"Blest Be the Tithe That Binds"
January 29, 1995 message
"Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above." (John Fawsett)
Let's talk about one of the blessed ties that bind us, heart and mind, in Christ-like love - the tithe. "Oh no, not another plea for money," you may be thinking as you read these words. Just now, I ask you to lay aside the financial needs of your church. Having done that, can we look in a different way at the practice called "tithing?" Instead of connecting tithing to your church's budget, let's explore the "spirituality of tithing."
Perhaps we don't easily connect those two words, spirituality and tithing. The one is so intangible and hard to define. Even so, paying attention to spiritual matters is as necessary to our soul as water and food is to our body. The other word is so specific. Literally, tithing means 10%. With a simple calculation a tithe can be determined, just like a sales tax is automatically added to any purchase or a tip is left behind on a restaurant table for good service. How can a tithe be "spiritual?" It's so material!
It's my assertion, though, that the tithe is a spiritual discipline, first and foremost, before it is ever a means to fund the church's ministry. Of course, tacking that word, "discipline" onto the word "spiritual" may raise an eyebrow. We often link discipline to punishment, rigid uniformity, or extensive physical exercise. How can this be "spiritual?," we might ask. For those who would know Jesus Christ, however, "discipline" is connected to "disciple." A disciple is someone who follows the Lord, seeking God in spirit and in truth. Discipline is the path of discipleship.
Recall the story of the exiles who returned to and rebuilt Jerusalem. Remember the day when Ezra stood and read the law of Moses to all the people, encouraging them to look beyond their work to the basics of their relationship with God (Nehemiah 8:1-10). The Torah, the law, was given to God's people as a discipline - a means for making disciples. Its purpose, at the core, was not punishment - though, I'll grant you, reading through the pages of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy we see quite a lot of punitive material.
However, punishment was not the true center of the Torah/Law, nor was rigid uniformity. I would have to agree that legalism pervades the first five books of the Bible, as well as the later interpretation of them by the Rabbis, which we call the Talmud. Even so, neither punishment nor rigid uniformity were the original intent of the law, even though it was first given to a wayward, rebellious and disorganized band of fools.
As Ezra pointed out so long ago, "the joy of the Lord is your strength." That is, the Law was intended for joy. And the apostle Paul, centuries later, called joy a "fruit of the Spirit" (Galatians 5:22). My purpose in revisiting the Law is to pull out the practice of tithing which originated there. If we toss out the Law, we throw away a marvelous jewel, one which helps us discover this "joy of the Lord" which is "our strength." "Joy" is connected to the tithe.
In Deuteronomy, giving instructions for the bringing of tithes and offerings to the place God chose, it says: "You shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, rejoicing in all the undertakings in which the Lord your God has blessed you" (12:7). It is a joy to bring our tithe to God, for when we do, there is a sense of God's holy presence which places our lives into proper perspective.
It's often said that a person facing eternity in a near-death experience sees their entire life flash before their eyes. Following such an event, many people go on to live the rest of their days in a different way, paying more attention to the things that really matter. The "joy" of such an incident is not found in the actual experience, but in the result.
Well, this practice of tithing is intended to give us the same effect. With a consciousness of the presence of God in our lives, we can see - day by day - that which matters the most, and so reorder our lives. You've heard the old saying, "Live each day as if it were your last." At its root, that's what tithing is all about: living each day in true perspective.
You see, tithing is not just about money, though we tend to narrow it down to that. We do need to recognize the truth of what Jesus said, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matthew 6:21). Money is a natural place to begin for, if the truth be told, many of us spend the most amount of our time and energy in this realm. The bottom line, for us, is a dollar sign. To tithe the bottom line turns our attention toward God, and the real bottom line, the ground of our existence.
Of course, we can tithe and miss the truth. Jesus spoke to such blindness when he condemned those who practiced the tithe in such a ridiculous way, calculating matters down to the leaves in their tea cup, that they missed the presence of God, and the weightier matters in life: justice, mercy, faith (Matthew 23:23-24). Our Lord didn't toss out the tithe. He returned it to its real purpose. That is, to give us a sense of God's holy presence which places our lives into proper perspective. With such a sense of presence and perspective, the windows of heaven open, as the prophet Malachi said (3:8-10), and God pours down an overflowing blessing. We discover life's real blessings.
As I understand it, tithing is not a contract with God. A contract would imply that if I give 10% of what I have, then God will multiply my riches. There is a sense in which that is true. Unfortunately, many people who see themselves as signing such a contract with God through their offerings are missing the whole point.
After all, what are our riches? How does God provide for our needs? Sometimes our true need is for more Manna. But often it isn't. Money may be the last thing we need, especially if we don't know how to handle it. By the way, many folks have discovered tithing to be an effective way of getting a handle on their finances. Starting with that 10% helps put the rest into proper perspective. Don't hear me say this legalistically, but the tithe is not something we do once we have our finances all together. It's not reserved for "when we arrive" at economic security. The truth is, there is no such thing as financial security. When do we ever "arrive" at such a place in life? Never! The tithe is for the upward and onward path, a means toward an end, not an end in itself. When we tithe, we recognize that we're not in this alone. God is present, even in something so mundane as paying a bill. Now, that may sound trite, but when that particular bill empties the checking account one realizes the importance of a higher power.
The specifics of tithing are somewhat vague, to be honest - intentionally so. Does one tithe the "before tax," or "after tax" amount? What all is included? Should the whole 10% go to the church, or beyond it? By the way, these questions will need to be asked more as we ask government to do less. The church has a clear mandate from God to care for the poor, the widows, the sojourners.
As I see it, the specifics of tithing differ from household to household, as each seeks the presence of God. To go into further detail is to risk tithing "mint, dill, and cumin," to quote our Lord.
As I said earlier, tithing is not just about money. What would happen if we applied it to time and energy? How might one return to the Lord a tenth of our time? Think about it. That's 2 hours and 24 minutes each day, 16 hours and 48 minutes each week. But let's not be Pharisees about it. The larger question is, how might our days and weeks change if we sought to tithe our time? How might our "to do" lists read? I think tithing time is a greater challenge than tithing money. What do you think?
If we're ever going to get a handle on our busy schedules, which seem to become more crowded every year, doesn't it make sense to bring the author of time into the mess? It's not a matter of robbing our spouse, or our kids, or ourselves to pay God. Rather, it's a matter of enriching the limited time we have with God's true abundance. God can't, or won't give us more hours in a day, but he can bless the time we already have. What if we applied these words of the Law to our meal tables?: "You shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, rejoicing in all the undertakings in which the Lord your God has blessed you." Wow. chew on those words!
It is a joy to bring our tithe to God, whether it be a tenth of our wealth (or lack thereof), a tenth of our time, a tenth of our energy, a tenth of _______. When we do, there is a sense of God's holy presence which places our lives into proper perspective. That's what the "spiritual discipline" of tithing is all about.
The Lord loves a cheerful giver, because joy is evidence of God's grace in us. Blest be the tithe that binds us to our Maker ... and sets us free!
©1995Peter L. Haynes
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