Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Giving, tithing and other stewardship questions in an era of grace


An Ethical Musings’ reader sent me this question:

I would be grateful if you can direct me to any of your sermons on [the issue of tithing and first fruit giving]. If no sermons, please what are your thoughts on these 2 tropical issues? Do they still have relevance in today’s era of Grace rather than Law?

Some searching through my files and subsequent reflections led to two conclusions. First, since I no longer preach on a regular basis, I lack the incentive to preach stewardship sermons as part of a congregation’s annual stewardship campaign. Second, my thinking about the efficacy of stewardship sermons has shifted toward preferring a paragraph or two on giving in occasional sermons scattered across the year instead of an entire sermon devoted to stewardship.

Jesus did not teach tithing. Tithing is an Old Testament concept. Incidentally, the twentieth century founder of a small Christian denomination, after a painstaking if severely flawed analysis of the Old Testament, concluded that the Old Testament does not teach tithing (giving 10% to God) but triple tithing, i.e., giving God 30% of one’s income.

Jesus taught sacrificial giving. His parable in which he contrasts the tithing of the wealthy in the Temple with the widow who gives all that she has vividly portrays sacrificial giving. What constitutes sacrificial giving obviously depends upon income, number of people financially dependent upon the earner, local cost of living and other factors.

Sacrificial giving – in its essence – is not about putting money in the offering plate but about using all of one’s resources to do God's work. All of one’s resources includes personal skills and abilities, income, accumulated wealth, influence, etc. This is the meaning of Jesus’ parable about the servants entrusted with money by their master (the first with ten talents, a second with five talents, and the third with one talents) while he is traveling. Upon his return, he expects each to have reaped some return. More than money, the parable emphasizes God's expectation that individuals use everything they have in a Godly manner, that is, to increase love of God and neighbor.

“First fruits” is also an Old Testament concept, used exclusively in the New Testament in reference to Christ and Christians.

The Old Testament concept merits a brief reflection. In an era before canning, freezing, and a global marketplace, fresh produce was necessarily seasonal. People understandably placed extra value on the first produce harvested. Giving that first harvest to God expressed gratitude for God's role in making the harvest possible and of renewing one’s commitment to God through a sacrificial offering.

God does not need our gifts. God's intent and plans are never thwarted because of human stinginess. God's options are bigger than we can imagine.

Instead, people have a need to give. Giving loosens money’s grip on the giver. And, if each of us is really honest, money has a grip in one measure or another upon us. Furthermore, giving to a Godly cause turns our attention from self toward loving God and others. This turning can occur whether we give money to a Christian congregation that we believe is doing God’s work, to a non-profit that we believe is doing God's work, to a neighbor or person whom we know is in need, or even when we pay taxes used (at least partially) to support programs to help the neediest and most vulnerable in our midst.

How much should you individually give?

Everything.

But everything includes spending wisely to care for yourself and those dependent upon you (self-care enables subsequent gifts as well as the gift of time).

Everything also means giving to others (i.e., to a church, charity, person, or paying taxes) to reap the benefits of loosening money’s powerful grip on you and turning your attention and life more fully toward God and others.

Only an individual (or couple) can decide how best to allocate their resources. Study Jesus’ teachings on money and stewardship. Meditate on those teachings. Then live as a child of God, loving God and all creation. The bottom line about sacrificial giving is that the term connotes sacrificial living, a life devoted to God.

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