“Back to the Source: TITHE”


October 1, 2017:  Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon

World Communion Sunday

Today’s question might see like a real easy one to answer. What is a tithe? Well, simply put, it is ten percent. A tithe is a tenth of one’s income that is not kept for yourself but is given back to God, dedicated as an act of worship to be used toward the building up of the kingdom of God. What a tithe is, well that’s simple to answer. How we deal with this biblical practice of giving 10% is another matter.

It is a bit ironic to talk about money given to the church, while also celebrating the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. 500 years ago Martin Luther nailed his Ninety Five Theses to a church door in Germany protesting many errors that he saw in the Mediaeval Church…but one of the biggest, in fact the one that led to his protest in the first place had to do with money. The selling of indulgences. The church hierarchy in Rome needed some money and so they decided that the best way to bring in cash was to play on people’s fear and superstition by selling certificates that were a sort of get out of jail free card for the afterlife. They sent salesmen (called Pardoners) all throughout Europe to promote this new way of buying forgiveness. They said, if you pay us enough money, your sins will be forgiven and you will be made right with God and won’t have to suffer through purgatory when you die. Not only that, but you could also buy these indulgences for people who had already died. It was a sort of friends and family plan. Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and many others challenged this abuse of power by the church and the shallow, self-serving theology that supported this practice.

To be clear, Luther and his contemporaries were not opposed to giving money to the church for it to do its ministry. They knew from their study of the Bible that there is a clear call to live and to give generously. 10 percent of one’s income, a tithe or tenth, was a specific call found repeatedly in the pages of scripture, and they were in favor this practice. Their issue was with how they church approached questions of money and power, and how individuals understood their relationship with God through their financial gifts. You could not buy God’s favor. Grace, by definition, is not for sale!

The modern biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann identifies some main themes that run throughout the entire Bible in regard to money and possessions. A few of them are particularly relevant to our question today:

1-Money and possessions are gifts from God, and gratitude is our appropriate response. This is the great theme of thanksgiving.

2- What we think of as “our” money and possessions actually belong to God in the first place and they are only held in trust by humans. This is the great theme of stewardship that grows out of God’s gift of creation. He’s got the whole world in his hands, and it’s our responsibility to care for it and give it back to the one to whom it truly belongs.

3-Money and possessions are seductions that lead to idolatry. They evoke in us love and lust, they demand devotion and servitude, which should be given to God alone, not to things. This notion that money is not innocent but in fact is addictive and compels loyalty reminds us of the story of the golden calf…an idol built by gold to be worshipped and adored.[i]

The great Reformed theologian John Calvin said that the human heart is a “factory of idols.” That is, we are quick to produce and to manufactory powers other than God that we worship and serve. We worship our status, our success, our power, our security. We serve our jobs, our bosses, our retirement, the bottom line. Day in and day out. In ways both large and small we devote our lives to the forces of greed that we create, rather than the God who created us. In truth, of course, our whole lives belong to God, but these false gods, false idols, demand more and more and more so that we are never enough. We never have enough money, enough time, enough patience, enough joy, love, hope, truth, peace.

And so, as a gift, God gives us a guide: 10%. A tithe. Not as a way to buy our way into God’s favor. Not as a tax or a fee that we have to pay or else we will be punished. No God gives us the example of a tithe as a gift. A gift to us. I know that sounds completely backwards, but that’s what it is. Giving ten percent is a gift for us.

If we think of our money and possessions as our own—as something that belongs to us and that we have complete autonomy to spend however we want on whatever we want—then we are tempted to think of a tithe, as our gift to God, or to the church. But if we remember the truth that all that we have, all that we are, our money and possessions, our work and our world, our life and our loved ones all belongs to God then it fundamentally changes how we see the biblical language of tithing. This guidance, this number (10%) is a gift from God that grounds us in the truth. It roots us into a deeper reality, reminding us that we belong wholly and completely to God. Tithing is a real life practice that protects us a bit from the false idols of wealth and success. By giving to God, just 10% we are not giving in to the ways of the world that seek to use us for all we we’re worth and then toss us aside when they are finished. What a tithe does is orient us toward a right relationship with our money and possessions freeing us for a loving, joyful, hope-filled relationship with God and our neighbors.

This biblical understanding of stewardship reminds me of one of my favorite episodes of the Andy Griffith show. Andy and his son Opie love going fishing together, and Andy always seems to catch plenty thanks to his luck fishing rod that he’s named Eagle Eye Annie. The town mayor is jealous that Andy always catches more than him and so he tries repeatedly to buy the fishing pole from Andy, but he refuses to sell Eagle Eye Annie. It just so happens Andy’s Aunt Bee has a birthday that very same week, and for her birthday present he decides to buy her some glass jars for canning vegetables. Maybe a practical gift, but certainly not very exciting. Meanwhile Aunt Bee is walking past a store, and she sees the most beautiful bed jacket and even though she knows its silly she has her heart set on it. As the show plays out a mix up happens and Aunt Bee thinks she sees Andy buying the bed jacket for her, but he’s really just picking it up as a favor for the mayor who is buying it for his wife. So, Aunt Bee is so so excited because she thinks that she is getting this wonderful gift, just what she wants. She even tells her best friend all about it.

Well, the day of the birthday finally arrives and that morning Andy and Opie give Aunt Bee her presents. She is shaking with excitement as she opens the gift from Andy, but when it ends up being just a bunch of jars she runs out of the room to hide her tears. Andy is confused. Then Aunt Bees friend stops by to see the bed jacket, and that’s when he realizes what’s happened. So, to try and make Aunt Bee’s birthday special Andy knows what he has to do. He goes to the mayor’s house and begs him to let Andy buy the bed jacket. The mayor agrees under one condition, that Andy sells him the lucky fishing pole. Andy slips back home, and he tries to play it cool. He says, “Aunt Bee you ran off so fast you forgot to open you other present.” When she opens it up and sees the bed jacket she can’t contain her joy. She goes on and on about how special it is and how thankful she is. She picks up the phone to call her friend and tell her all about the wonderful gift.

Just then Opie walks in the room ready to go fishing with Andy, but he sees that Andy’s fishing rod isn’t hanging on the wall in its normal place. He asks his dad why Eagle Eye Annie is gone. And Andy explains that he’s sold it. Opie says, “But Paw, you said you’d never sell it.”

Andy replies, “No, I said I kept it because it gave me so much enjoyment. And I wouldn’t sell it for money, and I didn’t sell it for money. I kinda swapped it for a different kind of enjoyment. So old Eagle Eye Annie is doing jus what she did before. Even right now she’s giving me joy, real heart warming joy.”[ii]

Now, of course a biblical tithe and a fishing pole aren’t the same thing. And of course God isn’t some jealous mayor who’s trying to swindle us out of something we love. But in the story, Andy’s response to his prized possession, seeing it as a tool for joy and being willing to part with it in order to be set free for a life with more love and joy in it, is a wonderful image of what true Christian stewardship looks like. Letting go in order to be set free. Finding even more joy in the giving away of something valuable than in keeping it for ourselves.

Now, it’s easy for us to get caught up and lost in the numbers and forget that tithing is a gift to us. Is that 10% before or after taxes? Is 8% or 9% close enough? Can I just round up? We fall back into our old habits of seeking to rationalize and calculate the truth in ways that are most beneficial to ourselves. But in tithing, God invites us to let go. To let go of the fear the worry, the anxiety, the self-serving nature of how we see the world. Is it easy? No. Well the math is easy, 10% is pretty easy to figure out when you filling out that pledge card, but giving at 10% is not easy. It’s something that many people strive for and haven’t yet achieved. And that’s ok, so long as we are working at it. It is a struggle, a real sacrifice for most people. It affects the decisions that we make and even changes how we live our lives. But, I guarantee you that if you talk to one of your friends, someone in this very church who has been tithing, giving 10% for years and years, you will hear them talk about this biblical practice as something in which they find great joy, real heart-warming joy. As part of their life that has been life-giving. It’s never easy, but it truly is a gift from God, freeing us from the idols that we spend our days making and serving, and freeing us for a life of joy, gratitude, and love.

To God alone be the glory.

[i] Walter Brueggemann, Money and Possessions, in Interpretation series, 2016, 1-13.

[ii] The Andy Griffith Show, “The Bed Jacket” season 3 episode 12, December 17, 1962.



Leviticus 27: 30-34:

All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s; they are holy to the Lord. If persons wish to redeem any of their tithes, they must add one-fifth to them. All tithes of herd and flock, every tenth one that passes under the shepherd’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord. Let no one inquire whether it is good or bad, or make substitution for it; if one makes substitution for it, then both it and the substitute shall be holy and cannot be redeemed. These ar

2 Corinthians 8: 1-7

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints— and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us. Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.



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