Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tithe One On

This morning, the minister had the thankless task of preaching about tithes. He knew it was thankless, too, and mentioned that he gets complaints any time he talks about how people are supposed to tithe. I find it thankless because this is one of those biblical ideas that, once you look at it, falls apart into interpretative problems that he might not be purposely sidestepping, but I'm pretty sure he doesn't want to get into.

For one: there's the fact that an injunction to offer 10% of your earnings to "God" is a very, very different thing from offering them to "the church." Much less to any specific church. And then, when one gets into the biblical support for tithing, one discovers that some of the talk about tithes and "firstfruits" (as in Numbers 18 and 2 Chronicles 21) is about supporting the priesthood, which can be used as evidence for the Protestant viewpoint. But there's also a lot of "the blood of your sacrifices must be poured beside the altar of the LORD your God" business, where tithes are discussed as part of the system of animal sacrifice. (Deuteronomy 12:27. Thank you, Bible Gateway!)

What I like even better, also in the same intriguing chapter of Deuteronomy, is this: "You must not eat in your own towns the tithe of your grain and new wine and oil, or the firstborn of your herds and flocks, or whatever you have vowed to give, or your freewill offerings or special gifts. Instead, you are to eat them in the presence of the LORD your God at the place the LORD your God will choose." (Deut. 12: 17-18) You're supposed to take those tithes, and the firstfruits and your special gifts, and eat them yourself! There's even a handy loophole: "If the place where the LORD your God chooses to put his Name is too far away from you, you may slaughter animals from the herds and flocks the LORD has given you, as I have commanded you, and in your own towns you may eat as much of them as you want." (Deut. 12: 21).

I'd say that if I don't know where this place is, that God has put his Name on, it's not too legalistic to say that it's "too far away." (A scan of religious scholarship shows that most people assume that place was the Temple, long since destroyed, which is used to explain why the animal sacrifices fell out of vogue. As the religion evolved in a new direction without an official, Temple-based center, the ritual of bringing the tithes to the place that was destroyed didn't work any more). But if we're still tithing, and I accept the available evidence, then the old Temple would be the site to go to and again, I'm not going to be able to get there with my offerings every year. So I guess I have to eat and drink them at home.

Deuteronomy 14 reiterates the same idea, especially the part about how it's fair to sell your tithes, get to the holy place, and then use the money to buy whatever you want to eat there in God's name. Then it adds that every three years, the tithes should stay in your own town and be distributed to the needy. By this logic, I can party in God's name two years out of three, and then the third year, donate my ten percent to a local food bank (maybe the one where my dad works!), and be Old Testament certified!

Well, you know. From a certain point of view.

Deut. 14: 26 even kindly specifies "And thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the LORD thy God." Personally, I much prefer the wine to the oxen, so it's nice that it's perfectly fine for us to lust after what we like, at least in the eating and drinking department.

By the time of the New Testament, the majority of the offerings and firstfruits are metaphorical. Individuals are offering spiritual sacrifices instead of physical ones, and are standing themselves in the place of firstfruits.

Research caused me to stray, as research so often will, and I stumbled into Acts 4: 32-35 as an example depicting financial obligation in the early church. (And I found a delightful article arguing that Christian attempts at "social Gospel" -- helping the poor and fighting social ills -- are based on "twisting and misunderstanding" how the finances of the early church worked in these verses). Here they are:

"All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need."

I'm not really clear how that's twistable. Umm. Well, that website was using the venerable King James for their quotes, so let's try there!

"And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need."

That's even more so! The New International Version I started with said that "from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them," whereas the KJV says that "as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them." Not just from time to time, as needed, but that everybody who owned something got rid of it upfront, and the funds were distributed to everyone.

Was the whole notion of "biblically"-based tithing, giving donations of 10% of one's income (a tax tradition going back to Babylon, if some people are to be believed), developed in order to avoid the implications of New Testament "communism"? Because it's obviously hard enough to get offerings out of people, much less get them to sell everything and put it into a common pot...

No comments: