Based on Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18
I grew up listening to debates about tithing. Do you tithe 10% of your gross or 10% of your net? Do you tithe even when it might cause financial ruin, trusting that God will provide, or do you give less until your finances stabilize? Is tithing merely a nice goal to work toward, growing your giving at a steady pace until you reach 10%, or is it a mandate that’s inflexible?
I think of those questions like the farmer who heard Leviticus might think of gleaning. That practice, to leave the edges of fields unharvested for the poor and the sojourner to gather, is something we mimic on fourth Sundays like this as our children go around and gather money for the backpack ministry. Gleaning was a unique practice to ancient Israel, a command by God to love your neighbors by leaving something for the destitute to ensure that all members of society have access to a basic human right: food.
But in my mind’s eye, the farmer hears the reading of Leviticus in temple and goes home thinking to himself, “How big are the edges of my field supposed to be?”
Leviticus doesn’t say. It commands gleaning, but the question of how much to leave for the destitute is real because the farmer doesn’t want to become destitute himself. Farmers then, as now, have to think about the income they’ll receive from the yield of their crop. That income puts food on the table, replaces equipment as it breaks, repairs houses and barns and other facilities, allows for provision for the farmer’s family. The farmer must support the farm, and his family, and pay taxes, and then, for the farmer in the time of Leviticus, must also pay a tithe to the temple and leave the edges of his fields unharvested.
How small can he leave the edges of his field and still be in compliance with the law? For this farmer, the question is not a question of greed, but a question of subsistence. How little can he leave for the destitute so that he doesn’t become destitute himself. Just how big are the edges of his field supposed to be?
That’s how I felt as I sat in church, knowing I couldn’t afford to tithe, but thinking that I was supposed to. When we started going back to church eight years ago, I felt like we should give something, but our finances were stretched thin. We’d just purchased a car we shouldn’t have, we had a baby on the way with all the corresponding health care bills and stuff to purchase, and I couldn’t see how we could tithe.
A tithe for us, at that time, would have been $400 per month, becoming the second largest expense in our budget after our mortgage payment. With the car payment, paying bills and buying stuff to get ready for Jack Jack, and all the regular expenses of life, there was no way we could find $400/mo to give to the church.
So, we gave just a little here and there as we had a few dollars in cash on us. Every Sunday, as the offering plate passed, I felt guilty. I thought we should be tithing, but I couldn’t tithe; we couldn’t afford it. When I put a few dollars cash in the plate, even that felt like a sacrifice some months when I had no idea how we were going to make our household budget.
I wasn’t greedy, like the farmer, the question for me was one of subsistence. I just needed to make sure that we kept our house and our car, that we kept the lights on and the heat running, that we could provide for all that Jack Jack would need when he came into the world. That isn’t greed; that’s basic financial self-care. Could God really be demanding that I give 10% arbitrarily, regardless of the financial needs of my household? Can God really be demanding that of us all?
Like the farmer asking how big the edges of his fields are supposed to be, we’re left wondering, “how much am I supposed to give to the church?”
For centuries, the answer to that question has been simple: give a tithe; 10% of your earnings. This practice is even older than the church itself; it comes to us from Old Testament times.
The law commanded that the ancient Israelites bring a tenth of whatever they produced to the temple. This was above and beyond whatever they brought for other kinds of offerings: like offerings to atone for sins. The tithe had two roles: to remind the people that everything they had ultimately belonged to God and to finance the temple.
Priests and Levites, those who worked the temple, didn’t eat unless people tithed their wheat, grapes, and other foods they produced. Those who did not produce tangible goods, or those who lived too far from the temple to bring their tithe in, had to pay 15% of the cash value of whatever they produced or whatever income they took in; in other words, they were assessed a 5% penalty for paying cash instead of bringing in their goods.
In theory, the tithe in the Old Testament was first and foremost for religion: reminding the people that they owed everything to God and providing for the dietary needs of those who worked at the temple.
In practice, the tithe very often was embezzled by kings and religious leaders. For the ruling class, the tithe was a way to raise funds for building projects around the nation, to pay for the army, or to fill the King’s coffers. Priests would even sell off the tithe they received at high prices, yielding great wealth for the temple and thus for the state, for there was no separation between temple and state; they were often one and the same. The tithe turned into a tax as it became increasingly integral to the economy of ancient Israel, most often put to secular, not religious, purposes.
Prophets, most notably the prophet Amos, criticized this misappropriation of the faithful giving of the people. In chapter 4, verse 4, Amos condemns the tithe, saying that it does them absolutely no good with God, for God recognizes that the leadership of the nation has embezzled, stolen, from the LORD. By the time of Jesus, little has changed. Jesus condemns the pharisees as they tithe one day, telling them that God knows their hearts aren’t in their tithe, that they’re just giving to look good and out of rote obedience.
Jesus is clear, echoing Amos, giving is an affair of the heart, not a ritual of rote obedience. Which is perhaps why Jesus never gives any answer to our question: “How much am I supposed to give to the church?”
Intriguingly, for all his talk of money, this moment with the pharisees is the only time Jesus speaks of a tithe. The epistles, including Paul, never mention tithing as a practice nor as a command. Paul has much to say about taking up collections for the churches around the Roman Empire, about giving generously out of a thankful and joyful heart to support the work of the church for their neighbors, but he never speaks of giving a tithe. Hebrews speaks of a tithe, but only as a metaphor to demonstrate how Abraham was obedient with his time and his spririt, not with his money.
Point being, there is no New Testament command to tithe. There is no command on the church to tithe. Tithing is an Old Testament practice that neither Jesus, nor the early church leaders, endorsed. It was not, according to scripture, the mechanism by which the early church collected revenues to support the widows and persecuted of the Roman Empire.
