on money make the Hebrew Scriptures look downright mundane. Jesus confirms the requirement to tithe, but only as the smallest act of obedience to God (Mt. 23:23). His interaction with the widow at the Temple is even more sobering for those of us who would like to think highly of our ten-percenting (Mark 12:41-44). And Acts portrays an early Church whose relationship to money is radically different than our own.

[4] I am grateful to Walter Brueggemann for drawing this moment in Scripture to my attention in his book Money and Possessions (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), pp. 42-43.

[5] See II Cor. 9:12.