Years ago, when Marci and I were first married, we lived in the little town of Arborfield, Saskatchewan; I was working as a minister, not only in Arborfield, but also on the two Cree reserves of Red Earth and Shoal Lake, on the road to Le Pas, Manitoba. I did a lot of driving in those days; it was sixty miles from Arborfield to Red Earth – thirty of them on gravel – and then another twenty-five miles from Red Earth to Shoal Lake. In between Arborfield and the two reserves was the slightly larger town of Carrot River, and in that town was a little Christian bookstore run by a man called Marvin. Marvin was a very hospitable and generous guy; long before Chapters and Indigo came along, he figured out that if you have coffee and easy chairs available in your bookstore, it increases people’s enjoyment of their shopping experience. I used to stop regularly in Marvin’s bookstore, and it was a pretty common occurrence for him to find an excuse to give me a book. Not sell me a book – give me a book. One day I said to him, “Marvin, you’re never going to make any money if you keep giving books away”. He replied, “Yes, but I’m having a lot of fun doing it!”
Today we’re going to think about the Christian discipline of giving. As we’ve been going through Lent we’ve been thinking together about godly habits that can help to shape us as followers of Jesus. I’ve chosen six - prayer, study, action, worship, giving, and mission – and today we’re on the fifth one: giving. I want to say a few things about the Christian discipline of giving, but I want to say at the outset that the purpose of the discipline of giving is to teach us the joy of giving. On the day that we learn the joy of giving, we won’t need the discipline any longer; generosity will be the hallmark of our lives, and no one will have to persuade us about it. But we’re not there yet – at least, I’m not! I’m on the road, but I’ve still got a long way to go, so I still need the discipline to help train me.
In the Old Testament, the primary discipline for giving was tithing: the practice of giving ten percent of your crops and your flocks to the Lord and to those who served the Lord as priests or ministers of any kind. This practice was formalized in the book of Leviticus chapter 27, but it’s worded in such a way as to give us the impression that it was already a well-worn custom for the Israelites. Leviticus 27:30 and 32 says, “All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s; they are holy to the Lord… All tithes of herd and flock, every tenth one that passes under the shepherd’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord”.
Who were the tithes to be paid to? Numbers 18:21 says, “To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for a possession in return for the service they perform, the service in the tent of meeting”. What does that mean?
The Old Testament tells us that there were twelve tribes of Israel, each of them descended from one son of Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel. Eleven of the tribes were given land to live on and work so that they could support themselves – one of them, the tribe of Joseph, was actually divided into two, because it was so large – and within each tribe the land was divided between clans and families so that every family could support themselves. But one tribe was given no land: the tribe of Levi. God set them apart to serve in the tabernacle, the tent of meeting where the worship of Israel was conducted; later on, after the temple was built in Jerusalem, they did all the practical work around the place. And within the tribe of Levi one family, the family of Aaron, was set apart to be hereditary priests of the Lord. The families of the tribe of Levi had no land, so how were they going to support themselves? The answer was that they weren’t; the other eleven tribes were going to support them by bringing one tenth of their produce and giving it to the priests and the Levites, so that they would be free to do God’s work in leading the worship of his people and teaching the Law of God.
What were the people required to tithe? Leviticus mentions “the seed from the ground”, “the fruit from the tree”, and “the herd and flock” – in other words, their crops and their animals. The way it worked was very simple. With animals, the owner counted them as they went out to pasture, and every tenth one was given to God. In this way there was no possibility of selecting inferior animals for the tithing of flocks and herds. When it came to the crops, a farmer simply set aside one tenth of the produce. If he wanted to, he could pay his tithe in money rather than in actual produce, but if he did that, he had to add one-fifth to the amount.
This discipline was assumed throughout the Old Testament as a basic obligation on all Israelites, and the failure to be faithful in it was mentioned as one of the reasons God wasn’t pleased with his people. In the last book of the Old Testament, the book of Malachi, the prophet has this to say on God’s behalf:
‘Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, “How are we robbing you?” In your tithes and offerings! You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me – the whole nation of you! 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’ (Malachi 3:8-10).
So in Malachi’s mind, refusing to bring your tithes to God is the same as robbing God. That’s a challenging thought, isn’t it? But the other thing I find interesting in this passage is the invitation to ‘put God to the test’. Usually in the Bible, putting God to the test is something we’re discouraged from doing. But here God challenges his people: put me to the test, bring your full ten percent of flock and herd, and then see if I won’t bless you and provide for you in return.
We might think that giving a tenth of your income to help support the priests and Levites was generous enough, but that wasn’t the end of it for the Israelites; on top of that, they were also encouraged to give to the poor and needy. Psalm 41:1 says, “Happy are those who consider the poor; the LORD delivers them in the day of trouble”. The book of Proverbs contains a number of injunctions to be generous to the poor. 19:17 says, ‘Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and will be repaid in full’; conversely, in 21:13 we’re told, ‘If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard’. And in the lovely book of Tobit, in the Apocrypha, old Tobit gives this advice to his son Tobias: ‘Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor, and the face of God will not be turned away from you. If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have… Indeed, almsgiving, for all who practice it, is an excellent offering in the presence of the Most High’ (Tobit 4:7b-8, 11).
So in the Old Testament we have these two emphases that are very strong: on the one hand, the requirement to give one tenth of your income to support the priests and Levites and the work they do, and on the other, the encouragement to be generous over and above that to the poor and needy. But when we come to the New Testament we notice a change. In the entire New Testament tithing is not mentioned at all. On the other hand, the encouragement to give to the poor and needy comes right to the forefront, in the teaching of Jesus and his apostles. Why this change?
