You Have Heard It Said

Sermon Preached
February 17, 2013
Lent 1C - Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Recently, you may have seen a news report about a St. Louis pastor who ate at Applebee’s with 19 other people.  As is frequently the case for large parties, the Applebee’s restaurant automatically applied an 18% gratuity to the bill.  The pastor crossed out the 18% and replaced it with a zero and a note saying “I give God 10%, why do you get 18?”  The waitress posted the receipt on Reddit and it later appeared on Facebook.  The next day, the waitress, Chelsea Welch, was fired from her job.  Now, there are a lot of things that went wrong here. A pastor who takes issue with a company’s policy about tipping and takes it out on the server who is likely making less than minimum wage (legal because the government assumes that the difference will be made up in tips); a waitress who in a moment of impulse or just plain old poor judgment posted a photo of the invoice, including the pastor’s signature on the internet (a violation of privacy rights); a company that not only does not give its employees a living wage but also fires a waitress for an incident which would have infuriated most hardworking servers.  So, plenty of blame to go around.  But here’s what grabbed my attention:
“I give God 10%, why do you get 18?”
The pastor’s reference to 10% is a reference to the Biblical tithe, the command from God that 10% of the first fruits of one’s harvest should be given to God as a thank offering.  The first references to the tithe appear in Genesis.  In chapter 14, Abram, after rescuing Lot, meets with King Melchizedek of Salem.  Melchizedek blesses Abram and “Abram gave him a tenth of everything.”[1]  Several chapters later, after Jacob’s famous ladder dream and after receiving a blessing from God, Jacob makes a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in pace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.”[2]  The tithe is mentioned also in the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.  In some places the tithe seems to refer to a mandatory tax used by the temple priests for charitable giving; but in other places it appears to be linked, as in Genesis, to giving thanks to God.
Some Christians argue that the tithe – this giving of 10% of everything you have to God – is part of the Old Covenant that has been replaced by the New.  A commonly cited passage is this one from Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth:  “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”[3]  To be sure, there is, in this passage no mention of the law and no mention of the amount one ought to give; however, Paul does remind these early followers of Jesus that “the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” and assures them that
“You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others.”[4]
To me, Paul’s words seem more an attempt to reframe the notion of tithing as law into a notion of tithing as a ministry of thanksgiving and trust; not an attempt to replace the tithe.
Perhaps even more convincing is the way in which Jesus himself handles other laws of the Old Covenant.  In Matthew’s recording of the sermon on the mount, Jesus declares:
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”[5]
Likewise, as Jesus offers his reflection on adultery, on divorce, on swearing falsely, and loving one’s neighbors, each time he insists that now the demands are even greater concluding, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[6]  Given my own struggle to tithe – and for me at this time in my life I base that tithe on my net cash salary (so, believe me, I have plenty of room for growth), these words of Jesus challenge me greatly.
So back to the St. Louis pastor’s note:  “I give God 10%, why do you get 18?”  It seems to me that our giving is about honoring our relationships.  Just a few days ago we celebrated Valentine’s Day, a day that many celebrate by the giving of gifts – flowers, candies, spa days, a special dinner, a movie night.  The reason for this gift giving is complicated I’m sure.  But, I think that on a basic level it has something to do with our desire to strengthen our social bonds.  In a paper published in Science magazine a few years ago, researchers tested the hypothesis that spending money on other people may be more positively linked to happiness that the money one spends on one’s self.  In one experiment the researchers followed a group of people who received year-end bonuses. They measured their moods before and after receiving the bonus and again at a two-month check in.  “The only significant predictor of happiness at the second check-in was prosocial spending — what chunk of the bonus was spent on gifts and charitable donations.” Another experiment gave people $5 or $20 and assigned them to spend the money by 5 p.m. that same day on either themselves or someone else.  Whether it was $5 or $20, those who spent the money on someone else reported a higher level of happiness than those who spent it on themselves.  Surprising?  Probably it shouldn’t be – after all, we are social creatures.[7] 
Today’s reading from Deuteronomy links the practice of tithing, of giving the first fruits, to the bonds of community, extending all the way back to their ancestor, Jacob, the “wandering Aramean” and “alien” in a strange land who was dependent on God for everything.  The community of his descendants became the nation that God rescued from slavery and to whom God gave a homeland.  Because of God’s provision for this community, this nation, the people bring together the first fruits of their produce and labor to celebrate with everyone “all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.”  And the blessing doesn’t stop there. No, it extends to the most vulnerable people in the land, including the aliens, orphans and widows, who “may eat their fill with your towns.”  And the blessing returns to the giver who receives God’s blessing.[8]  The prophet Malachi is most famous for saying it best.  He wrote this about tithing, “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 poor down for you an overflowing blessing.”[9]
Talking about tithing may seem an unusual way to start our Sundays in Lent. But if we recognize tithing as a spiritual issue and not as a material issue it might just make good sense.  Lately I have been reading a number of books in The Ancient Practices Series edited by Phyllis Tickle. Each book in the series, as the title suggests, focuses on one of the seven ancient practices of the church – prayer, Sabbath-keeping, fasting, the sacred meal, the pilgrimage, the liturgical year, and tithing.  Doug LeBlanc is the author of the volume called Tithing.  In the book, he has compiled the stories of individuals who tithe.  The stories do not focus on how they manage to make ends meet after giving their faith communities at least 10% of their income – I say “at least” because many of the individuals choose to give much more.  The stories do not focus on how they calculate the tithe (Is it before or after taxes? Is it just 10% of my income or 10% of my assets?  Is it o.k., if I’m having a difficult year to give less than 10%). Instead the stories focus on relationships – how tithing has strengthened relationships within their communities and how tithing has strengthened their relationship with God as they are reminded again and again that all that they have is a gift from God and that all that they will need is a promise from God that can be counted on.
Remember that line from Paul’s letter to Corinth?  “God loves a cheerful giver.”  The word in Greek for ‘cheerful’ is ιλαρός (hilaros) – from which we get the word “hilarious” in English.  Tithing is not about giving until it hurts; in fact, quite the opposite – tithing is about giving until our hearts are filled with joy, with hilarity even!  This Season of Lent lasts only 40 days.  It provides us with a set time to experiment on our own with tithing.  I invite you for this period of time to tithe your income (net or gross – you decide) and see what happens.  When you do it, I would also love for you to send me a note about the experience – its challenges, your expectations, what happened - that I might share with the wider community (with or without your name attached – your choice).  May our giving be joyful!

[1] Genesis 14:18-20.
[2] Genesis 28:12-22.
[3] 2 Corinthians 9:7.
[4] 2 Corinthians 9:6b, 11-13.
[5] Matthew 5:21-26.
[6] 2 Corinthians 5:27-48.
[7] Laura Vanderkam, “Does Tithing Buy Happiness?” USA Today Website, December 11, 2011. Viewed February 15, 2013.
[8] Deuteronomy 26:1-11.
[9] Malachi 3:10.