I don’t know if it’s a good thing or not. Money and church is a huge, semi-complex issue to wrestle through. Right now, I’m just wondering why we give, why we take part in a weekly offering, why we “tithe”. It is a normative part of the church experience. I can’t think of one church that in some way doesn’t ask members of the congregation to give so that the church gatherings can continue week after week, so that the staff can be compensated for their time and effort, and so that the congregation can in turn be part of missional efforts/social justice causes locally and worldwide.
Again it’s not that giving is it’s self a bad thing… but over all the christian church sucks at talking about giving in a healthy way. When we talk about giving and fail to paint a healthy picture, we end up planting wrong motives in ourselves. Our hands may in fact be doing good, but our hearts… our hearts can be full of pride, greed, and sick with sin even as we fill the offering plate. On the other hand, maybe we have a picture of giving as an obligation, a heavy requirement laid on us that we can hardly fulfill as we struggle to make ends meet. Maybe it’s just an annoyance. Maybe it’s a necessary evil. Maybe even as we give the sickness of sin is rooting deeper into our hearts because we have failed to paint a better picture of giving, a picture with Jesus at the center.
One of the go to texts people use when talking about giving to the church is Malachi 3.8-10.
Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In your tithes and offerings! You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! 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 pour down for you an overflowing blessing.
It seems straight forward enough: if you give correctly, God will give back to you and bless your socks off. You know, because god is all about you earning his favor and all about wanting to get you wealthy and comfortable. All it takes is a check every week, a specific percentage of your earnings, and BAM! Your set for the good life.
At least, that’s how we mostly talk about this verse.
Pulling this verse out of context and applying it to our weekly church giving ends up painting a distorted picture of God and our relationship with him. We end up believing the lie that God’s holding a ledger of our activities, and he hold’s back the good stuff until we can prove to him that we are committed enough to faithfully give (or do, or say, or etc…). We paint a picture of God that looks more like a Scientology leader or cult guru than the God who is love.
Ok, so lets just lay this out: this verse is talking about tithing as part of the Jewish law God gave at Mt Sinai (see the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy). However, the point of the passage isn’t about the importance of people giving to the temple. The point of these verses is contrasting Israels constant unfaithfulness to the covenant (law) and God’s never-failing faithfulness to his promise of salvation through the covenant.
The book of Malachi should be read as a whole, but even if we start back at the beginning of chapter 3 the image that is painted is far different from simply talking about offerings. It is an image of God taking the nation of Israel (the people of God) to task for not believing him and his promise of salvation. When God is talking about them bringing in their tithe, he is talking about them fulfilling the covenant law that gives them both their identity and their mission. The storehouses that were to be full, those were to be nourishment for the priests (who had no land, livestock, or other work and had committed their entire life to serve the people of God by working, sacrificing and caring for the temple) as well as provisions for the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the refugees. God talks of Israel being blessed so that they in turn can bless other nations, being a light to the world to show off who God himself actually is and to invite all to come, believe, and take part of his salvation. Israel has given nothing more than lip service to the covenant with God… yet God says he is still faithful to his promise. Therefore, he is going to send a messenger to announce the coming of the Lord. This is fulfilled in John the baptist announcing Jesus’ coming . Jesus (God himself) is God’s fulfillment of the covenant. Jesus is everything Israel couldn’t be: the light of the world to show off who God is that all may believe and find life, salvation, and blessing (as opposed to the curse of sin).
Painting a better picture
The reality of this passage is far different from the usual preaching to encourage faithful, weekly giving in church. While these verses may be misrepresented and abused, they do give us a start to a better picture about giving.
Just in cast it wasn’t clear: I utterly reject the idea that somehow our giving gets us some special blessing from God. That idea is antithetical to the nature of God laid out in the Bible and to the gospel it’s self. I also reject the idea that we give so the church(es) can be big, shiny and a showcase of riches to attract people to its beauty. I also utterly disagree with the idea that we give to church so that the church can care for the poor and destitute.
Here’s what I hear this passage saying to us in the 21st century: The way we do life, the priorities we have, the investments we make should all be different from the cultural normal. Money isn’t the most important thing, but what we do with it reveals the motivations, priorities, and love of our heart.
So, what is your money saying about you?
Are you expecting God to bless you and make you rich with a good life?
Are you striving to use your resources to give you power and social standing?
Are you too unconcerned with your neighbor to use your money to help them, choosing instead to let an organization do the work for you?
In chapter 4 of Malachi, God says this:
See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.
The real blessings of God aren’t about the almighty dollar: it’s about healing. God wants to make us whole, to divorce us from the petty things that we cling to and idolize. God wants our hearts centered on Jesus, because Jesus is the fulfillment of all that God promises in this passage, indeed in all of scripture. Jesus is our promised healing, and he has risen.
So what if our giving wasn’t about church organizations? What if it wasn’t about guilt or being a good christian? What if giving was simply us using our money, time, resources in loving ways to invite others to believe the promise of salvation that is embodied in Jesus.
Wouldn’t that lead to a better Christianity?