“If anyone making the vow is too poor to pay the specified amount, he is to present the person to the priest, who will set the value for him according to what the man making the vow can afford.” Leviticus 27:8
Being the “FD” of my church, I see first hand the need for this and this is one of the few tymes maybe I see something even before my Pastor. It usually happens at the beginning of a church year. Sometyme in February, just after people have started to breathe again after Christmas & start dream about the tax refund. It’s pretty predictable, though still important. What is it? It’s the annual stewardship sermon, the message on giving and tithing and all the rest. So now you should have guessed yes I’m the church’s Finance Director. In general, the stewardship sermon comes out of somewhere like Malachi. After all, that passage talks about Israel’s unwillingness to bring their tithes to the Lord. The Malachi passage even speaks of not giving faithfully in terms of stealing from or robbing God.
Well, Malachi is not the only place we find such a concept. Right here, in the end of Leviticus, something very interesting jumps off the page. In chapter 27, God reveals his standards for tithes to the Israelites. The passage today does not condone breaking our vows to the Lord, rather, it was given so that when the Israelites did not intend to fulfill their vow, they could redeem it back at a very high price (which, by the way, may seem awkward to us putting different price tags on human beings but thank you, Jesus, for being our Redeemer buying us back from death with His blood… that’s putting a priceless tag on all of us!).
Tithing is that biblical practice described in Leviticus that in those days involved setting apart—or making holy—one-tenth of one’s agricultural produce, herds and flocks for God’s purposes. In fact, this one-tenth was said to belong to God. Today, the tithe involves other resources like our money, for example. And in our context, the tithe is given to support the work of the church. Now it’s interesting to me that if we look up the word tithing in the Dictionary of New Testament Theology, which is a reference book containing explanatory articles on every significant word in the New Testament, we’ll find on the page after the article on tithing, an article under the heading, torment. When one pastor noticed this, he thought to himself: Tithing and torment—now that’ll preach!1_
When I think about it however like during stewardship campaigns–and I consider how much I give and how I handle my money and possessions and I take into account how I feel about all of these things I come to a disturbing realization. How many of you have ever seen the cable TV show called Intervention? Intervention takes us into the world of substance abusers and the interventions that their loved ones arrange so that the abusers can be confronted with their addictions in the hope that each of the addicts will make a choice for health and wholeness. In almost every case, there is some level of torment involved as the addict confronts the reality of addiction. And then the addict has to make a choice—either to take a step toward health and wholeness by going into rehab—or to suffer the consequences of continued addiction.
So what does all of this have to do with tithing? Well, it seems to me that tithing is a disciplined step toward liberation and health. Now I realize that biblically speaking, it’s hard to get an exact fix on the tithe. As one commentator has noted, tithing was understood and practiced differently at different tymes and localities through the Biblical period.2 One of the hardest things for most of us to do is give up our money–especially ten percent of it. Yet, this is what God asks of us, that we tithe, or give up ten percent of our earnings, to the church (Proverbs 3:9).
The Israelites could not simply leave the vow unfulfilled. The prices were set before-hand to make the people think before committing. Some doctor’s offices have the rule in place that if you commit to an appointment and don’t show up, you have to pay $25. This makes you think before committing to the appointment and it makes you think before just not showing up. Have you ever made a financial commitment to the Lord or a commitment to serve and did not fulfill your vow? Think about the importance that God places on keeping your word and how you can apply that to your life the next tyme you make a commitment to the Lord.
One interesting element of the tithe was that, if for some reason a person did not want to give what God had specifically required, he could redeem his tithe. So, for example, if a person did not want to give a tenth of his grain, he could pay a proper amount to God in order to keep the grain. Now, here is what got my attention. If an Israelite wanted to redeem his tithe, he had to pay the monetary value of the tithe, but he also had to add one fifth to the value.
If you look back also at Leviticus 6, what you will see is that this 120% figure is also used in cases—get this—of robbery. If I stole something from you, I was required to repay 120% of the value of what I stole. Is it not interesting, then, that God required a 120% payment for anything that the Israelite did not wish to give in his tithe? What it tells us is that the person who refuses to give to God what God requires steals from God. We definitely don’t want to be guilty of that.
Now this is how one modern-day tither expresses it: There are lots creditors who want a piece of me and my paycheck. There are all sorts of other concerns that compete for my attention and my money. But I write out my check to the church first, before I pay anything else. It is my way of saying that I belong to God before anybody else can get a piece of me.3
Now to me this sounds like freedom and it sounds like health. And besides, tithing calls us to thankfulness and to celebration. The scriptures provide us examples God’s people giving their tithes in an atmosphere of thanksgiving and celebration— which—in my book—are signs of freedom and health. Our obedience in financial stewardship reveals a maturity of character that God treasures. When we honor Him with our financial obedience, He blesses us. “And all nations shall call you blessed: for ye shall be a delightsome land, saith the LORD of hosts.” (Malachi 3:12–for context, read Malachi 3:10-18) Obedience opens up opportunities for God to bless us. Just as a responsible parent would not reward a disobedient child, God cannot reward us when we do not obey Him. If you are struggling financially, it could be a result of financial disobedience.
This is not the only reason we experience financial difficulty, certainly, but it can be one reason. God doesn’t want us to give so much for His sake as for our own. He wants us to be obedient and give Him opportunities to bless us. He wants us to trust Him to meet our needs. He wants us to be disciplined and mature so that we are more useful in His service. He wants us to take responsibility for our Christian family and support our churches. He could do all these things on His own without our money but what would we learn? Does a child learn to take care of himself if his parent does everything for him? Of course not God is our good parent and He works to raise us right so that we can stand on our own feet with Him.
Now, as a matter of disclaimer, my goal here is not to get legalistic about the tithe. My intent is, however, to say that a Christian who refuses to give to God freely, sacrificially, and proportionally has a major problem with how he or she relates to God. Such truth is clear throughout the Scripture.