There are two reasons. First of all, on a practical level, the early Christians had very few full-time employees in their congregations. There was no difference between priests and lay people in the early church. It wasn’t like it is today, with most churches employing a full-time pastor who gives their whole time to the work of ministry. In the early church the work of ministry was something that was shared around the congregation. There would be a team of elders; some would be teachers, some would give pastoral care, some would administer the money given to care for the poor in the congregation, and so on. No one was expected to do all the work, and everyone had time to earn a living to support themselves. Not that the New Testament is against the concept of paying full-time Christian workers; Paul defends the practice in 1 Corinthians where he says, ‘the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel’ (1 Corinthians 9:14). So it’s not that there’s anything wrong with paying full-time workers in the church; it’s just that in New Testament times there weren’t many of them. That may be one reason why tithing isn’t mentioned.
But there’s another reason, an even more fundamental one: it’s to do with the attitude in which we give. It’s possible to tithe in a legalistic, grudging way, with an attitude that says, “What’s the least I can get away with? This much I will do, and no more!” But the New Testament question is not, “What’s the least I can get away with?” Rather, the New Testament asks, “What does it mean to follow the example of Jesus?” In 2 Corinthians 8:9 Paul says, “You know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich”. So the New Testament celebrates God’s amazing generosity to us in Jesus: over and over again, we turn away from God in sin, but he doesn’t abandon us; rather, he pours out his forgiveness and love on us in Jesus. And what is our response to this? We’re called to imitate Jesus; as we have received freely from him, so we are to give freely to others.
And we’re not to do this in a grudging way, the way that keeps a careful record of everything we give and resents the fact! I have to admit that I don’t always succeed in this. On my bad days, I sometimes think of all the years I’ve been tithing and start to do some math in my mind; I think to myself, “Lord, if it wasn’t for tithing, I could have my house paid off, I could have new furniture, I could take a cruise, I could have a few trips to Mexico…” And you know what? When I do that, all my joy in the Lord goes away, and I lose all the benefit of the giving.
What’s the Christian attitude? Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 9,
‘The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work’ (2 Corinthians 9:6-8).
Of course, what Paul meant in this passage is not that if we don’t feel cheerful about it we shouldn’t give. Rather, if we’re grudging every penny we give away, we need to change our attitude and learn the joy of generosity.
So tithing isn’t mentioned in the New Testament, but that doesn’t mean we can sigh with relief and return to a life of unmitigated selfishness! In the New Testament, whenever Jesus changes a commandment in the law, he does it by making it more demanding, not less! So it’s not enough not to kill anyone; you have to refrain from getting angry with them too. It’s not enough not to commit adultery; you have to stay away from lust, too. It’s not enough to love your friends; you have to love your enemies too. And it’s not enough to tithe and then say, “Right! I can do what I like with the other 90%” Rather, the discipline of giving is meant to change us on the inside, so that the greatest joy of our life is generosity. When we get to that space, questions about how much we should give are irrelevant. We don’t have to be told to give. We do it freely, for the sheer joy of it, out of gratitude for God’s generosity to us.
Now I know that some of you listening to me will not be happy that I’ve chosen to speak about giving today. Some people think that any talk of money is somehow unspiritual and it has no place in the pulpit. To some people, it smacks of TV evangelists with obscene incomes who continue to plead with people to send them money. And some people are just overwhelmed by the amounts of money we’re talking about today. “Ten percent? You must be joking! What? You want me to go higher than that?”
I must admit that it would be a lot more comfortable for me to avoid this topic altogether. The problem is that I don’t consider it to be part of my responsibility as a pastor to protect you from the teaching of Jesus! And Jesus in fact had a great deal to say about money: far more than I’ve said today. He saw money rather as we see radioactive material today: it can do a lot of good, but you have to handle it very carefully or it will poison you. And to him, the best way to handle it was to spend as little as possible on yourself and to give as much as possible away. Not that we shouldn’t provide for our families; that’s also a biblical duty. But most of us in the western world live in luxury that is unimaginable to the rest of humankind. The gospel call to us is to learn the joy of simplicity and the joy of generosity.
I’m not going to stand up here this morning and say to you, “You must give ten percent of your income to God”. As we’ve seen, the New Testament doesn’t specify an amount; what it specifies is an attitude of generosity. What I am going to suggest is that, as we learn the discipline of giving, we take two steps.
First, be disciplined about it. Don’t be a ‘Jesus tipper’! Pick a percentage of your income and say, “This is what I’m going to give”. Don’t even let it come into play when it comes to making financial decisions. Whenever a pay cheque comes in, that percentage gets written off right away; it belongs to God, not to us. And if you’re new to this, you might like to think about increasing that percentage year by year, so that you gradually work your way closer and closer to the biblical tithe.
But secondly, learn to enjoy the spontaneity of it! Let me take you back to my friend Marvin, who ran the Christian bookstore in Carrot River. No one told him to give books away to me and other people. It wasn’t part of his tithe. Rather, he had learned the joy of generosity from Jesus. He had learned that he didn’t need to spend a lot on luxuries to be happy; he had learned to enjoy responding to opportunities that came his way day by day to be generous to others. I’ll never forget his words when I told him that he was never going to make any money if he kept giving books away; “Yes”, he said, “but I’m having a lot of fun doing it”.
I’m not there yet; I still find that I too easily make excuses not to be generous, or grudge the amounts I give. But from time to time I catch glimpses of the absolute joy of a life of Christlike generosity, and those glimpses assure me that it really is the best way to live. And that’s why I practice the discipline of giving: so that I can get free of my addiction to materialism and learn the joy of giving. One day, when I’ve learned that lesson fully, I won’t need the discipline any more. Until then, the discipline is part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. That’s why it’s important for us to think about it this Lent.