Sunday, November 17, 2019

Why We Tithe

Since early in our marriage my wife, Leslie, and I have given away 10% and sometimes more of our income. That is a significant amount. It has not always been easy. It has meant sacrifices. But, over the years it has become such a part of our routine that, while there are certainly things we cannot do or buy that we might otherwise be able to, it has become as natural as paying the water bill.

Why do we do it? First of all, because we believe the story of Jesus Christ as understood in the Christian Tradition is the most beautiful and most true story there is. In Jesus “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us” (Ephesians 1:7-8). Experiencing some of that lavish grace has evoked in us a desire to respond to his generosity with our own. God is generous. In giving, we tune our hearts to the Generosity at the heart of all things.

We want to sink our hearts into the heart of God. Jesus said that where our treasure is, there our heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21). Our giving has a sacramental quality as an outward and visible sign of the commitment of our hearts.

It is also a simple matter of obedience. Jesus tells us to give. So we give. Doing things out of a sense of duty is not a popular reason for doing things. But, we accept that it is our duty to be “faithful in working, praying, and giving for the spread of the Kingdom of God” (Episcopal Church Canon I.17.3). We believe the Church to be the body of Christ and the essential, if demonstrably imperfect, anticipation and witness to the kingdom of God. Therefore, we give to support the Church and its mission. Since I became bishop of the Diocese of Fond du Lac, that giving has been mostly divided between the several congregations of the diocese.

We also take seriously the biblical mandate, reinforced by Jesus, to care for the poor and those in need. In one of his parables, Jesus suggests that we should “make friends for ourselves” by giving to the poor who will then welcome us into heaven (Luke 16:1-15). In another, he warns us against the ignoring the desperate and destitute at our gate (Luke 16:19-31). Our Lord’s brother, James, asserts that true faith means to “care for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27). In Ephesians 4:28, we are charged to “labor and work honestly with our own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy” as if that was the main reason for working.

Further, Jesus warns that we will be judged based on our care for those in need (Matthew 25:31-46). They are the sacramental presence of Jesus himself. As Pope Leo the Great (400-461) pointed out, “rightly in the needy and poor do we recognize the person of Jesus Christ our Lord Himself” (Sermon 9.III).

So, we give to aid the poor and those in need. Some of the 10% Leslie and I give to the churches of the diocese goes to that purpose through things like local food programs and other ministries. Beyond that, we give directly to organizations and entities that assist those in need.

Another reason we give is that the New Testament and the Christian Tradition clearly teach that money and wealth are spiritually dangerous. The more one has the more dangerous it becomes. It is not neutral. It is seductive. It creates a sort of spiritual static. It is not for nothing that Jesus says it is easier for a camel to make it through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to make it into heaven. He refers to wealth as adikias which means unrighteous. In Luke 16:15, he refers to the pursuit of wealth as an abomination (which is what the Greek word, bdelugma, means). Jesus also warns, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” (Luke 6:24). Further, 1 Timothy 6:10 famously asserts that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” In two places – Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5 – greed (the love and accumulation of wealth and the things that go with it) is referred to as idolatry. Remember that Jesus warned against the worship of Mammon  (Matthew 6:24 & Luke 16:9). By any measure, my wife and I are among the wealthy. So, we take these warning to heart,

We will be judged based on our care for those in need. We will also be judged based on our idolatry. The only way I can be sure I do not worship Mammon/Wealth is by giving as much away as I dare. And maybe dare a little more.

Giving a significant amount also helps us to cultivate a spirit of detachment enabling us to hold things lightly. A common theme in the Bible and throughout the Christian Tradition is that accumulation and attachment to things gets in the way of spiritual growth, i.e., the love of God and love of neighbor. And so, the disciplines of detachment and simplicity are commended. The more we have, the more we put our trust in what we have rather than in God. As John Wesley said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for those that have riches not to trust in them" (On Riches). The stuff of this world is good and it is not a sin to possess enough with which to live. We read in 1 Timothy 4:4-5) that, “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” But, when we possess much it starts to possess us. It warps the way relate to God and others. And so we give.

Why 10 %? In the Old Testament Law an offering of 10% was a specific requirement in some contexts, e.g., Leviticus 27:32 and Numbers 18:26-32. In 1982 the Episcopal Church affirmed the tithe “as the minimum standard of giving for Episcopalians”. This was reaffirmed by General Convention as recently as 2009. The key word there is “minimum”.

The truth is Jesus asks for more, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (Luke 14:33). While it is true that not all of his followers go all that way even in the Gospels, still Jesus particularly commends those who give everything to follow him. This was picked up in the early Church as for example when St. Irenaeus of Lyon (130-200) wrote,
And instead of the tithes which the law commanded, the Lord said to divide everything we have with the poor. And he said to love not only our neighbors but also our enemies, and to be givers and sharers not only with the good but also to be liberal givers toward those who take away our possessions.
Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter XIII, paragraph 3

And Pope Gregory the Great (540-604):
Some think the Old Testament is stricter than the New, but they judge wrongly; they are fooling themselves. The old law did not punish the desire to hold onto wealth; it punished theft. But now the rich man is not condemned for taking the property of others; rather, he is condemned for not giving his property away.

The wealth we have is not our own. It belongs to God and, under God, to those in need. The real question is not how much we give and to what and why? The real question is how much we keep for ourselves for what and why? 

To be honest, we have not gone that far. We do not give as much as we could. We still own a house, cars, and much else. And, to be honest, I do not believe that faithfulness requires that we impoverish ourselves completely. Still, the words of Jesus remain a challenge to us.

We do not give out of a sense of guilt. We thank God for the grace we have received but we do not want to "sin that grace may abound". We rejoice in our freedom in Christ but do not want to be in bondage to anything (1 Corinthians 6:12), including money, wealth, and things.. And so, we give. We also do not give because we think God will bless us with more wealth if we give. That kind of transactional “Prosperity Gospel” is contrary to the way of Jesus. We give because we love Jesus. We give because we love his Church, the body of Christ. We give because we want to love those he loves  the poor and vulnerable. Jesus tells us not to store up treasures on earth, but to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). Giving is how we do that.

Some Qualifiers

Giving 10% + is what we believe we are called to do and it is significant enough for us to feel it. It is also the case that, together, my wife and I make a decent income. We are still able to live pretty comfortably. We could give more. I also want to acknowledge that my compensation includes insurance and a generous pension. So, those are two things we do not have to worry about as much as some others. And to be perfectly transparent, we tithe on our take-home salary, not our total compensation package which includes those benefits. Not yet anyway. Aside from our mortgage, car payments, and some minimal student debt, we are comparatively debt free. We recognize that that is not everyone's situation. It is also important to note that we are both on the same page when it comes to this commitment. If you are married, and you and your spouse are not on the same page, that changes things. It would not be good for this to become a source of contention in a marriage. But, perhaps careful and prayerful conversation.

I recognize that others’ situation might well be different and giving 10%, even in the restricted sense that we do might not be feasible. So, maybe you aren’t prepared or able, at least at this point, to meet “the minimum standard of giving for Episcopalians.” That is OK. After all we are told, “it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have” (1 Corinthians 8:12-15). But, I am also confident than many could give closer to 10% and nearly everyone can give more than they are currently.

I do encourage you to start somewhere. There is nothing magic about 10%. But, if not 10%, what percentage? It is good to think in terms of a percentage and to set a goal rather lest our giving be ad hoc and haphazard. Not giving  is not an option for faithful Christians who “know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). So, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” Hebrews 13:16).

Here is a helpful rule of thumb from C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity:
I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc, is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them.

See also:

Money: Intoxicant or Eucharist? (On Camels and Needle Eyes)

Saturday, November 16, 2019

John Updike on the Apostles' Creed

I was reminded recently of this from John Updike (1932-2009) on the Apostles’ Creed:

I call myself a Christian by defining 'a Christian' as 'a person willing to profess the Apostles' Creed.' I am willing, unlike most of my friends – many more moral than myself – to profess it (which does not mean understand it, or fill its every syllable with the breath of sainthood), because I know of no other combination of words that gives such life, that so seeks the crux. The creed asks us to believe not in Satan, but only in the 'Hell' into which Christ descends. That hell, in the sense at least of a profound and desolating absence, exists, I do not doubt; the newspaper gives us its daily bulletins. And my sense of things, sentimental I fear, is that wherever a church spire is raised, though dismal slums surround it, and a single dazed widow kneels under it, this Hell is opposed by a rumor of good news, by an irrational confirmation of the plenitude we feel is our birthright.
– ‘Picked Up Pieces

One might wish for something a bit more robust from Updike. I do. Still, I find his almost wistful believing poignant. And there is something beautiful about the idea that a lonely voice professing the creed opposes the powers of Hell with a rumor of good news and “an irrational confirmation of the plenitude we feel is our birthright”. Of course, that plenitude is our birthright. But we traded it for the lentil stew of our sin and idolatry.

See also: