What did Jesus say about tithing?

What did Jesus say about tithing?

4158746991_d26df84219_zNot much, actually.  From the written record that survives, it seems he talked about tithing almost as little as he did about homosexuality (which is to say, not at all).  Actually, his one reference to tithing was a critical one, in Matthew 23, when he admonishes the Pharisees for giving ostentatiously while neglecting to pay attention to justice and mercy.

In my experience with “mainstream Protestant churches,” we don’t talk much about tithing either, probably because very few of us come anywhere close to the 10% standard that the word clearly means.  If you do some internet research on the topic, you’ll find hundreds of thousands of references — including a sizable number of essays that say tithing is an anachronism that doesn’t really make sense in our modern world.

But it’s also hard to deny that the Bible talks a lot about tithing — defined as giving, giving to the church, giving back to God, but GIVING — ten percent of your income.  And not just ten percent, but the first ten percent – the “first fruits” of your harvest, or your income.  And while not even the literalist interpreters agree on exactly what that means, it’s clear that the intention is to make giving more than an afterthought – to make it a priority, and a measurable portion of your budget, before making other commitments.

So, no, the scriptures don’t suggest that Jesus spent much time encouraging people to tithe ten percent.  No, Jesus said things like,  “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21).

And, “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven” (Luke 12:33).

And, “ In the same way, you must give up everything you have. Those of you who don’t cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33).   Those 33rd verses are real downers!

Certainly, I’m not one to build entire philosophies out of single out-of-context Bible verses.  My point here is simply that, if you’re looking for reasons to believe that the Old Testament prescription to give away 10% of your income is excessive and outdated and unrealistic, don’t look to the words or example of Jesus for help.

I do think that religious communities have a unique opportunity, based on the premise that we believe there’s something more to life than “he who dies with the most toys wins,” to make a transformational impact on society in terms of charitable giving.

Whether or not you want to be literal about ten percent, and whether or not it goes to the church or to other charities, those of us who believe in following the example of Christ have a calling to consider “giving” to be more than an afterthought.

And those of us who work and volunteer for the leadership of churches have the opportunity to reinforce that message with our members several times a month, and to demonstrate the outcome and benefit of that giving on a regular basis.  Here I’m not only talking about the obvious ministry of worship and children’s education which our society acknowledges as a social good, but especially the outreach that we do, feeding and clothing and caring for our neighbors.

Lots of charitable organizations that feed and clothe and care for people don’t have a weekly opportunity to have one of those recipients thank their donors!

Those of us in churches have an opportunity to “move the needle” in terms of how much our society shares with others.   As a society, Americans have given 2% of their income to all charities for as long as we’ve been tracking it (60 years).  Churches used to get half of it; now it’s about a third, but it’s still the largest chunk.  But that 2% hasn’t changed in six decades.   Cutting marginal tax rates from 91% to 71% to 28% didn’t increase giving at all.  Budging them back up to 35 % didn’t decrease it at all.  Government fiscal policy doesn’t move giving.  Caring moves giving.  People move giving.

My primary focus in this blog isn’t tithing or annual giving at all; it is for churches in particular and non-profits in general to start looking at estate gifts – gifts given out of a person’s accumulated lifetime wealth, not their annual renewable income or harvest – in a different way.

The same society that has kept a lid on giving at 2% for two generations has also taught us that the way to treat a large one-time gift given as a bequest is as a perpetual endowment – to invest it forever, generating pennies on the dollar for the advancement of your mission each year, until the end of time.

Those of us in churches have a unique opportunity to change that paradigm, too.  If we can embrace the notion of making giving a priority; of sharing something approaching 10% of our current income with others, before saving and spending the rest for ourselves …

Can’t we also maybe embrace the notion of sharing 10% or more of our estates with others, before passing on the rest of it to our children (who are in most cases also still creating their own income and wealth)?

And if every generation did that, then it wouldn’t be necessary or even desirable for an estate gift to be locked and buried in a magical endowment that generated a few pennies a year until the end of time.

No, Jesus didn’t say much about tithing, and he said even less about perpetual endowments.  But I’m reasonably sure that he wouldn’t sign off on a 4% return on investment.

About J. Ronald Newlin

Non-profit consultant, museum developer, historian, Episcopalian, blues/punk bassist
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