It is time to retire the tithe as a number, and return to the original idea of tithe as thank-offering. It is time to think again about stewardship in terms of discipleship. How does our giving affect our serving God and our neighbors? How might we give more of ourselves away? How can we become the 13th disciple?
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Who, being loved, is poor?
– Oscar Wilde
A bell is no bell ’til you ring it,
A song is no song ’til you sing it,
And love in your heart
Wasn’t put there to stay—
Love isn’t love
‘Til you give it away.
– Oscar Hammerstein, Sound of Music, “You Are Sixteen (Reprise)”
What would have happened if the man had taken Jesus up on his offer? What might that 13th disciple have accomplished?
At one time or another, all of us are faced with questions about what’s really important in our lives. In the Gospel reading above, a very devout man came up to Jesus to ask what
he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him first to keep the commandments. Then he invited him to give away his possessions and become a disciple. But it turned out that this was no more possible for the man than it was for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. The man was simply too committed to keeping his possessions. He missed his opportunity to become the 13th disciple.
A friend of mine in seminary once shared how much she struggled with stewardship in general and with the idea of tithing in particular. She and her husband had worked hard all their lives, but really didn’t have too much in savings. Of course, school costs money: tuition, books, living expenses. Add the fact that the ordained ministry was not a particularly lucrative line of work. All of these caused her to wonder how in the world anyone could possibly expect them to contribute 10 percent of their income to the Church? Then one day, she had an “ah ha” moment. What if we looked at our lives as a series of opportunities to give ourselves away? What if we could become the 13th disciple?
The Church has long held that the standard for charitable giving is the tithe, an ancient number that means 10 percent. The idea of the tithe goes all the way back to Genesis 14, when Abram was blessed by Melchizedek. It is mentioned in 16 other places in the Bible. But in each of these examples, the tithe was applied to food—grain, meat, oil, wine. In those days it was simple: out of our God-given abundance, we are called to return a portion back to God as a thank-offering. In joyful celebration for God’s gifts to us, we joyfully give some of what we had for the well-being of the community at large.
But somewhere along the way, the definition of tithing changed. Sometime in the Middle Ages, tithing became a form of tax to maintain the Church as an institution. Instead of a being a freely given thank-offering, it became a burden, a financial obligation. This changed how we began to see stewardship. Instead of giving as a celebration of our ability to give to others, we began to wonder if we would have enough for ourselves. In many churches, this has made “stewardship” an awkward conversation that we stumble through every fall.
I believe it is time to retire the tithe as a number, and return to the original idea of tithe as thank-offering. It is time to think again about stewardship in terms of discipleship. How does our giving affect our serving God and our neighbors? How might we give more of ourselves away? How can we become the 13th disciple?
An Offering of Ourselves, Our Souls and Bodies
When I was in high school, one of the coaches had a sign on his desk. “All that I want . . . is all that you’ve got.” In a similar way, Jesus shocked the man when he told him what he had to do to inherit eternal life: “Go sell everything, and give the money to the poor.” When we think of stewardship only in terms of money, we are missing the point. Stewardship is an expression of our discipleship. Following the call of Jesus means more than merely giving money. It means giving of our whole selves, or as the Prayer Book puts it: And here we offer and present to you, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice.
Giving of ourselves means giving more than just money. It means giving our time and our talent to promote God’s plan for the world. It means mowing the lawn of an elderly neighbor, or giving up a Saturday morning to feed hotdogs to homeless people, or providing a safe place for a foster child to live, or helping pay a friend’s medical bills. It is a giving of oneself and one’s labor, time so that God’s action is carried out in the world. This may entail self-denial—we might miss a football game if we’re working on repairing a neighbors front porch. But it is not really a denial of self because we were created and redeemed to give. By our offering ourselves up to God, we are actually embracing our “self” to the fullest.
This is also why focusing too much on the tithe actually is bad for the Church as a whole. When we think of stewardship as merely raising money to pay the bills, we lose sight of how our lives are to be lived as an offering. Perhaps, if the Church more freely gave itself away, it also would discover the joy that God has given and continues to give all that it needs to grow and thrive.
The 13th Disciple
The man who approached Jesus was the only person we know about who turned away when Jesus invited him to “follow me.” He missed the opportunity to become the 13th Disciple. Where would the world be if he had responded to his call? Jesus calls us all to give up our selves and become followers of Christ. It is a call to deny ourselves the things which clutter our lives, so that we can live into the richer life that God has prepared for us to live.