Years ago I worked with a young pastor who had been a fervent tither ever since the first day of her wage-earning life. Her practice continued for a couple of years until one day her mother gently confronted her with this request: "Sweetheart, I need you to stop tithing because I'm retiring soon and I won't be able to pay for your food and clothes any more." Slavish adherence to any legalistic requirement can fool us into thinking that we are earning holiness and blind us to the reality that our law-keeping might actually stand in the way of spiritual growth. And yet the tithe as a spiritual discipline is vastly underappreciated by modern Lutherans. I believe that if we boldly reintroduce the challenge to tithe, personally embrace the conviction of its worth, and then do it, we will provide abundant resources for God's work in the world as well as invigorate our experience of life in Christ. If I had a dollar for every time a parishioner asked me, "Do I have to tithe on gross or net income?" I would have been able to give a much higher monthly gift to ELCA World Hunger. My guess is that if the question had been put to Jesus, he would have found a loving way to say, "Don't even worry about it because you've already missed the point." All the money that we have is from God. See Deuteronomy 8:17, 18: "Do not say to yourself, 'My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.' But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today". Very few people actually believe that their money is not self-generated, and so a decision about parting with a proportion of their net (or gross) earnings looms as a frightening sacrifice instead of a covenantal response. In fact, proportionate giving that is aimed toward and beyond tithing is valuable as a spiritual discipline even if we think that it's our money. The vast majority of people in the world cannot even imagine the standard of living that most Americans take for granted. If we cannot understand our membership in the Body of Christ as a reason to partner with God for the sake of the suffering world, then perhaps we need a spiritual jolt to get us back onto the path. The truth is that we are called to worship God with our wallet as well as our body, mind, spirit and heart. Following are five ways to re-imagine the tithe so that we can see it as an essential expression of the life of faith.
As a tool for transformationIt is easy to find Old Testament passages that demand the tithe, but there are no verses in the New Testament that offer it as the basis for Christian giving. Yet Jesus talked about money regularly throughout his ministry: two thirds of his sayings and stories were related to the dangers of money, material possessions and greed. What happened to the tithe? The understanding of giving that Jesus taught is so radical that it spills beyond the confines of the law. In Matthew 23:23, one of the series of woes against the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus accuses them of punctiliousness in their tithe of 'things' and neglectful in their concern for the "weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith." The good news is that tithing is not necessary for our salvation; the bad news is that Jesus expects us to do both — tithe and work for justice. And yet even the bad news is good news because tithing gives us a transformed spirit and enhanced resources for the work of justice. The discipline of tithing shapes us into people who understand and live the abundant life of self-giving that Jesus teaches. That's why former tithers are so rare — once you have gotten a closer view of the kingdom, and a bigger piece of it, the old life of accumulation loses its appeal.
As an exercise in relinquishmentHave you ever tried to pry a baby's fingers from the side of the eye glasses that he has grabbed from your face? It is extraordinarily difficult. Partly that's because a baby has remarkable strength in those little digits, but it is also because the baby has not yet learned how to let go. The first skill learned is grasping, and only then can a child be taught to release what he has grasped. And so it goes in other aspects of our lives. It is important to learn how to grasp — to acquire food, education, jobs, a place to live, and a vocation. But an equally important skill is relinquishing — to separate out the necessities of life from the things that have become a source of longing and our idols. American culture is a lens that distorts the things we want into the things we need. But the tithe is a corrective lens; it shows us that we do not need all that we are tempted to grasp, and it blesses us with a lessening of the desire for more.
As witness to an alternative vision in a consumer cultureQuite a few people I know who give away 10% or more of their income are targets for frequent auditing because it is unusual for auditors to see sacrificial giving. And perhaps quiet financial witnessing is preferred by Lutherans and others who find public displays of faith to be unimaginable. It is consistent with Jesus' teaching to be humble — to pray in closets and give without expectation of thanks or reciprocal services. Yet Jesus also said that we should not hide our lights under a basket, and the very conviction that motivates us to give away so much money is the thing that many people are missing in their lives. To be able to talk about habits of giving in a joyful way is a powerful witness in a culture that deifies wealth; it is a way to de-throne money and raise awareness of a different kind of abundance that outshines paltry material wealth.
As a belief that giving is a form of liberationA few years ago I attended a lecture given by Douglas John Hall on stewardship, and was startled when a seminarian raised her hand to ask what the word "Mammon" means. Recent biblical translations prefer "wealth" (NRSV) and "Money" (NEB) in verses such as Matthew 6:24 — "You cannot serve God and Mammon". But there is a loss in meaning that results from discarding the capitalized 'Mammon.' Mammon is a powerful being that needs to be named. Mammon is not simply a sum of material resources; it is a seductive spiritual power that it is the main competitor to God in peoples' hearts. Martin Luther agreed. In his explanation of the first commandment, Luther wrote: "Many a person thinks he has god and everything he needs when he has money and property; in them he trusts and of them he boasts.... Surely such a person also has a god — Mammon by name ... on which he fixes his whole heart. It is the most common idol on earth." We are in bondage to Mammon and cannot free ourselves without the power of God. As we access that power to help us to grow in giving, we are growing in faith; we are being freed from guilt and liberated into generosity, simplicity and joy.
As an opportunity for delight
There was a young lady of GodWho thought tithing excessively oddBut she let out sighAnd she gave it a tryNow she thrives on nine-tenths of her wadThe joy of having resources that are already set aside for giving, the delight of selecting which part of God's work to support, the freedom from the endlessness of always wanting more — these are some of the pleasures of tithing. When we see this kind of giving as more gospel than law, then we can tithe, and go beyond a tithe, with gratitude and grace and thrive.
Margaret G. Payne
is Bishop of the New England Synod of the ELCA.
© May 2012
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 12, Issue 3