This past Sunday I taught on the subject of generosity. This was the gist:
The generosity to which God invites us into is the kind that acts as a partner with him and his concerns in the world. It’s the kind that goes deep into the world’s most pressing issues of justice and poverty and equality. Our generosity should “fund” the restorative work in places where those problems are unavoidable.
The first text was Leviticus 19:9-10. Here we read an early teaching on what to do with the results of your work. In summary, God instructed the Israelites not to harvest their whole crop, but to intentionally leave behind a portion for the “poor and the sojourner.” (v.10)
God did not say specifically how much they should leave behind. Rabbis would later determine this to be one-eighteenth of the field, but that’s not what the text says. The challenge in the text is that it was up to the individual to determine the amount. It was an implemented system of generosity, yes, but it was a system of the heart, not of compulsion or pressure.
Generosity is harder when you have to decide how much. An inner struggle builds, because deciding what to give is really a struggle of deciding what to keep.
The generosity outlined in the text was for the work among the poor and the sojourner, those in the world without roots, without a home, those in major transition, and was not intended for a local worshipping community.
When pastors talk about giving, it’s always about the tithe. Historically the tithe was a system of taxation within the nation of Israel. Since they were a theocracy, and without a central system of government, the tithe acted as a means of sustaining the nation. And all said and done, it ended up being closer to 20% at times, much like what we pay in taxes today.
Talk with any Jewish scholar and they’ll tell you that the tithe is one of the more mysterious issues in the First Testament. As my friend Rabbi Derek Leman says, “It’s hard to harmonize the teachings on the tithe.” There are so many different (and conflicting) examples of tithing within the First Testament that it really is difficult to find a solid foundation for what it was for. One constant, however, was the benevolent purposes of the tithe, outlined most imaginatively in Deuteronomy 14, a text reminding us of God’s concern for the justice needs that are ever-present in the world.
When the Second Testament talks about giving, it never commands believers to tithe to their local congregations. It’s not there. And you would think that if tithing was a central behavior of a disciple, Paul would have mentioned it. But he doesn’t. Ever.
His primary giving text is 2 Corinthians 9:7, the one where he tells the Corinthians to give what they have “decided in their heart” to give. And not “under compulsion.” It’s a wonderful instruction: decide what you can give, and give it joyfully. Added to this, it’s important to remember that Paul’s words here about giving are connected to his fundraising efforts for the poor in Jerusalem, not for the local church to whom he was writing. These were not instructions on offerings, but on a generosity that was in partnership with God’s greatest concerns.
One hundred years after Paul wrote those words, Justin Martyr wrote about the giving portion of a church service, saying, “And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.” [First Apology, 66-67]
Acts 2:44-45 is an early glimpse into congregational giving. But again, it was allocated for immediate and pressing needs. The selling of possessions in order to support those in need was at the heart of their generosity.
So where does this leave the local church and its financial needs? What do we do to keep the doors open and the programs running? How should we teach about giving at the congregational level?
I’ll share my thoughts in Part Two.