Which is odd, considering that the traditional answer to the question, “How much am I supposed to give to the church?” Is to tithe!
Tithing can be a faithful way for folks to give of their offering at church. For many raised in the church, tithing is a habit that’s engrained and brings joy, and this morning if that describes you, there’s no need to upend your habit. Thank you for your regular and generous giving to the church.
But if tithing does not describe you this morning, or if you’re not currently giving to the church at all, I submit that tithing is not the only way to consider how to give to the church. The way I prefer to think about giving is the practice of gleaning, just as our children demonstrate for us every fourth Sunday and just like our farmer from the beginning of the sermon; the one who heard Leviticus read in the temple and wondered how big the edges of his fields needed to be.
But unlike the farmer who asked how big the edges had to be, the question before us as we glean our finances is: how big can I make the edges?
Like the farmer leaving the edges of his fields for the poor and immigrant, in the modern practice of gleaning, we keep the edges of our financial fields unharvested to give away to others. We set aside some percentage of our income, or some fixed amount, that we give on a regular basis to churches and organizations that further Christ’s work on earth. We glean the edges of our financial fields, as large as we can make them, in order to finance Christ’s work on earth.
It’s a subtle shift, from how big do they have to be to how big can they be, but that subtle shift makes all the difference. The first question, how big do they have to be, asks a question of the head: how do I comply with the law, how to I ensure that I am obedient? The second question, how big can the edges be, is a question of the heart: out of gratitude for God’s provision and love for my neighbor, how much can I afford to give?
At moments in life, the edge might be 1%, small, because that’s all we can afford to give. At other times in life, the edge might be 20%, or 50%, or even greater. Because giving is an affair of the heart, God cares more about the attitude with which we give than the amount of the gift itself.
That’s what gleaning is all about: joyfully leaving unharvested as much of the edges of our financial fields as we can for the care of our neighbors. Giving should come, should be inspired by, the love of God and love of neighbor. If that’s where our hearts are, then we give as God has asked: with joy that our finances can help further the mission of the church. The question is not how much we’re supposed to give, nor how big the edges have to be, but whether or not we’re giving out of love for God, love for neighbor, and love for our church.
For me, learning to think of giving this way freed me from the guilt I experienced eight years ago as the offering plate went by. I heard a sermon on giving, suggesting that it was an affair of the heart, and that God wants us to give from a grateful heart, to further the work of the church, no matter the amount. I went home, pulled up our household budget, and figured out what we could afford: $40/mo, or 1% of our budget at the time. Faithfully, we gave $40/mo to the church; the size of our financial edges was a mere 1%, but we made that commitment because we wanted to return thanks to God for the blessings in our lives and because we believed in the work of our church.
Over the years, we have made a habit of seeking to increase that giving. Sometimes, as our incomes have risen and we have paid off debts, we’ve been able to make large increases. Sometimes, we’ve made only minor increases as we felt led to do so by the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, like the time I took a $12,000 salary cut, we have severely cut our giving. The question before us was: how big can we make the edges of our finances? That answer has changed as our finances have changed, from a low of 1% to a high of 15%, but the attitude has remained the same: love of God and love of neighbor led to giving as much as we could afford, gleaning as much of our financial fields as we felt we could from the love of God for us and our neighbors.
I say love of God and love of neighbor because that’s how our scripture talks about what it means to be holy. As the scripture opens, God calls on the people to be holy just as God is holy, a tall order to be sure. But after all the regulations, after all the talk of money, God says simply, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” This is what it means to be holy: to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s just like Jesus said, the two greatest commandments are love God and love your neighbor.
It’s from that love of God and love of neighbor that God desires we give. Through Christ, God has created the church to be the outpost of the Kingdom of God; a little bit of heaven stuck in the middle of the world. We are that outpost, we desire to reach out to our community, loving on them, serving them, walking the journey of life together through thick and thin. Just like our bulletins say on the front cover every week, our mission is to share life together with Christ, each other, and Dodge County. Sharing life is our mission’s way of saying love your neighbor.
Your giving enables us, as a church, to love our neighbor. When you give in the offering plate, you finance the ministry of this church. When you give in the offering plate, you finance the ministry of this Annual Conference. When you give in the offering plate, you enable the worldwide United Methodist Church to do its kingdom building work in Africa, the Philippines, Russia, and right here in Eastman, GA. For the need around us is great. Our neighbors have great needs and could use our gleaning, just like the poor and immigrant in our scripture this morning.
So our challenge is this: how big can you make the edges of your financial fields? The question is an invitation, not an obligation. If it feels obligatory, the challenge then is to go home and pray, asking God to reveal to you what holds you back from giving to the church out of love for God and love for neighbor.
If, however, the challenge to ask how big you can make the edges of your financial fields sounds like an invitation, prayerfully consider how much you can contribute, how large the edges of your financial fields can be.
And know that there’s a blessing that comes when we choose to give. No matter how big or small the edges of your financial fields are, God’s expectation is that we give something and God’s gift is that a blessing comes as a result. That blessing isn’t always financial, but it’s there nevertheless, encouraging us and strengthening our faith. For when we give out of love for God and love for neighbor, we experience the boomerang effect of that love returning to us, often in powerful and unexpected ways.
God doesn’t care if the edge of our financial fields is 1% or 10% or 100%, the question is not how much we’re supposed to give, but how much we can give with love in our hearts for God and neighbor. God’s desire is that we give from a loving and joyful heart so that we as a church can care for our neighbors.
Giving is an affair of the heart. In love, God has given to us, and in love, we have the opportunity, the invitation, to give back. This morning, ask not how much you’re supposed to give, but, out of love and thanksgiving, how much can you give?
Glean generously and with joy.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.