As we all know, good Christians tithe.
And really good Christians tithe on their gross.
Which is interesting, in that tithing was prescribed for an agrarian society where they primarily tithed on animals and crops.
Of course, you had to tithe to the Lord's accredited representatives, which meant the priesthood and the temple.
How all this translates across to cheques, automatic bank deductions, ATMs in church foyers and non-levitical preachers with their manicured hands stretched out to garner the Lord's increase is a bit of a mystery. I mean, where do they get the authority to do that?
And could somebody please explain to me why Jews today - in the absence of a central temple and priesthood - don't tithe? Oh, hang on, no temple or priesthood... yeah, I get it.
Then, there's also the uncomfortable fact that, even when the Jerusalem temple was standing, Jews in the diaspora didn't tithe. There was no point. How were they supposed to get all that perishable produce back to Jerusalem? Instead there was a custom called the 'temple tax' (based on Exodus 30:13).
Monetary tithing 21st century style? Didn't happen.
Somehow this simple logic seems to have escaped the prosperity preachers who happily get prosperous by laying a non-biblical tithing burden on their credulous flocks. They, naturally, don't want ten percent of the potatoes in your back yard garden. They want currency!
To be brutally frank, the tithing merchants target vulnerable, often poorly educated people, high on aspiration but low on worldly nous. That's not a put down; after all I once bought into that whole empretzeled proof text method too.
This reality was brought home to me just this Sunday morning as I drove past the local UCKG 'Help Centre' (an incongruous name if ever there was one) as worshipers were leaving. UCKG is a Brazilian-based tithing sect, and the good folk emerging from the building were clearly not at the top end of the socioeconomic demographic. On their website it states: "The tithe is ten percent (10%) of all income, and it belongs to God. This is a very ancient practice followed by God-fearing people everywhere."
Well, actually not.
I have the late Ernest L. Martin to thank for first exploding the tithing myth for me. Martin was a professor of theology at Ambassador College, Pasadena. He walked from there in the 1970s, setting up his own ministry and publishing, among other things, an influential rebuttal of tithing as a Christian practice. A version of his booklet is still available online.
The problem was that Martin was still at heart an apologist with a pre-critical understanding of the Bible. That was no bad thing when communicating with like-minded folk, like myself, who shared that approach. But the years have rolled by, and hopefully those of us who were alive and kicking back then have all grown and matured a bit. The old biblicist assumptions no longer hold sway over many of us now, so, what about the tithing question once we've stripped away the fundamentalist mind set?
All of which is a lead-in to a posting by Scott Bailey on his Scotteriology blog. It sets the scene in the province of Yehud in the days Malachi, and of Persian imperial policy. There's a lengthy background (a bit tedious but necessary) in setting out the political realities of Malachi's time (and that oft quoted verse in Malachi 3:10). If you don't feel up to the detail we can skip all the way to the conclusion:
...these texts come from a certain socio-historical and cultural context. To try and take them and make them normative for today doesn’t just misunderstand the original context and intent of the text, it misuses it for alternative purposes.Which just about says it all.