Saturday, August 8, 2009

Tyranny of the Tithe: WWJD - What Would Jesus Donate?

As if we don't have enough schisms and labels these days, there's a growing group of people who call themselves "Red-letter Christians", meaning they only concern themselves with the things Jesus said in the Bible. I think this is silly, but I admit that, while the writings of Paul and the other New Testament writers are equally inspired by the Holy Spirit, I can see why special weight would be given to the One upon whom everything is founded.

So what did Jesus have to say about our pet topic of tithing? Surprisingly little, yet much has been made of it. And I'll need to warn you - I get just a wee bit upset. His words have been twisted and mangled like a secondary character in one of those Saw movies to support the pro-tithing position, violating the most rudimentary principles of Bible interpretation and simple logic.

There are only two instances where Jesus mentioned tithing: Matthew 23:23 (and the parallel passage in Luke 11:42) and Luke 18:12. Let's take a look . . .

Mat 23:23
(23) "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

I actually heard this verse read recently at a church service right before the offering was taken. The pulpiteer read the verse and then said, "See, tithing is still for today." The pro-tithe teaching on this verse takes the part where Jesus says, ". . . without neglecting the former." (referring to the tithe) and uses that to say that Jesus approves of tithing - or at least that He says to not neglect it.

What ignorance! Do they really expect us to believe that Jesus was commending the Pharisees for their scrupulous tithing practices?!!? I'll guarantee you that the Pharisees did not leave that meeting feeling like Jesus had just given them a gold star. They recognized that they had just been spit-slapped by this uneducated friend-of-sinners, and they were none too happy about it.

Listen, of course they were supposed to be tithing - they were still under the Mosaic law! Jesus confirmed this in the passage, ". . . you have neglected the more important matters of the law . . .". As we discussed in an earlier post, Christians are not obligated to the law, and are sternly warned against allowing themselves to be brought back under it. Paying tithes was the Pharisees' duty. To overlook this and misinterpret the passage to say that Christians are obligated to tithe reveals one of two things: an ignorance even greater than that of your typical National Inquirer subscription holder, or a bias for a particular doctrine that has seriously skewed the preacher's interpretation.

As an aside, Jesus was referring to the Pharisees' practice of tithing their spices - not money. This was an extreme variation on the Old Testament tithe which, by the way, never required money. Look it up - it was all agricultural product. If your pastor insists on using this passage to defend his position on tithing, start putting some paprika or lemon zest from your spice rack into the tithe envelope . . .

Now let's look at Luke 18:12 in its context:
Luk 18:9-14
(9) To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable:
(10) "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
(11) The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector.
(12) I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'
(13) "But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven,
but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'
(14) "I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
First of all, notice that tithing is mentioned in this context (as well as in the passge discussed previously) as part of a rebuke of the Pharisees' self-righteousness. The only two times Jesus mentions the tithe is to use it to illustrate the hypocrisy of the religious elite - doesn't this bother the tithe advocates?

Notice also that the only one of the two who went away justified was the non-tither (I'll admit to getting a kind of perverse pleasure out of that!). The only one who truly got anything out of church that day - who truly touched heaven - was the one who ignored the offering plate and did real business with God.

Incidentally, the Pharisee also fasted twice a week. Where are the sermons about the importance of fasting in the life of a Christian? Few and far between. Must not fit the agenda . . .

Luther. Martin (Sermon; August 27, 1525)
“But the other commandments of Moses, which are not [implanted in all men] by nature, the Gentiles do not hold. Nor do these pertain to the Gentiles, such as the tithe..."

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