A Biblical Study
Philip P. Eapen
© Philip P Eapen, 2018
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2. Tithing in the Hebrew Bible
3. Tithing in the New Testament
4. Jesus’ Teaching on Giving
5. Pauline Teaching on Giving
“God loves a cheerful giver. He is never a debtor to anyone. Moreover, He has commanded us to bring the whole tithe into the storehouse that there may be food in His house. The Lord says we should test Him in this regard to see if He will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. So, do not be among those who rob God.”
And all God’s people say, Amen!
Exhortations such these are commonplace in Bible-believing churches. Many Christians abide by the rules of their respective communities or denominations regarding “tithing.” Members are required to set apart one-tenth of their income as a “tithe” that should be paid regularly to their assembly or denomination. Tithing is also a membership requirement in most churches.
Apart from tithes, “offerings” too are collected. Some churches do not pass a bag around; instead, people prefer to drop their “tithes and offerings” in a collection box. Tithes are still put in a separate envelope and church members write their names on it for the sake of transparency, accounting, and monitoring. A few churches publish the names of regular tithe-givers in order to encourage the rest to fall in line; most don’t.
Christians have to deal with various other appeals for funds in the form of church notices, advertisements on the Internet and television, and personal appeals in the form of email newsletters and text messages. Church leaders and pastors, preachers, non-govermental organizations, missionaries, Christian media houses, and Bible colleges vie for our attention. An abundance of opportunities to show our concern or exercise generosity is welcome as long as people retain their freedom of choice without being taken on a guilt-trip.
Christian denominations insist that the “tithe” should not be given to other organizations or individuals. If someone wishes to support a missionary or an NGO, they are encouraged give sacrificially over and above their regular tithe given to their assembly or organisation.
Many Christians conclude that they cannot afford to give over and above their tithe. At the same time, they do feel guilty if they do not pay their tithes. In fact, it is no secret that Church leaders and pastors make their flock feel guilty about “robbing” God. Therefore, these members either pay their entire tithe to their organisation and ignore other appeals; or, they discreetly split their tithe between their church and other recipients.
As a minister of the Gospel, I have noticed that there is considerable lack of clarity among Christains regarding the Bible’s teaching on this important subject. Sadly, due to lack of proper interpretation and study, people spread misinformation and erroneous teachings. The effects of these errors get amplified, thanks to digital information and communication technologies.
When error gets combined with greed, worse things happen. Whether in Asia or Afica or in the Americas, we see the results of such evil monstrosities. Individual ministers and corporations that masquerade as “churches” ride a wave of generosity they whip up in the minds of faithful adherents. To these corporations, the “churches” they cultivate are little more than a fine investment or a stable source of revenue. When annual revenue targets are met, everyone is happy. When an assembly of the believers is in session – that is, when a service is on – the executives of the corporation are in “Church” mode. In between services, these executives are in “Business” mode. Making smooth transitions between these modes is a fine art!
Even poor members, who worry about their unpaid bills, cough up money to support the luxurious lifestyles of pastors and their blue-chip corporations. The shepherds are sleek and fat even as many sheep remain emaciated and hopeless. Promises of a “rich harvest” and “promotions” never materialise! The poor, hoping to be rich themselves, continue to give to wealthy corporations or pastors who are richer than them. If only they would heed the warning in Proverbs 22:16, “Whoever … gives to the rich, will only come to poverty.” None of these Christians want to be accused of “robbing God.” Therefore, they continue to give.
The issue of tithing has been a cause of disagreement in the global church for several centuries. Most Christians are unaware of these debates or discussions because they are not encouraged to think independently or to do their own research. Instead, they are taught what they ought to believe. Even the so-called progressive churches present just one view about tithing in their Bible study lessons.
I would like to examine this teaching in detail. I also intend to explore the Lord Jesus Christ’s and the apostle Paul’s teaching on Christian “giving.” I am aware that a number of Christians misinterpret apostle Paul’s writings as misogynist rants—as if his epistles were not part of the holy scriptures. Apostle Peter was indeed right when he wrote that the ignorant and unstable twist apostle Paul’s writings to their own destruction! Let’s not be quick to dismiss the Pauline epistles.
You might have noticed that I did not use the term Old Testament or New Testament while raising these important questions. I am aware that several people reject a teaching or practice on the basis of where that teaching is found in the Bible. All sixty-six books of the Bible constitute the Christian sacred scriptures. Therefore, a Christian shouldn’t say, “I do not accept that because it is found in the Old Testament.”
A better determinant of the validity of a biblical teaching or practice is the Christ event. If a teaching or practice was fulfilled and set aside in Christ, we do not practice it today. For instance, Christians do not offer animal sacrifices not because the ritual laws regarding sacrifices are found in the Hebrew Bible but because those regulations were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The same principle of interpretation applies to tithing. Did the life and work of Jesus Christ set aside tithing? Or, in other words, did the Christ event provide Christians a better paradigm for “giving?” Let’s find out.
There are those who oppose a fair inquiry. That’s because pastors and organizations find security in the promise of a dependable and regular income. In addition, there are ministers who have reduced their high calling to a mere profession or a means of livelihood. They will find it difficult to welcome an open-minded and critical investigation of bibilical teaching. There may also be a large number of Christians who think that blind obedience to their organisation’s directives is a sign of piety. Therefore, I am under no illusion that this study will be immensely popular. However, I shall find my reward from our Master who has called me to serve Him by teaching His Word faithfully.
Is there a biblical mandate for Christian leaders and pastors to teach their members to pay a tenth of their total income to the church or the pastor? Should the names of regular tithe payers and defaulters be exhibited on church notice boards? Most pastors of Congregational churches (by which I mean Pentecostal, Brethren and Charismatic, etc.) would answer “Yes” to the above questions. Many consider teachings regarding tithing as an important “doctrine.”
Popular texts cited to “prove” the validity of tithing are from the Hebrew Bible such as Genesis 14:20; 28:22, Malachi 3:8-12 and Nehemiah 10:38-39. Quite interestingly, most of the texts cited in support of tithing refer to incidents that occured during the time of the Patriarchs (that is, before the giving of the Mosaic Law) or to incidents that took place after the exile (for example, in Malachi, by which time the practice had taken a new form). In fact, the practice of tithing as prescribed by the Mosaic Law was different from the practice that was prevalent during the time of the Patriarchs or during the post-exilic period. Moreover, many Bible teachers safely navigate away from teachings recorded in Deuteronomy 14:22ff. As a result, they built up distorted “doctrine” of tithing based on a few selected passages!
The first part of this study attempts to present a wholesome picture of tithing as seen in the Hebrew Bible. Thereafter, I shall proceed to examine how New Testament writers promoted the virtue of sacrificial giving in the early church. Did New Testament writers use the Hebrew concept of tithing to inculcate the habit of Christian giving? That too is a key question; but before we answer that let us examine the history and nature of tithing in Old Testament times.
Tithing is an ancient practice. It was not limited to Judaism or to the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; it was widespread in the Ancient Near East. Long before the advent of the Mosaic Law, we see Abraham, in Genesis 14:17-20, presenting his tithe to Melchizedek.
Jacob promised God that he would offer his tithes if only God would bring him back safely to his father’s house (Gen. 28:22). But what would have Jacob done with his tithes? Did he offer it to his pastor or to a church? Of course, not. He offered it to God. That is not to mean that he offered it directly into God’s hands.
There would have been a festive meal“Before the time of the Deuteronomical code, tithes were used to celebrate a cultic festival at the local holy place. Amos mentions that tithes were once taken to Bethel (4:4) probably because of the vow made by Jacob.” McKim, D.K. “Tithing”, Walter A. Elwel (ed.) Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1984. p. 1097. prepared from the offered grain, fruits or sheep offered to God. Tithes were not used in those days just to support religious institutions such as a Temple or a priesthood. People enjoyed a common meal in which the giver and the receiver partook. This practice was continued by the Mosaic Law. In Deuteronomy 14:22ff we read that priests, widows, strangers, and the poor sat in and shared a meal with those who offered their tithes.
Deuteronomy instructed Israelites to bring their tithes to a central location—Jerusalem. The people had to travel to Jerusalem in order to partake of the festive meal. If the journey was too long, or there existed some other difficulty, people could sell their tithes and bring the money to Jerusalem – not to be deposited in the Temple offertory – but to …
“spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your household rejoicing together.” (Deut. 14:26).
Can you visualize that? Jerusalem would have looked like a giant picnic destination! There would have been umpteen number of venders and stalls selling all kinds of food and liquor. People from all over the countryside would have been there with a divine mandate to spend their tithes on food and drink.
To safeguard the interests of the poor in the country, God had included a special provision for their benefit. All Israelites had to store the tithes of the third year – grain or whatever produce – in their towns. The Levites, …
“as well as the resident aliens, the orphans and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.” (Deut. 14:28-29)
Does this tithing system not sound like a social security system rather than a clever way to raise funds for the Temple/Tabernacle (or the Church)? But like all good things in society, the tithe system too got corrupted. McKim says,
“The trip and the tithe in Jerusalem changed the nature of the tithe from harvest sacrifice to more of a cultic tax. The concentration of worship in Jerusalem also meant that temple priests required a somewhat regular income. During the exilic period the tithe became a type of tax paid to the priests. In postexilic texts, the cultic meal is no longer mentioned. At this time tithes were stored in ware houses [as in our church bank accounts!] (Neh. 10:38; Mal 3:10). Then too, tithes no longer were required to be brought to Jerusalem, but rather were collected by local Levites (Neh. 10:37-38). This in effect made the tithe a tax.”Ibid.
Yes, the sytem of tithing found in Malachi is a corrupted form of the original system found in the Mosaic Law. You would then say that God approved the post exilic form of tithing through the prophecies in Malachi. Conceded. Does that give today’s churches the licence to ignore the teachings regarding tithing in Deuteronomy? If Malachi’s prophecy is binding on the New Testament Church, why isn’t Deuteronomy binding? The answer is simple. Churches prefer Malachi’s teaching because the teachings in Deuteronomy are not suited to ensure a steady and predictable income for our churches!
Through the systematic presentation of a corrupted form of a good practice, today’s Bible teachers and pastors have spun a convenient doctrine of church tax: “Every Christian who wants to be a member of our church should pay their tithes regularly – the whole tithe – to the local church.” This is why churches steer clear of Deuteronomy 14:22ff and stick to Malachi 3:10. What would the church or the clergy be left with after the congregation and the poor feasted on their tithes? All that we would have is a series of love feasts!
In any case, is the Hebrew Bible’s teaching on tithing binding on the Church? It is not difficult to answer to this question.
I did not cite Deuteronomy 14:22ff in order to encourage churches to celebrate a festive meal – complete with hard liquor – instead of taking “the full tithe into the storehouse” (often mistaken for “Church Account”). I want my readers to understand that it is impossible to obey the Jewish regulation on tithing—whether it’s the Deuteronomy version or the Malachi version. If you wish to follow the Deuteronomy version, please understand that it’s impossible to organize such a festive meal today because the physical locus of celebration was as much a part of the specified regulation as was the percentage of their “increase” they had to “give.” We focus on the percentage and ignore the rather inconvenient rules. The Jews were commanded to celebrate the festive meal in Jerusalem—nowhere else! How can all Christians assemble every year in Jerusalem to celebrate a festive meal?
Important as they are, should we let practical considerations determine whether we follow tithing regulations found in the Hebrew Bible? No. There are theological reasons too.
To those who focus on Malachi 3:10 – “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house” – I ask, Don’t your realize that the phrase “the storehouse” is just as important as the phrase “bring the full tithe?” The destination of the full tithe was determined by the YHWH God who spoke through Malachi. No one has a right to change that destination! Any attempt to divert funds to any other location is outright fraud!
Have you ever been to the Jewish Temple? Have you ever deposited your tithes in the Temple’s storehouse? Where is the Jewish temple or its storehouse today? You know very well that the Temple was razed to the ground in AD 70, in fulfillment of our Lord Jesus’ prediction. Now that you can’t get to deposit tithes in the temple storehouse, you tell your people that your church’s bank account or offering box or your personal account is a worthy equivalent to the “Temple storehouse!” Who, in God’s holy name, gave you the right to misconstrue God’s word to use Malachi 3:10 to collect funds into a bank account? If this is not financial fraud or daylight robbery, what is? You warn people against “robbing God”; but you rob your people by misusing God’s Word to divert tithes, originally meant for the Jewish Temple, to your account or to your organization’s account!
Imagine! How can millions of Christians be so carried away to assume that the “the storehouse” of a non-existent Temple now has millions of branches all over the world? Remember, there is no unified bank account for all Churches in the world. Even if there was one such unified account, it would still be inappropriate and immoral to misuse Malachi 3:10 to collect funds into such an account. Worse still is the practice of so-called “Christian corporates” that suck the blood out of God’s people using Jewish regulations. For many centuries, churches have been successful in convincing their congregations that their bank account (as opposed the accounts of neighboring churches) was “the storehouse” of the Jewish Temple destroyed in AD 70. Such claims of exclusive rights issued by each Bible-believing church should have set the alarm bells ringing in our minds.
Most Evangelical Christians do not understand the full significance of the destruction of the Jewish Temple in AD 70. They believe that the unfortunate event will be reversed by God’s intervention. They look forward to the restoration of the Jewish Temple, the priesthood and all rituals, including animal sacrifices! This is because they believe that the Temple is an essential prop for the fulfillment of prophecies regarding the Second Coming.
The destruction of the Jewish Temple was not an accident of history. It was not a mere human act. It was predicted and executed by none other than Jesus Christ (read Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21). When he approached the city of Jerusalem from Galilee, the Lord Jesus lamented,
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
Time was up! After entering the city, the Lord Jesus performed an “enacted parable” to declare divine judgment on the Temple and Temple-centered Judaism—He cleansed the Temple. When questioned about his actions, Jesus used the very words that Jeremiah used to predict the destruction of the first Temple: You have made this a den of thieves. The allusion to Jeremiah was not wasted on the Jewish leaders. They sensed that Jesus was predicting the fall of the Second Temple too. That’s why the Jews plotted to get rid of Jesus.
Malachi’s prediction of the destruction of the Temple helps us understand that it was indeed Jesus who was behind the operation:
Behold, I send my messenger,
and he will prepare the way before me.
And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple;
and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight,
behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming,
and who can stand when he appears?
This was a prediction regarding the ministry of John the Baptist who would prepare the way for the Lord’s first coming. The sudden coming mentioned in these verses was not about the first coming during which Jesus cleansed the Temple. This sudden coming was about the real thing: the destruction of the Temple. History tells us that the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. The Scriptures help us understand that it was the exalted Messiah who, through the agency of the Romans, wrecked vengeance on an unrepentant Jewish nation.
Even before the cleansing of the Temple, Jesus had set aside the importance of Temple-centered Judaism. He forgave people’s sins without any mention of the Temple or sacrifices! He taught the Samaritan woman that a new age was being ushered in, when people would worship the God-who-is-Spirit at any place instead of “this mountain” or that. He even claimed to be the real Temple. That is why he said, Destroy this Temple, and I will raise it up in three days. He also had claimed to be greater than the Temple: But I tell you, something greater than the Temple is here. (Matt 12:6 emphasis added).
The early Christians too looked forward to the destruction of the Temple because it was part of a covenant that had been abolished.
In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away. Hebrew 8:13 (emphasis added)
Therefore, Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple was a significant announcement regarding the inauguration of a new era without a Temple-centered Judaism or Jew-Gentile distinction. God swung the axe that was laid at the foot of the tree at the unrepentant Jewish nation during AD 66-70. The siege of Jerusalem lasted for three-and-a-half years and it ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. What a monumental fall that was! The only city wicked enough to be described overtly as Egypt and Sodom (and covertly as Babylon) in the Book of Revelation came crashing down. After Jesus’ prediction of her fall, there has never been a word from God about her restoration!
With the fall of that Temple, every religious ritual associated with the Temple stands abrogated. That includes sacrifices, the priesthood, and tithes! There’s no temple storehouse to receive our tithes. In the absence of the Temple, the city of Jerusalem is no longer more sacred than any other city. Regulations about tithes and annual festive meals are no longer binding on Jews, let alone Christians. The New Covenant in Christ has brought about something greater and more glorious than the old. Christian Giving is far superior to tithing.
The New Testament marginalizes Hebrew teaching on tithing. There are just a few mentions of tithes and in no way are these references related to Christian giving. In Matthew 23:23-24 (cf. Luke 11:42), Jesus attacked the hypocrisy of Pharisees who neglected weightier matters of the Law and observed its minute details with religious fervour. He did not ask the Pharisees to stop tithing their herbs and cumin but commanded them to keep justice, love and truth.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
This cannot be taken as a warrant for enforcing tithing in New Testament churches. After all, Jesus was talking to the Jews; he was not laying down foundational precepts of Christian giving.
The other three New Testament references to tithing are found in Hebrews 7:6, and 7:8-9. Here again, the writer of Hebrews refers to Abraham’s offer of a tithe to Melchizedek. He was not prescribing tithing as a Christian practice.
The Apostle Paul was involved in a fund raising program in aid of Judean churches. We read of his appeals to the Corinthian church to contribute liberally to this fund. He developed a theology of Christian giving in chapters 8 and 9 of his second epistle to the Corinthians. In chapter 9 of his first epistle to the Corinthians, Paul had mentioned the privileges of Christian workers. In both these exercises, Paul did not make use of the Hebrew concept of tithing. If we had been in his place, we would have asked the Corinthian and other churches to set apart their tithes to support Christian workers and as aid to poorer churches.
