legalism

Gloria Party

Like the coin says, "In God We Trust"

Like the coin says, “In God We Trust”

Deuteronomy 14:22-29

“Tithing.” It almost rhymes with “sighing,” and that’s what most people feel like doing when the subject comes up. Tithing is a burden, the reluctant surrender of 10 percent of what we gain to some mysterious rule of religion.

Or is it? Is it possible tithing has been misunderstood, perhaps even misrepresented for centuries by the church? What if we were to discover tithing is rooted in joy?

As our text shows us today, it’s no great leap to link tithing to joy, a kind of joy that might leave our more legalistic brothers and sisters in Christ tearing at their hair. (When my Baptist deacon grandfather taught me about tithing, he said nothing about “wine” and “strong drink” being involved.) What we have before us is evidence of God’s original intent for tithing, made clear when he embedded the activity in the laws he gave to the Israelites.

We have become confused about tithing for a simple reason: Religious leaders have corrupted the message, largely because of their concern that the money might stop coming one day. It happened in the Old Testament days as Judaism became more institutional and legalistic. In the New Testament, we can see how Jesus criticized the handling of money by the religious leaders of his day, including what we might call “tithe abuse.” For examples, see Matthew 23:23-24Mark 12:13-17, and  Mark 12:41-44.

Many religious leaders still botch this message. I must admit I have participated in this process myself, a realization that is more than a little humbling. Church leaders tend to sow confusion regarding the tithe in one of two ways. Either we attempt to “re-legalize” tithing to prop up our church coffers, ignoring how the grace of Christ has taken us from under the law, or we ignore the subject entirely, in the process failing to communicate the power God offers us as a people using our resources in community.

I know, a little explanation of what I’m claiming here is in order. There are lots of Old Testament Bible texts related to tithes of different kinds, but our Deuteronomy text is particularly important because it reveals God’s intent.

Look at it again. Are you not struck by how the tithe is to be used? Essentially, the tithe becomes the basis for a celebration, one laden with bread, meat, “wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire.” Imagine the crops all coming in about the same time, and this law being lived out by all the people in just a few weeks. The bounty and the blessing for all must have been incredible. The Hebrew word for “tithe,” ma’aser, must have been a beloved, celebrated sound.

Every third year, this tithe was a particular joy for the Levites, the priestly class who had no land, and other dispossessed people: the travelers among the Jews, the orphans, and the widows. The harvest went into storage so these people with few resources would have enough.

I also should note the tithing law talks about the Israelites as if they would have fields and crops one day, live in cities, and have a central location for worship. These agrarian and urban settings represent divine foresight—the Israelites were desert wanderers when they received the law. Because God clearly is peering into the future as he gives this part of the law, and because tithing pre-dates the law, I have no problems seeing the tithing principle as timeless.

So, the obvious question is, how might we tithe today according to God’s intent? In short, I would say we should tithe with an expectation that our churches become places of great joy and abundance, for ourselves and for the dispossessed within our reach.

Imagine how different churches would be if every Christian household were to grasp the potential of the tithe as God intended it and begin to tithe. I’m going to keep the math simple here, asking that you trust I’ve actually done some calculations using government data for household incomes and available church data. At a minimum, what is given at Luminary would double; it very well could triple.

For Luminary, that would mean at a minimum an extra $240,000 or so a year, all in a church that already has its fixed costs covered. This would be ministry money, available to make our time together a great joy and providing the kind of abundance that could touch thousands of lives locally and even far away.

It sounds like a pipe dream, but I believe that if God already has said it is possible for a tithing community to have great joy and a powerful impact, then it must be something to pursue. I invite you to spend this next week dreaming about the impact of such a church on the world.

Next Sunday, I’ll share what I see. I hope to hear from some of you online and  in our worship services regarding what you imagine.

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Course Correction

Last week, I mentioned there are deeper ways to understand how the Bible is put together and what it continues to say to us. The better we grasp some of these principles, the better we can help unchurched people deal with some of the more difficult questions they ask when confronted with Christianity and the Bible.

The Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society, 1795, Josiah Wedgwood

The Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society, 1795, Josiah Wedgwood

For example, here’s a common argument you’ll hear from nonbelievers about the Bible: How can you base your life on a collection of writings that seems to accept slavery? By this, they are referring to writings in both the Old and New Testaments that treat slavery rather matter-of-factly, even instructing slaves to be obedient to their masters.

It’s a good question, one we can answer only if we understand how the Bible launches ideas into the future the way we launch rockets into space. Biblical concepts have trajectory, and because the Bible aims them perfectly, astonishing things happen because of their launch. Some of our texts we used this Sunday at Cassidy UMC help us see such trajectory.

In our Leviticus text, we see a list of proper behaviors that result in a general admonition: Love your neighbor as yourself. It was a powerful concept in a culture where resources could be scarce and the need to look out for self and family drove a lot of decision making.

We know from further study of the Bible, however, that the Jews let these early teachings associated with the law devolve into legalism. They focused more on the details of what God had given them and less on the big principles they had received.

By the time Jesus entered the picture, humanity was in need of a course correction. In our Matthew reading, we hear Jesus citing a couple of these detail statements, but then explaining that God expects people to understand them as matters of the heart.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer,” Jesus said. Now, the Old Testament’s “eye for an eye” statement was a huge leap forward in justice; at the time it was given, there was little in terms of equality in punishment. The poor were often punished for no good reason, while the rich often were not punished despite very good reasons. “An eye for an eye” was a prescription for a more equal form of justice.

Similarly, Jesus took a fairly straightforward, right-sounding statement—love your neighbor and hate your enemy—and complicated it, at least in human terms, by saying we need to love and pray for our enemies, too.

Jesus was communicating an idea that remains very difficult to live out today. Despite what it may cost us, we’re to treat all people as brothers and sisters so that love may more rapidly spread the kingdom of God. It also quickly becomes clear we can never perfectly live up to God’s standard. That’s why we need a Savior, someone willing to do whatever is necessary to take away our sins.

In Jesus’ course corrections, we begin to see the ultimate destination of history. We’re headed toward a holy place, one where love overcomes all, where there is no injury or enemies. The Bible calls us to live into that truth now.

Let’s go back to how this idea of trajectory affects the slavery issue. Yes, even the early Christians seemed to put up with this nasty, demeaning institution, although we have to remember Christians really didn’t have any power for centuries. The only way they could change the world around them was through clever, subversive means. And they did change the world over the centuries, even before coming into power in the Holy Roman Empire.

We see early evidence of the change occurring in a tiny letter in the New Testament, Philemon. Paul wrote it to send back with a runaway slave, Onesimus, who had been helping Paul in prison but now was returning to his master. Onesimus may have been just a boy.

The slave owner and recipient of the letter, a Christian named Philemon, had the right under Roman law to punish Onesimus harshly, but Philemon found himself in a difficult position once his slave returned. In the letter, Paul applied the principles of love declared by Christ, referring to the slave as a brother in Christ, and addressing the letter so it would be read before the entire congregation of Christians.

“If you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me,” Paul wrote. “If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.”

I would encourage you to read the whole letter with an eye to how Paul cleverly tried to free Onesimus, letting the power of love go to work on a slave owner’s heart. We don’t have clear evidence one way or the other, but I have no doubt Onesimus was freed. Some scholars believe the early church’s Bishop Onesimus of Ephesus was the boy slave grown into manhood.

And yes, the trajectory of this particular biblical idea continued into the future. Slavery became illegal in the western world largely because of British Christians, most notably William Wilberforce and others with ties to Methodism. They understood the enslavement of others was contrary to the teachings of Christ. In fact, I think one could argue that without Christianity, slavery might continue as a legal institution even now.

Slavery is just one example of biblical ideas shaping the world. Christ’s teachings and sacrifice on the cross, given time, change everything.