The Joy of Tithing
“The Lord shall be my God. . . of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You” (Gen 28:21–22).
Jacob discovered the joy of tithing. He was a shrewd and conniving fellow. He struggled for success even in his mother’s womb, grasping onto his twin brother’s leg. He finagled Esau’s birthrite with a bowl of soup and won Isaac’s blessing with goat skin. Yet, despite his deviousness, he earned God’s pleasure. After fleeing for his life, Jacob fell asleep and dreamt a vision. A stairway reached up to heaven, with angels descending and ascending, and God spoke. After the vision, Jacob fell on his face, “The Lord shall be my God. . . of all that You give me I will surely give a tenth to You”. He wanted God as his ally and he knew a relationship needed sacrifice. He promised God a tenth of all his wealth.
Why did Jacob tithe to God? Tithing, the act of setting aside a tenth of one’s income, is one of the oldest practices of the Church, and one of the most joyful. Why joyful? It is the absolute act of freedom. When we cling to our finances, we find ourselves wrapped up in the tentacles of worry and anxiety. When we realize we can let go of them, entrust them to our Lord, we discover freedom from their hold on us and a new realization of God’s providence.
Tithing comes from the Old English word, ‘teopan’: to give a tenth. The first mention of tithing is with Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham. He won a battle and encountered a mysterious man named Melchizadech, the Prince of Salem (lit. the Prince of Peace), whom we recognize as Jesus Christ. Melchizadech gave Abraham bread and wine — a foreshadowing of the Eucharist. In return, Abraham have the Lord his tithe, a tenth of all his wealth, cattle, and posessions.
Do you ever wonder what motivated Abraham and Isaac? We have the Church and its scriptures — 2,000 years of the Holy Spirit teaching us how to live. Before that, the Jews had the laws and commandments given by Moses. Abraham and Isaac had neither. They lived long before all the written laws. Yet, they were counted righteous by God. How? God says to Isaac, “Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Genesis 26:5). What commandments? What laws? Abraham tapped into laws written in the fibers of the universe and the innermost place of the heart. He discovered a universal law, like the laws of physics or gravity. This is the law of giving. The discovery that, faced with the glory and majesty of God, one can only respond with worship and sacrifice. Abraham and Isaac gave their tithe to God freely and joyfully, knowing that it was merely a beginning, a symbol, a fraction, of all that they owed to Him.
Moses commanded the Jews to tithe…because they were lazy. Unlike their ancestors, they were dense…rather like our culture today. It was not enough to gaze up into the stars or to smell the roses and be able to discern God’s Way. Their hearts were insensitive and the eyes of their souls blind. They needed laws engraved in stone. As a result, they never really got it. They obeyed the letter of the law, not the spirit of the law…but the law was good. Jesus Christ affirmed the law of tithing, even while denouncing the pharisees’ bad attitude.
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth…But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matthew 23:22-23).
Jesus did not abolish the laws and the prophets. He freed us from our insensitivity to them. He gave us the Spirit to know and walk the pre-eternal Laws, as the angels and prophets knew them.
Jesus Christ revealed the heart of the Law. We are not supposed to do less. We get to do more.
“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
St. Augustine said:
“Tithes are required as a matter of debt, and whomever has been unwilling to give tithes has been guilty of robbery. Whosoever therefore, desires to secure a reward for themselves, let them render tithes, and out of the nine parts let them seek to give alms.”
St. Irenaeus echoes the same sentiment, but in an even more radical way:
“The Jews were constrained to a regular payment of tithes; Christians, who have freedom, assign all their possessions to the Lord, bestowing freely not the lesser portions of their property [but the larger] since they have the hope of greater things.”
As Christians, a tenth is the least that we are asked to give. We have the priviledge to give more. For the more we give, the more we abandon, the more we are filled with God’s graces. Ten percent of our wealth is not the end goal, but it is a good beginning. We are all in process, and God is so compassionate. It can at least be our vision, as we learn to repent one day at a time.
What is this all about?
What is the point? Why is tithing a part of this religion of freedom? Why should Christians think about money and things, instead of spirituality, visions…clouds, etc.? Christ gives us a parable in our gospel reading today: the rich man and his manager.
“There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. He summoned the manager and said, “What is this that I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” The manager was caught, but he was very shrewd. He asked himself what he could do then. He was no good at manual labor. He was ashamed to beg. So he came up with a scheme to recover the lost money. “Summoning his master’s debtors one by one, [the manager] asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ The manager responded, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ The man replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ So the manager said, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ Little by little, this sneaky manager gathered the sums he needed. When he brought them to the master, the master was pleased and commended the manager for his thriftiness.
Jesus Christ finishes this rather bizarre parable in this way, “The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings” (Luke 16:1-9).
Have you ever noticed how shrewd people in the world can be? Just read the bio of anyone successful, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, quarterback Colt McCoy. All of them climbed the ladder after years of hard work and determination. Networking, ingenuity, cunning…The famous lecturer on success, Earl Nightingale once said:
"There is a time when one must decide either to risk everything to fulfill one's dreams or sit for the rest of one's life in the backyard."
The same principles of success in the business world apply to our spirituality. Men and women have sacrificed everything to achieve worldly success. What are we willing to sacrifice for eternity in paradise?
“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, That there may be food in my house, and try me in this, says the LORD of hosts: Shall I not open for you the floodgates of heaven, to pour down blessing upon you without measure?” (Malachi 3:10).
God gives to those who give to him.
What a strange year: 2020. I wonder how we will look back at this time, how we will have survived it, and what will have come of it all. No one can doubt that tomorrow looks bleak, and the economy…prospects are not good. In this light, we need to become more serious then ever in tithing. It sounds bizarre. Finances are tighter than ever…give more!? The ways of God are usually just that — upside down from the ways of man. This is our grave moment of choice — when things are rough, towards whose power will we turn?
What is it all for? For joy.
The Church and Saints all ask us to tithe not as a burden, but because of the sheer joy of it. Abraham, Jacob, and all the saints tithed not out of obligation, but because they discovered the rich beauty of a relationship with God. Like a lover drunk with love, they gave up the world for the joy of the beloved. They discovered a wonderful mystery — the more they gave up, the freer they become — no longer attached to the fears and anxiety of this world, their hearts were opened wide to soak in God’s gifts. We are not all called to be monks and give up all our wealth. But we are all called to start where we are, one step at a time, letting go and letting in, so that we can share a taste of the saints’ freedom. Life in Christ is a life of joy if we dare to walk it.