The Lord Jesus’ radical teachings on wealth and generosity are found in the four Gospels. His teachings challenged the norms and beliefs about wealth in first-century Palestine. He challenged the religious leaders and Pharisees to measure up to God’s standards. No doubt, His teachings continue to challenge modern Christians.
The Lord Jesus commanded his disciples to be generous. Jesus did not present “giving” as a prosaic, one-way movement of resources. Instead, he said that “giving” was a part of a resource cycle – a divinely monitored process – that multiplies a gift and returns it to the giver.
… give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you. - Luke 6:38
There is no human agency to keep track of anyone’s charitable works or the returns. This is a divinely instituted mechanism that works only because God keeps tract of every act of kindness. Who other than Jesus can give us such an assurance?
Jesus encouraged generosity by assuring his disciples that the heavenly Father would reward every act of generosity provided it was done discreetly without a desire for earthly praise. Therefore, he commanded his disciples not to make a show of their generosity.
Beware of practicing your righteousness
before other people
in order to be seen by them,
for then you will have no reward
from your Father who is in heaven.
Thus, when you give to the needy,
sound no trumpet before you,
as the hypocrites do
in the synagogues and in the streets,
that they may be praised by others.
Truly, I say to you,
they have received their reward.
But when you give to the needy,
do not let your left hand know
what your right hand is doing,
so that your giving may be in secret.
And your Father who sees
in secret will reward you.
The Pharisees were eager to obtain praise from fellow humans. They performed their acts of charity under full public gaze. Even their fasting and prayers were mere performances to a human gallery. Jesus showed us a better way. He wanted his disciples to live in the presence of God, in the light of eternity; to be governed by an awareness of God’s approving gaze than man’s.
Notice how Jesus referred to the act of giving as an act of “righteousness.” The word righteousness refers to any action or attitude that the Lord God expects from his. “… what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) One of the key things that God expects from us is mercy or kindness; generosity is a way of showing mercy.
An essential condition to meeting God’s standard of righteousness is to show mercy or generosity to both friends and foes without expecting anything in return. That includes showing generosity to those who cannot repay or even to those who are our enemies.
And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount.
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for He is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.
Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. - Luke 6:34-36.
And again, Jesus gave us clear instructions regarding who we should invite to our feasts, be it a birthday party or a wedding reception.
He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
There may be a few Christians who take this command seriously. May their tribe increase.
Jesus’ teachings on wealth and charity cannot be understood without understanding His perspective of life and eternity. According to Jesus, there are a few things that prevent us from exercising the Christian virtue of generosity.
Jesus understood that human life was a short prelude to an eternity to be spent in heaven or hell. He wanted His disciples to understand the futility of accumulating temporal wealth. No one is going to live on earth forever. And the wealth people accumulate here is like a bubble; there’s no guarantee that our wealth will meet our every need until our final breath. Therefore, he commanded his disciples:
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. - Matthew 6:19-21
How do we go about laying up treasures in heaven? Jesus once said to a rich young ruler, Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. (Mark 10:21) Giving to the poor is probably the only way we can transfer our wealth to heaven! Knowing that our departure from planet Earth can happen at any time, we should set our minds on things above and keep transfering our wealth into eternal vaults. Let us not be hypocrites who make grand declarations about eternal life through Jesus without backing it up with our actions.
This notion of “transfering” our funds to eternity is further strengthened by another parable that Jesus said. There was a shrewd manager who worked for a rich man. He knew that he would get sacked very soon. He was worried. He said, “What shall I do, since my master is taking the management away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” Being a shrewd man, the manager quickly summoned his boss’ debtors. He reduced their burdens by tweaking their accounts. He did this so that, after his dismissal, those debtors, out of gratitude, would receive him into their houses. And the moral of the story? Jesus said,
And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. (Luke 16:9 emphasis added)
The message is clear. Earthly wealth, however righteously you earn your livelihood, comes tainted by a plethora of institutional injustice and violence against the poor. It’s like Blood Diamonds from the killing fields of Africa; or chocolates produced using the labour of children or trafficked people. Those things are tainted even though you spent your “honest” money on it. Therefore, we shouldn’t wonder why Jesus referred to money as “unrighteous mammon.” The best thing we can do with it is to “make friends” with it—that is, to use it generously to answer someone’s prayer, a need. By “making friends” this way, we prepare for our day of departure. Our earthly wealth will be of no use to us after we die. Our acts of charity would have gone ahead of us to prepare a noteworthy welcome into our eternal dwelling place. Entry into the Kingdom of Heaven is not by virtue of charitable works. But a rich welcome certainly is. Abuse of wealth, on the other hand, can get us shut out of the glorious kingdom because it is definitely a symptom of a person’s broken relationship with God (as we shall soon see).
The Apostle Paul urged Timothy, a younger minister of the gospel, to command the “rich in this present age” to be “rich in good works.” Unlike what the world thinks, it was quite obvious for St. Paul and the early church that those who were rich were just wealthy in a temporary sense—just for this present age! In order to be rich in the eternal sense, the rich have to store up treasures in heaven by being “generous and ready to share.”
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. 1 Timothy 6:17-19
A reference to the “uncertainty of riches” shows us how foolish it is to derive any sense of security from our earthly wealth. It can disappear any moment, literally! The alternative is to trust in God who “richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” Such a confidence in God our Father will help us to be generous.
There are farmers and hunters who employ a certain technique to capture monkeys. They leave peanuts in a narrow-mouthed vessel tethered to a tree. Curious and greedy as they are, monkeys cannot resist such a temptation. The neck of the vessel is so narrow that a monkey can barely manage to push his hand into it. But once it gathers a fist full of peanuts, a monkey will never let go even after it realizes that it’s trapped! That’s how monkeys surrender their freedom and even their life to their stubborn grasp. We are no different than monkeys! Our selfish nature will not allow us to let go of our dangerous grasp over material wealth and comforts. No one can loosen that grip until a far more attractive option is offered to him.
When Jesus said to the rich young ruler, Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, the man was not willing to take that offer. That was sinful unbelief. He was more at ease with visible wealth than with invisible heavenly treasure that Jesus offered him. Besides, he trusted his earthly wealth so much so that he could not imagine an existence without it. That amounted to idolatry.
Such an idolatrous attachment to wealth is not the bane of the rich alone. Even a poor man can be so attached to his last coin that he begins to count it as a greater source of comfort than God. The great missionary to China, Hudon Taylor, went through a similar experience. While training to be a doctor, he lived in Hull, England, for a short time. Dr Hardey, the surgeon under whom Taylor trained would regularly forget to pay him his paycheck. Once, Hudson was left with a single coin, a half-crown piece. The following Sunday, a poor Catholic invited Hudson to pray for his dying wife. The Catholic priest had refused to pay a visit without a payment.
Hudson was reminded of his own dire situation. He had just enough food at his lodging for supper and the following day’s breakfast. With just a silver coin in his pocket, he felt helpless and even angry. When he reached the house, he noticed the sick woman and her baby, just thirty-six hours old. Four or five malnourished children stood around her. Hudson felt an inner prompting to give them his lone coin. He resisted. Instead, he began to offer words of comfort. “You must not be cast down because though your circumstances are very distressing, there is a kind and loving Father in heaven who cares about your needs.”
The inner voice chided him. “You hypocrite! Telling these unconverted people about a kind and loving heavenly Father, and not prepared yourself to trust Him without half a crown!” Hudson felt secure as long as he had a God in heaven and a half-crown in his pocket! He feared being penniless. He felt insecure having just God as his security. God opened Hudon’s eyes to see that the coin in his pocket had truly become his god. Hudon wrote about it later, “I felt ashamed.” After that, like the widow who donated her two coins, Hudson gave his coin to the poor family. The next morning, while he was having his last bowl of porridge, he receive a gold coin by post. Hudson was by then “doubly ashamed” at his initial reluctance to part with all that he had. How often do we lie to God by saying, In God we trust? How often, like the rich young ruler, have we allowed money to be our source of comfort and security! Most of us have never been tested to this point. Did you ever have an opportunity to voluntarily give away everything you had to someone in need?
Look at Zacchaeus, the corrupt tax collector who had a life-transforming encounter with Jesus. He trusted in Jesus and laid hold of heavenly treasures. The visible evidence of his inner transformation was his declaration: “Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” What was Jesus’ reaction to this? He declared, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” Jesus highlighted the crucial link between faith and actions for our salvation. The significance of this “initial physical evidence” of repentance, of the destruction of our idols, cannot be overemphasized.
The writer of Hebrews says,
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for He has said,
“I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
So we can confidently say,
“The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” - Hebrews 13:5-6
A readiness to shed our excess baggage of earthly wealth is probably the best indicator of a restored relationship with God and with our fellow humans. John the Baptist’s interaction with the Jewish crowd that came to him teaches us this very thing. John did not sound very welcoming. He cried out,
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance …
The crowd wanted to know what John meant by that. They sincerely wished to produce evidence of their repentance. Notice what John told them:
And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?”
And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”
Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?”
And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.”
Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?”
And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” - Luke 3:7-14
This was Kingdom of God—101 for humanity.
John’s answer to the crowds, to the tax collectors, and to the soldiers had one thing in common: money or something that can be bought with it: clothes, food, tax, extortion money, and wages. The haves had to take notice of the needs of the have-nots. That was the fruit of repentance God was looking for. John conveyed this ache of the heavenly Father’s heart to the crowds. The God of the Bible has always been outspoken against the inequity, injustice and poverty among His people.
If we read this passage through our favourite shades of individualism or capitalism (which some might claim were given to mankind by some divine decree), we will fail to notice the heart of the heavenly Father. Modern Christians, wary of the dangers of socialism and communism, fall into the trap of another man-made system called capitalism. They are quick to brush aside the cries of the poor and to justify their right to keep their hard-earned money.
You may argue that you had worked hard for those two shirts (or whatever else you might have accumulated). You may claim that you alone cannot eradicate world poverty. But John’s words do not give any room for such objections. Let’s begin to see things through God’s eyes. God does not want us to blame the poor for their poverty. He does not appreciate our readiness to lecture them about the virtues of hardwork and contentment. God wants us to discover the value of equity and social justice. When our neighbour is hungry, only half the food on our plate belongs rightfully to us. When our neighbour is naked, we lose our exclusive right to our wardrobes. If we call ourselves Christians, subjects of the Kingdom of God, and yet have not taken notice of our neighbours in need, or if we have sought to enlarge our purses through extortion, we deserve to be called “brood of vipers.”
Christians should take note of how Jesus and His apostles showcased exemplary lives for our sake. Simplicity was the hallmark of their style. They did not live in the lap of luxury. In fact, the apostles condemned luxury and advocated a simple lifestyle, shunning even costly clothing and expensive jewelry (1 Tim 2:9-10). They lived their lives in the light of eternity, being aware of social justice and equity. They condemned partiality to the rich at the expense of the poor (James 2:1ff). In an age when Christians flaunt their wealth and boast about their luxury villas, vehicles, yachts and jets, these ancient exhortations to justice and equity might sound a bit too old-fashioned. The Word of God remains sharp as ever.
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days.
Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
No wonder James wrote that the acid test of one’s spirituality were holiness and generosity. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (James 1:27)
The apostle Paul used several models or analogies to promote Christian generosity. We shall examine a few here.
St. Paul pointed out Christ’s supreme sacrifice as the ultimate example of love and giving in order to motivate Corinthian Christians to excel in the discipline of giving. Paul wrote,
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9).
I have heard preachers cite this verse as a sure shot recipe for prosperity. They say, Jesus became poor for us so that we might become rich. An interpretation that does not take into account the context of a passage is just a pretext. Apostle Paul wasn’t teaching Corinthians how they could get rich! Instead, he was motivating them to imitate the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, even to the point of embracing poverty for a season like Jesus did.
A secondary motivation for excellence in giving is undoubtedly derived from God’s promise to reward a cheerful giver. Those who cannot lay hold of pure love as the sole motivation for giving might still grow in the discipline of sacrificial giving, buoyed by a desire to see a bountiful “harvest.”
In the Apostle’s words,
“The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” (9:6-8).
Paul doesn’t give us the impression that this motivation to “reap a harvest” is in any way inferior to the former. He just stated the facts to get the Corinthians motivated enough to share their resources with a needy Judean church. Therefore we should desist from declaring someone’s charity questionable just because he harbours a desire to see his gift rebound in double measure. Paul’s use of agricultural metaphors – sowing and reaping – to describe the act of giving and the subsequent blessing of getting a bountiful reward from God lends sufficient legitimacy to the desire for a good harvest.
It is difficult to miss the purpose of the harvest: that you may abound in every good work. In other words, God will increase the “Giving Capacity” of a cheerful giver by blessing him beyond the point of self-sufficiency. A wise Christian, instead of continually upgrading his or her standard of living, will keep boosting the measure of his generosity as God keeps blessing him.
It is interesting to note how St. Paul used an ancient regulation, taken from Israel’s forty years spent in a desert, to teach Christians the value of equity. Every morning, the Israelites had to go out and collect a white flaky substance. They called it “manna.” After the routine collection, the manna was measured out. Everyone got a single measure worth of manna regardless of how much or how little they had collected. The apostle, inspired by the Holy Spirit, derives a principle from this regulation.
For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be equality. As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.” 2 Corinthians 8:13-15
This might come as a shock to many conservative Christians who were trained to think that enforced financial equality is a bad thing. In a society, where those who “gather much” are lauded for their “success,” Christians should set an example by leading radical lives, ushering financial equality in the church. Paul does not prescribe a certain unit by which we should measure our wealth and redistribute it among ourselves. Instead, the onus is on us to consider our wealth as a common good that goes around. To meet someone’s need, we ought to give liberally. In order to meet our need, resources will freely flow back to us. The excess dough that we sit on is not ours!
Do you think this is impossible? The early church practiced it. They were even willing to sell their property to generate money. “Sorry, I don't have any cash on me,” wasn’t a good enough excuse!
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
We often wonder how the early Church experienced such a flow of divine power and favour during their evangelistic outreach. One of their secrets, apart from the being under the rule of the Holy Spirit, was their loose hold on personal wealth. Examine the following passage and ask yourself, Why is Luke’s mention about the Church’s power sandwiched between his observations about their “financial fellowship?”
Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.
And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
This picture is not that of communism. Communism tried to create heaven on earth using muscle power after moving God out of the picture. This is a representation of a slice of heaven on earth, powered by the Holy Spirit.
The Apostle Paul laid down a few principles of Christian Giving in his epistles. When we read these with other principles found in the Bible, we can summarise the biblical teaching as given below:
i. Christian giving must be voluntary. No one should be compelled in this matter. The exercise of force or compulsion amounts to extortion! (2 Cor. 8:3; 9:5 NRSV).
ii. The recipients of gifts, in the local and universal Church, must be those who are financially weaker than the giver. This common sense is indeed very uncommon among Christians. Christian workers should not accept contributions from their brethren who are financially weaker than them! “He who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and he who gives gifts to the rich—both come to poverty.” (Proverbs 22:16)
iii. The New Testament does not restrict the giving of gifts to the pastor(s) of local churches. Christians are encouraged to give to the poor, the widows and the fatherless. In today’s language, it would include all who are incapable of escaping from the clutches of poverty (Rom 15:25-26; 2 Cor. 8:13-15; Gal. 2:10; James 1:27).
iv. Pastors who rule well and labour in teaching and preaching deserve double honour in terms of remuneration. Due to their busy schedule that involves teaching their church and preaching the gospel to those outside, they will naturally be unable to pursue a career. An ox that threshes grain should not be muzzled, we are reminded. It is unfair to “muzzle” pastors or elders who rules well; let them freely partake of the congregation’s material blessings. (1 Tim 5:17-18)
v. The above point would mean that pastors who do not travel around preaching the gospel to outsiders on a regular basis should consider supporting themselves through some means! Thus, they will be able to help those who are financially weaker than themselves. That is why the apostle taught a group of Ephesian pastors to work hard and support the weak: “In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:35) Without realizing that this injunction was addressed to pastors, today’s pastors use this verse to encourage poorer members of their flock to support the pastors! It should be the other way. Pastors should lead the way in helping the poor.
vi. The size of the gift must be decided by the individual giver. “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind…” (2 Cor. 9:7a). There is no set percentage. The giver must be realistic while determining the size of the gift. The gift should be proportionate to one’s financial standing. None should feel guilty for not having met the expectations of richer friends. The giver’s eagerness makes up for the genuine shortfall. “For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.” (2 Cor. 8:12).
vii. The motivation for giving must be love; the gift is a proof of one’s love (2 Cor. 8:8, 24). Gifts and self-sacrifice without love are meaningless. “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor. 13:3)
viii. A Christian should give cheerfully and not reluctantly (2 Cor. 9:7b).
ix. Christian giving is an act of worship. Our giving is not a simple transaction between the giver and the receiver. Each gift given according to these guidelines is “a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.” (Philippians 4:18.)
x. The Bible motivates Christians to give generously by reminding them of God’s promises of proportionate returns. “Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” (2 Cor. 8:7; 9:6).
The Hebrew law of tithing is no match for the New Testament’s teaching on sacrificial giving. Even though tithing became a part of Christianity, and it even became a statute in some medieval states, it is heartening to learn that the Puritans of England demanded the abolition of tithes. They favoured voluntary Christian giving. The abolition of tithes in the modern churches would raise the standard of Christian behaviour to new levels of responsibility and faithfulness in stewardship. The only opposition I anticipate against such a trend is from a section of the clergy and from Christian corporate bodies who, due to their lack of faith, fear imminent financial catastrophe in the absence of enforced tithing.
Philip Eapen, an environmental scientist by training, devoted his life to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ ever since he realised that the world needs Jesus Christ more than anyone or anything else. Apart from sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, Philip also teaches Christians in order to equip them for service.
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