As one of my old pastors used to say, “Whenever people start talking about God and money, weird things happen.”
It is the subject of countless comedy routines, fiscal year-end sermons, and disputes at home.
In a church context, people usually hear about the “tithe” when that word comes out. For those who are unaware, the tithe is a part of Jewish law that required giving the first tenth of your harvest to the Israeli “food bank”, from which the poor and afflicted were fed. While we are no longer subject to Jewish law AT ALL, it is still a term (unjustly) attributed to Jesus that indicates we should give 10% of our income to “Jesus”.
Many have already considered that it doesn’t mean putting 10% of your paycheck in the offering plate every 2 weeks. In our freedom, we can certainly give to any charity we choose. In fact, studies have recently shown that Christians are probably adjusting their giving towards other charities they find more meaningful than the church.
Yet further, some churches have taken to the ‘radical’ model of giving a significant portion of church money to charities and missions they deem appropriate. Accompanied by, of course, radical legalism and showmanship about it.
Once again we find ourselves making the issue one of legality. Out of some sense of obedience, we are to follow this ten percent rule (or follow some other, more radical “rule”) to avoid spiritual delinquency. Does following the rules bring you closer to God?
We compare ourselves to the passages Jesus and Paul write about giving the shirts off our backs to those in need and selling all we have to serve the poor. Who does that? Nobody wants to admit they wouldn’t do that. I have never in my life taken off my coat and given it to a poor person who was cold. That would be ridiculous. And we feel guilty for a minute when we think about how much we don’t give away compared to the great saints, and then go back to enjoying the blessings God gifted us with.
But, pretty much everything in the New Testament is ridiculous. Right alongside that passage about selling all you have, it says they held all their possessions in common and pooled everything so that everyone had what they needed. Nobody owned anything individually! Last time I checked, everything belongs to God anyway!
Today, we live in a capitalist society where we are hyper-individualistic (relative to that time) and we pick and choose from our income who gets our money. Christians and non-Christians alike all over the USA praise this system of exercising control over their individually owned property to bless whom they choose. We choose who deserves our benefits. While we still might give (even if only to follow the rules), we do so on our terms and in small doses. Do they do drugs? Are they not trying to get a job? Have they committed any crimes? Better not give them money… The rallying cry of Christians to get rid of benefits and entitlements breaks my heart for the simple reason that it is the only help many people will get. And many Christians think they don’t deserve it.
Is that how Jesus gave? A tithe to the deserving?
In the New Testament, if someone wanted to join the church, they were joining an organization of communal property. There is even a story where Paul calls a couple out for lying about giving all their money to the church, and they die instantly. Everyone had what they needed as long as they gave themselves and their property to the church (which, at the time, was a bunch of people living and studying together). Today, church spending consists of big salaries, big buildings, cool architecture, big equipment, and big public profiles.
Unless you want to go back to communal church style (which, admittedly, sounds pretty great), we need to re-imagine what it means to be generous in an individual, capitalist way. Christians do not have a reputation for being generous, despite anything they give. Filtering our money to the deserving causes and to a dying institutional church is not the generosity of laying down our lives in service like Jesus, which, unlike following a tithing rule, WILL bring you closer to God with every step. This might mean re-imagining church.
I’ve been thinking about this for some time, I hope the subject gives you all something to chew on. I would love to hear your thoughts on generosity in our society!