The Presbyterian Pulpit

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

BLEST BE THE TITHE THAT BINDS

Delivered 11/23/08
Text: Deuteronomy 14:22-29; Matthew 22:15-22
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

The TITHE. You do know what that is, right? You would be surprised how many do not. Lots of folks think the tithe is simply what you give to the church, no matter what amount - a dollar, two dollars, a hundred - no matter what proportion of income the amount represents. And that is why, according to the Gallup folks, 17% of church members say they tithe. Unfortunately, lots of those good people are wrong. The word tithe comes from the Old English and simply means one-tenth. A tithe is one-tenth of something, anything - horses, pigs, cars, houses, anything - there is nothing "churchy" about the word. That means that many of those folks who THINK they are tithing when dropping a buck or two into the plate from week to week are mistaken. The truth is that, not 17% of us, but only about 3% of us actually tithe.

You have seen those bumper stickers over the years, "Honk if you love Jesus?" There is a better one: "If you love Jesus, TITHE - any fool can honk."

What does faithful Christian discipleship entail? Sometimes we are not sure. The news is full of questions with which we wrestle. What about abortion? Or embryonic stem-cell research, or gay marriage, or war? What about? What about? What about? And on and on and on. Sincere, godly people come down on both sides of the issues. Being faithful these days is not nearly as black and white as we might like. But one area that IS black and white is the tithe - the Old Testament commanded it, the New Testament affirmed it. The tithe - ten percent of income.

As to how this all started, the first time we run into the concept of a tithe is in Genesis 14 where Abraham, with 318 of his closest friends, does battle to rescue his nephew Lot who had been captured and carried off by a neighboring king. To make a long story short, Abe wins - he rescues Lot and recaptures all his worldly goods plus the other booty taken from the town. On the way back from the battle, a mysterious figure named Melchizedek, called priest of the Most High God, met Abraham and blessed him. Then the text says, "And Abram gave him a tenth of everything." He did not have to - this was simply a gift given as a token of gratitude to God who had just given the victory. Note the order here - our first encounter with tithing is one where the giver is not paying God to stir God into action, but one where the giver is responding to God who has just fought for him and given a great blessing. Remember the pattern.

Another word about tithing is one with which you are probably most familiar, one that is used in Stewardship campaigns year after year after year after year: Malachi - The question thunders out, "Will anyone rob God?" and then the response instructing, "Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing." (1) For what it is worth, it sounds like the centuries between Genesis and Malachi had seen a shift in the way folks looked upon tithing. It started out as a thanksgiving gift; it had come to be looked upon as an onerous obligation. Sounds very much like 2008. Perhaps that is why so many preachers use that text. Anyway...

Once we get to the New Testament we find that religious people are still tithing, and being very punctilious about it. Jesus said, "you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others." (2) Jesus is glad that they carefully tithe - do not "neglect the others" - but he wants to make sure they know that tithing is not the be-all and end-all of faithfulness. It was not then; it is not now either.

Then there is that famous encounter Jesus had with folks who were trying to do him in. In a very public place they asked, "Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" This falls into the category of WHEN DID YOU STOP BEATING YOUR WIFE - trick question. If he said that it was unlawful to pay the tax, Rome could arrest him on a sedition charge; if he said that it was lawful, he would be discredited in the eyes of faithful Jews who believed only God was sovereign and to pay a tax to an earthly Caesar was an insult to the Almighty.

Jesus' response: "Show me the coin used for the tax." They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?"

"The emperor's," they replied.

Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." Brilliant. And those who asked the question knew it. Scripture says, "they were amazed. And they left him and went away."

Just out of curiosity, when it comes to questions of money, do any of you NOT know what to give to the emperor? I suspect not. Sales tax, property tax, income tax, and if you get the amount wrong, you can be sure the emperor will come and get you.

"Give to the emperor what is the emperor's." Then there is the other half of Jesus' answer: Give "to God what is God's." How much is that? Remember the basis on which Jesus suggested making the distinction - he asked whose image was on the coin. The emperor - Caesar. And where do we find the image of God? According to scripture, that is you. And you and you and you and me. "So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." (3) If what bears the image denotes ownership, then what belongs to God is all of us, 100% of each one. And down deep we know that is true - all that we have and all that we are belongs ultimately to God, and the owner has the right of recall at any time and any place in the space of a heartbeat...literally.

So the question comes again. How much do we give to God? One-hundred percent? Well, I have some good news for you. God is willing to take just ten cents on the dollar - ten percent, the tithe. I wish we could get the same deal from the emperor.

This passage we read from Deuteronomy is not used as frequently for Stewardship campaigns as other texts. Probably because of what it says to do with the tithe - PARTY! The instruction goes like this: each year at harvest time, after everything is gathered in, separate the first ten percent of the crops and herds, bring them to the Temple in Jerusalem, and have a wing-ding. Food. Booze (that is what it says, and I suspect that is why you haven't heard much preaching about it - still, it sounds very Presbyterian). Celebrate. Enjoy the wonderful bounty of God, then leave the balance of the tithe to support the work of the Temple and to provide for those less fortunate. If you lived too far from Jerusalem to easily bring the crops and flocks, you could sell them back home and just bring the cash to the Temple - as modern as tomorrow's newspaper. It was an annual ritual that served as more than a fund-raising device for the support of God's house; it was a time of joyful feasting in thanksgiving for all of God's blessings and, as the scripture says, "so that you may learn to fear [or give reverence to] the LORD your God always."

Note a couple of things, please:

  • It was to be an annual event. There is a rhythm to life, seedtime and harvest, and this tithing feast followed along. It is good to establish a pattern for our gratitude.
  • Remember why we do it - certainly not because God needs our crops or our cash, but as a reminder that God is in charge and the source of all this bounty.
  • The tithe was indeed for more than a big party - some of it (most of it, frankly) supported the work of God's house and ministered to the poor.
  • And note finally, we cannot outgive God - the lesson urges us to be faithful in this matter of the tithe, "so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake." The promise is not to make us rich, but it is this: those who love and trust God enough to honor God with at least a tithe will never lack the resources they need. That was true in ancient Israel; it is equally true right here today.
Tithing need not be looked upon as an ecclesiastical version of extortion, not if we get back to the way it was originally celebrated in Deuteronomy. It can be a beautiful routine, a systematic way for people to come together, give thanks for all they have earned through the grace of God in a given year, support the good work of God's house, and care for the poor. It is a concrete way in which we can acknowledge that everything good we have comes from God. And if you do it off the top, it can even be painless.

I want to say a word here to our young people. I believe in tithing and I practice it. I have been doing it since I was a boy. I admit that my first reaction at tithing twenty-three cents out of my $2.25 weekly newspaper delivery earnings was not enthusiastic, but I was taught early on that the first ten percent did not belong to me - it was God's. To take that and use it for myself was the same as stealing. Well, with some reluctance, I went along with the plan. Now, because I have been doing it for so many years, it is just automatic. The truth is I do not miss it, and even though I do not give it with the idea of getting anything in return, God has surely given me much more than I have given. But, to be honest, the only reason it is easy for me to do now is that I developed the discipline when I was young. John D. Rockefeller, one of the world's richest men in his day, and a generous giver to his church, once said, "I never would have been able to tithe the first million dollars I ever made if I had not tithed my first salary, which was $1.50 per week." Get in the habit now, kids, while you are young. You will not regret it.

For the grown-ups, if you are tithing as you should, good. Keep it up. If you are not at that level yet, but know you ought to be and want to move in that direction, let me offer a suggestion. Take what your annual giving is currently, calculate one percent of your total income - figure that is ten-dollars for each thousand - then add the two together for your commitment in the coming year. Granted, until your total reaches ten percent of annual income, you are still falling short, but at least you are moving in the right direction.

How should you allocate the resources? In my family, we give the entire tithe to the church; other charitable contributions are over and above. We plan to continue that. But for those of you who have not been able to get to that yet, I am going to suggest something that might lead you in that direction. I am going to suggest that you set up a separate TITHE ACCOUNT with your bank. As you make deposits to your regular account, make one to the Tithe account. Then as opportunities for giving arise - to the church or United Way or Red Cross or whatever - you will have the funds available and ready to put to work. I will suggest (against my better judgment) that at least half of it go to the church - no other organization does so much of lasting good; the rest measure out as the Lord leads.

I look forward to the day when we can celebrate a Stewardship Dedication Sunday the way ancient Israel celebrated the ingathering of the tithes in Jerusalem - a joyous day of thanksgiving with family and friends for all God's bounty. Truly, "Blest be the TITHE that binds." If you would, please take your Estimate of Giving cards right now and, as the music plays softly, prayerfully indicate on them what you hope to do for the Lord through this church in the coming year, understanding that this is simply an estimate that will be met as God gives you the ability. If you would prefer to have the amount you indicate transferred automatically by your bank, simply write P-A-R (short for Pre-Authorized Remittance) on the card then notify your bank the amount to pay and on what date, just as you do with any other online banking. Welcome to the 21st century. The P-A-R notation will let our office know to provide you, not with envelopes, but with pre-printed cards to put in the offering plate from week to week indicating that your tithe has already been given.

Now, as you are prepared to come, make your way to the Communion Table, place the completed cards face down in the plates provided, and return to your seats. After all who wish to do so have come, we will close with our dedication.

(Interlude)


1. Malachi 3:8-10

2. Matthew 23:23

3. Genesis 1:27

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