Just to be safe (I mean, “clear”), I personally have nothing against the IRS (if any IRS agents are reading this, I’ve always said the IRS is like the FBI, except way cooler). But lots and lots of people feel the tax code is unwieldy, unjust and oppressive and that the IRS and the mob have lots of things in common; it’s just that one is legal thievery and the other not so much (not me, mind you, I would never say something like that. I love paying my taxes, and I loved The Sopranos!). Plus, people feel our taxes are just way too complicated and expensive. It’s not like it was back then.
Back in the good old days, Israel had a tax system that was simple. It was called tithing, and it required that 10% off the top was given to care for the needs of the Levitical priests. You can read all about it in Leviticus (Is anyone else suspicious that money going to the Levitical priests is found in the book of Leviticus? It sounds self-serving to me!). Back then, it was a simple 10% tax. Oh, but wait, there was also the annual festival tithe. Deuteronomy 14 says Israel needed to set aside another 10% of everything their fields produced (so now, that’s a 20% yearly tax; the IRS is looking better!). The good news: this tithe was to be eaten at the temple in Jerusalem, and whatever extra could not be eaten was used to pay for the expenses of getting to Jerusalem and staying in the big city. Think of it like an IRS-mandated trip to D.C. You have to do it. It is going to cost you a tenth of your income, and all that money has to be spent in D.C. In their case, they thought neither locally or globally, but thought “Jerusalemy.” And don’t think this would be some dull, dreary junket. You were to eat great food and drink fine wine and imbibe other fermented drink in the presence of God and rejoice (Deut. 14:26). In other words, it was a mandated party each year in Jerusalem (why don’t we have laws like this anymore?). The downside was, you had to pay for it. But wait, there’s more. There was also the tri-annual poor tithe. This “tax/tithe” was used to care for the Levites (think pastors’ salaries), and for any foreign refugees who lived there, and for the needs of orphans and widows. And while this was a tri-annual tithe, it was probably paid yearly. In other words, the grand total for the Old Testament tithe was probably 23 1/3%. And that doesn’t even include payment to the government. One person said the total amount of tax paid by the average man on the street in Israel was at least 30%, but probably closer to 40%. Let me just say, after reading this, I LOVE the IRS!
Now, a lot of people today argue that tithing ought to be the practice of the church, and they based their belief on the fact that God commanded Israel to give 10% of their income to care for the Levites. God said it; that settles it. But most of these people forget that God commanded two other tithes, as well; the-party-in-Jerusalem tithe and the take-care-of-the-poor tithe. And, therefore, they forget that if we are going to go by the Old Testament system, we need to tithe 23 1/3% of our income to the church. Now if God truly called us to give that amount, we should be happy to do it (poorer, perhaps, but happier); but I’m not so sure that is for today. Five random thoughts as we wrap this posting up for today:
- First of all, Andreas Kostenberger wisely says: “To call for the cessation of two of the three tithes, while leaving one intact, would seem to require some major theological nuancing.”
- Second, while tithing is not mentioned in the New Testament or even hinted at as our responsibility as New Testament people, if we follow Jesus’ way of seeing the law, our giving ought to be greater than what was required in the Law. Proof? Consider what Jesus says about the Law in the Sermon on the Mount. The law says don’t murder anyone. Jesus says don’t even get angry. The law says don’t commit adultery. Jesus says don’t even commit lust. The law says love your neighbor. Jesus says love your enemy. The Law says give a minimum of 10%. Jesus says. . . . Just saying.
- Third, in my opinion, author Randy Alcorn is right when he argues that the whole idea of tithing ten percent of your income is to act as training wheels to teach us how to give when we are starting out in the spiritual discipline of giving. It’s a starting point that you want to get rid of as soon as you can so you can ride really fast.
- Fourth, instead of urging the church to tithe, Paul encourages each of us to decide in our own hearts what we can and should give. Paul hates giving out of compulsion, giving as a result of manipulation, giving because of guilt, giving as a result of thermometers in the sanctuary and giving as a result of slick ad campaigns (I may have added a few things beyond what Paul actually said, but if one and two are true, then by dingy, three, four and five are true, also!). Instead, Paul loves people who consider it a privilege to give and who give generously.
- Last, Paul urges all of us to excel in this grace of giving. Make no mistake about it: giving is super important. It is one of the central spiritual disciplines and one of the most obvious markers of someone who is following Jesus.
Scot McKnight says it this way: “One of the more striking features of the New Testament is the absence of tithing. Why? Kingdom realities created new possibilities for the community of faith, and the operative word for those first Christians was generosity.” Don’t miss that: generosity, not tithing, ought to be the determining principle in our giving. Wow!
All that to say, giving sacrificially to advance the kingdom of God is a very important thing. All that we have is given to us in a trust; and it is our job to use it all to glorify God, to meet our obligations, to give generously to godly causes and to make sure whatever else we have left over, we hold loosely so that it doesn’t end up holding us tightly. Giving should be a joy. It should be something we look forward to doing. In fact, every time we give, it should be like having a party in Jerusalem with dancing and eating and drinking.
But wait, doesn’t Malachi argue we should tithe? Doesn’t he argue that not to tithe robs God? That doesn’t sound like a party to me! That’s the question we will consider next time. In the meantime, if you see an agent of the IRS, ask them to think about using our tax money to send us on an all-expenses-paid-vacation. And they say, IRS agents have no sense of humor!