Friday, November 18, 2011

Having the Tithe of My Life (2)

Malachi 3 - Robbing God
Now that I've discussed where I have been generally with this teaching, let's begin to explore where I am going.  Let's get started with what is arguably the best known passage of Scripture read from pulpits all over when it comes to tithing:  Malachi 3.

The following comes directly from a script I used to teach from in a seminar about Christian maturity in the section on giving: 
"The first practical way you give as a maturing Christian is to tithe, or give a tithe.  Tithe means a tenth.  Now, for millennia, and throughout Scripture, the tithe has served as the foundation for giving.  It is a basic, minimum level that all other giving is built upon.  This is really the first part of practical giving that we have to get down in this life." 

Then, with conviction, I would later add that refusing to tithe is stealing from God, and then immediately quote Malachi 3:8-10.  I even included fill-in-the-blank notes so the participants could write it down.  I must confess that I taught this interpretation of this Scripture at that time for one simple reason - it is the only one that had ever been presented to me.  Moreover, it was reiterated time and time again by pastors, books, ordination courses, etc.  I have heard this preached about and lectured on, and I had no reason to doubt that this interpretation was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the help me God!  As I stated earlier, I didn't (and still don't) teach anything that I didn't believe myself.

Before breaking this passage down, first I want to mention one basic, common sense reminder of an obvious fact.  There were no 501c3, IRS-designated non-profit organizations called "churches" in the Middle East in the first century, and especially not at the time of Malachi's prophecy!  The idea that any and all teachings about tithes in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, are automatically transferable to our current church structure in the West today is quite a leap, and even absurd in many cases.  After all, there is a reason Christian churches don't practice animal sacrifices today even though it is clearly a Biblical concept. We must consider the context of the teachings!  Second, I want to note the major difference between the passage I quoted in my class script above and the passage I referenced at the beginning of this post.  That difference is about 15 verses!  In other words, my past understanding of this passage always came from only three verses!  Taking the whole chapter into consideration, we might walk away with a different perspective, a new revelation.

For example, I had always thought that not tithing was what the verse referred to as "robbing God."  However, the text actually says that the robbing of God was occurring "IN tithes and offerings" (3:8).  I don't want to make any dogmatic claims about this reading.  I guess it could be taken either way, but I think we should be open to the idea that the tithes were indeed taking place and yet the people were
STILL robbing God!!  So, maybe we need to ask if there is more to the story.

What is the prophet talking about in the preceding verses?  Let's see...he brings up the Levites in verse 3, and talks about what constitutes righteous offerings and acceptable offerings as in the past (v. 3-4), and quite significantly, he condemns fraudalent and oppressive behaviors and reminds the readers/hearers that God's focus is on the laborers, widows, fatherless, and aliens (v. 5).

I want to be careful here not to imply too much.  The passage may honestly leave me with more questions than answers.  I don't think the passage instructs anyone not to tithe, so we can't walk away with a "free pass" based on these words.  I don't think the passage in any way whatsoever teaches people to give a tenth of their income to an organization.  I DO think that the passage is clearly grounded in the context of God being more than a little upset with the Israelites for not keeping His priorities in place.  I have to wonder if God's "beef" with Israel is not that they were not tithing, but perhaps that they were not using the tithe for its appropriate and intended purposes - to support justice and restoration for those with the greatest need.

And just for good measure, I will also add that I would be more cautious than many of my Christian friends about taking verse 10 to mean that God will pour out material blessings on us if we would just honor him by tithingThis "slot machine" theology is dangerous, and possibly worse, heretical.  We don't pay for God's grace or favor.  That would undo everything we understand to be so great about the gospel.

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