September marks the beginning of the new Ecclesiastical Year in the Orthodox Church, and I have been thinking a lot this past month about renewal and recommitment. Many of the basics of our Orthodox Faith have come to mind, and I have been setting some personal goals related to my own repentance and relationship with God. I have also been thinking about ways our parish needs to grow. One area of needed growth is in Christian Stewardship, and specifically in our monetary giving. I would like to challenge our entire parish to tithe. The word “tithe” literally means “ten percent,” and to tithe is to offer ten percent of all we have to God from our first and our best. In this article, I would like to help us all better understand this commandment of God that we may become obedient to Him and experience the resultant blessings.
Right from the beginning, Cain and Abel, the first offspring of Adam and Eve, made offerings to God. Abel’s offering was from his first and his best. Cain’s offering, however, was neither his first nor his best, but came from what was left over. Of course, God accepted Abel’s offering and rejected Cain’s, because Abel showed by his offering that God was first in his life. He honored God by giving his best. Cain, on the other hand, put himself before God, and when his offering was rejected, we see the fruit of his self-centeredness in full bloom through his anger and the eventual murder of his brother. In this situation, we learn a valuable lesson about giving back to God. All things come from God and are given to us as blessings. Through our own free will, we become stewards or managers of the things in our possession. By offering back to God the first and the best, we show that we love God and are thankful to Him for all things.
The very first time we see someone offering ten percent of their possessions is also in Genesis. After Abraham had won an important victory over many kings, Melchizedek, an Old Testament type of Christ and representative of God, came out to bless him. After being blessed, Abraham offered Melchizedek a tenth of everything he had won. This act illustrates how Abraham understood that his victory was due to the power of God. His tithe offering was not commanded, but came from his heart as a joyful expression of love and gratitude to God for saving him from his enemies. Abraham’s tithe was another way of saying, “I can do nothing of my own accord, but only by the power of God and the will of God.”
Two generations later, Jacob received the blessing of his father, Isaac. After receiving this blessing, Jacob had a dream wherein he saw the famous ladder joining earth to heaven. Angels were ascending and descending the ladder, and the Lord stood above it and renewed the Covenant He had made to Abraham. When Jacob awoke from his dream, he constructed an altar of stone, consecrated it with oil, and made a vow to the Lord, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that You give me I will give the tenth to You.” (Gen.28:20-22) We see the blessed Patriarch Jacob, inspired by the Holy Spirit, offering the tithe as a pledge of his own commitment to God and his agreement to abide by the Old Testament Covenant.
In each of the above cases, it should be noted that the offerings were not commanded, but were instinctive. As time went on, however, mankind drifted further from God. At the time of Moses, it became necessary to provide a written Law as a tutor to help the children of the Covenant continue to follow God. As a part of this Law, God commanded Israel to offer ten percent of everything to the Lord. “All the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the Lord’s; it is holy to the Lord. And all the tithes of herds and flocks, every tenth animal of all that pass under the herdsman’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord.” (Lev.27:30, 32) This commandment became necessary to remind people that everything is the Lord’s. He is the Creator and Sustainer of all things; nothing exists or comes into our possession apart from God. The tithe was to serve as a symbol of one’s thanksgiving to God, and to remind them to be good stewards of the other ninety percent they were commanded to manage. Whenever the Israelites forgot this important truth, they also began to forget about God, and the result was spiritual harlotry, self-reliance, and all forms of mistrust, fear and greed.
When Christ came in the fullness of time, He did not abolish the Law and Prophets; He fulfilled them. (Mt.5:17) He not only fulfilled the Old Covenant, but He established a New Covenant. We read about many different incidents where Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said…but I say…” in order to introduce a teaching that did not contradict the Old Covenant but took the old teaching to an even higher level. The same can be said of our giving back to God in thanksgiving. In the Old Testament, we know that the commandment was to tithe. In the New Testament, Jesus does not directly address tithing. Instead, he points to a widow, who is seen giving two copper coins in the Temple treasury. Jesus uses this widow as an example of giving to His disciples. She didn’t just give ten percent; she gave everything she had! “And He called His disciples to Him, and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.” (Mk.12:43-44)
This is the spirit of sacrificial giving that our Lord holds up as the most perfect way. Of course, not everyone is able to give away everything when they walk into church. We have responsibilities that require us to manage our money and be wise to meet the needs of our families. There is, however, an important principle derived from the example of the widow: the tithe should not be understood as a maximum or a legalistic church tax. Jesus is trying to illustrate for us a spirit of giving that teaches us to depend on Him, to remember that He is the Giver of all good things and to be free from greed and become grateful and cheerful givers of our first and our best.
Should we tithe? Yes, but we should not be tempted to become legalistic and limit our giving only to ten percent. When asked the question, “What is necessary for salvation?” St. Justin Popovich replied, “All of God, and all of man! God has already given us His all, and now He awaits our response.” Our giving must be seen as symbolic of our love for God and His place in the hierarchy of our priorities. This is the primary reason for God’s interest in our giving: it is chiefly for the spiritual benefit and salvation of the giver. Of course, a secondary reason is for the support of the Church and her ministries.
The Church exists in the world, and therefore needs monetary support to fulfill her mission. A spiritually healthy church community that has learned to give sacrificially usually has the blessing of figuring out how to spend their money in a God-pleasing manner rather than how to raise sufficient funds to support a bare-bones budget that minimally keeps the doors open. Without exception, every Greek Orthodox parish and every Metropolis in our Archdiocese falls into the latter category. We have not yet learned to give sacrificially, and therefore we continually find ourselves in a financial crisis. Rather than giving Biblically at a ten percent or higher rate, we give minimally out of our abundance, often after we have taken care of higher priority items in our lives. Sadly, this is indicative of where God fits into our lives.
Allow me to provide an example, using our own parish as a case study. Our annual operating budget is approximately $360,000. We have around 120 pledged units in our parish. This means that our average monetary pledge per unit is $3,000. The average household income in the United States is just under $50,000 per household, although the average household income in Washington County, Oregon is over $50,000. If we were to use $50,000 as the average household income for our parish, and we were to have all 120 pledged units tithe, our annual income would be $600,000 (120 X $5,000). Now, compare that to the current budget of $360,000, and you can see what a different reality we would be looking at as a parish. The possibilities for ministry and outreach would be remarkable!
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, it is easy to think that we are doing okay as stewards if we simply compare ourselves to contemporary standards in the Orthodox Church. But, if we compare ourselves to the Biblical standards God has set for us, we can see that we need to grow and make changes in our lives. We may not all be able to be in a position to make drastic changes overnight, but we are all in a position to better understand tithing and sacrificial giving and move in that direction. God expects more from us than we are offering in this important area of Christian stewardship. Our Orthodox Faith is anything but minimalistic. We are called to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind. At the same time, Jesus taught that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Mt.6:21) Let us all ask the Lord to continue changing our hearts that we may deepen our love for Him and increase our sense of thanksgiving. As our hearts change, so will our desire and ability to give sacrificially.