One of the best ways to understand the principles of biblical interpretation is to take an issue and apply the principles to it in order to get a better understanding of that issue. Take, for example, the question “Is tithing biblical?” What does that question mean? It certainly features in Scripture but the question is really about whether or not it is applicable to believers today. Although they are related issues, there is nevertheless a difference between tithing and financial giving. Is tithing merely described in Scripture or is it prescribed? Is there a discernible pattern in Scripture? How are we to understand the whole issue of financial giving, especially when this topic is a sensitive one and one which is exploited by some greedy, unscrupulous and so-called “spiritual leaders” today?
The Widow’s Offering (Mark 12:41-44)
This is not a parable. This is a real person observed by Jesus and commended by him. The liberal giving of this woman contrasts with the greed of the teachers who “devour widow’s houses.” (Mk.12: 40). She gives all for the Lord as the Lord gave all for us. He gives to us with an open hand, an abundance of grace, mercy, and kindness. He spared not his only Son. The setting is the court of women where both men and women were allowed to gather. This is where the temple treasury was located. Jesus sat down on a bench where he could watch people bring their offerings.
There were thirteen trumpet-shaped brass chests used for that purpose. It was not the rich with their large gifts that caught the Lord’s attention but this poor widow. Widows were poor and vulnerable and exploited by many unscrupulous scribes. She donated two of the smallest coins in circulation in Palestine at that time. The widow’s offering was greater in proportion as well as the spirit in which she gave. Jesus has something to say about the difference between superficial giving and sacrificial giving.
It is one thing to give in a formal manner out of a sense of obligation or duty but it is another thing entirely to give gladly. Giving should not be miserly, half-hearted or begrudging. Giving is an outward expression of inner faith. That is what giving to the work of the Lord is ~ an acknowledgment that all we have has come from his hand.
Those who understand the value of the work of God will give generously. God’s people should always be prepared to give liberally, voluntarily and cheerfully. Each of these qualities should feature in every gift to God. We may volunteer to give, yet not be cheerful about it. When God is our vision, everything else pales into insignificance. The apostle Paul states clearly how God views giving, “…whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor. 9:6-7). Christians are exhorted to open-handed giving. There should be no compulsion from the church and there should be no reluctance from us when it comes to giving.
It is one thing to desire God’s work to be done and even to pray fervently to that end but quite another thing to contribute financially to ensure that vision becomes a reality. It is the duty of all believers to support the work of the Lord. However, a word of caution is needed here. The believer must pray, pay and play! Making a financial contribution must not become a salve to our consciences. In giving we may be excusing ourselves from going ~ from playing our part in the work of God. That would be a bit like the wealthy being exempt from conscription in time of war. That may have been the case in some democracies, but it has no place in the divine plan.
In the church today, some people have substantial resources while others have very little. It is possible for wealthy people to be either generous or mean with what they have. The less well-off, however, are not invariably generous by nature. A person of limited means may be generous or have a miserly attitude. Meanness is probably less obvious in the case of the poorer person. It is wrong to make a virtue out of either poverty or wealth. The story of the widow’s offering draws attention to something important in relation to giving. Jesus commends what some might condemn as foolish. She gave all she possessed. We might think that unless such a person develops a more sensible approach to money-management they will be trapped in poverty forever. But that is not what the Lord says. Jesus said: “Truly, I say to you.” Jesus always told the truth, but whenever he uses this phrase he is asking his disciples (then and now) to pay particular attention to the truth being taught.
What exactly is the truth being emphasized here? I believe that what Jesus wants us to get hold of is this ~ there is a vast difference between superficial and sacrificial giving. This widow did not give from a surplus. There is nothing balanced or budgeted about her giving. It is not affordable. In fact, one could say it appears reckless. However, it reflects an attitude of total love and deep faith. There was nothing shallow or partial in the way she gave. Giving must never be tokenism dressed up as thanks.
It is a sad fact of life that wealth is a serious obstacle to true spirituality. Whether wealth is amassed through honest or dishonest means, one often finds that making money is the chief aim of wealthy people. It is something to which they may have dedicated their lives ~ a single-minded ambition, a number-one priority. Such self-made men and women are often proud and self-sufficient. They are confident in their own resources and, sadly, arrogant. These people are often the chiefs and bosses of their own commercial empires. They find it difficult to be humble. In the church, they sometimes find it difficult to follow, because they are not used to being led. Of course, the Holy Spirit can transform such people into what all of us should be ~ generous to those in need and willing and joyful supporters of the Lord’s work. A wealthy believer can make a significant contribution to the work of the local church. But even in doing this there is a danger that he sees himself as the paymaster and expects to call the shots. However, the idea that “he who pays the piper calls the tune” has no place in the church of Christ.
It should be remembered that God does not need our money to accomplish his purposes. Rather, he desires our cheerful willingness to give sacrificially rather than superficially. This is the biblical perspective, which needs to be preached without fear or favor. Sometimes those who can afford to contribute to a particular need say things like, “I don’t want to encourage idleness” or “I wouldn’t like to create false expectations.” They might argue that money won’t make any real difference and what is really required is better financial management and budgeting skills. On the face of it, this kind of reasoning makes sense because there is a good deal of truth in it. However, we need to be more compassionate than critical. Those who value money more than anything else are reluctant to part with it. We can rationalize our rationing but God expects us to give generously.
God is Generous
In the temple, Jesus observed what people were giving and he still does. He sees the motives, the excuses, and the sacrifice. One very good reason for showing generosity is that God himself is generous by nature. If we desire to be truly like him, then we should not neglect to be generous. God’s generosity is most evident in his willingness to cancel our great debt of sin. It is in the context of our own giving that Paul writes, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor. 8:9) The ledger has been balanced because he paid the price in full. Luke records the thinking of Jesus on this issue, “…give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” (Lk. 6:38) He pours a quart into a pint pot. Paul prays that the Ephesians “…may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:19) Inevitably, such filling will result in overflowing.
The Rich Young Ruler
The rich young ruler had done everything required by the Law, but he was unwilling to sell all that he had and give it to the poor. (Mt. 19:16-22) Ultimately, money meant more to him than obedience to the Master. Jesus could read his heart and knew how to touch the central issue. Some might suggest that Jesus’ demands are unreasonable and that few of us would be prepared to follow him on these terms. But unless we are prepared to do whatever Christ asks of us we cannot count ourselves as his disciples at all. When we consider the fact that the Lord loved us and spared not his only Son how can we ever give too much? The tithe seems a small offering of thanks. When we consider the quality of God’s love and his giving, it leaves us speechless and awestruck. These words capture something of how wonderful God’s giving love really is:
The Love of God
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.
Money is a sensitive subject. Money is essential. We depend upon it to provide the necessities of life. Money is important, but the world places too much emphasis on it. Money can be used for good ~ to provide for the needs of the kingdom of God, but it can be destructive. Paul told Timothy that, “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils.” (1 Tim. 6:10) The writer to the Hebrews said, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have.” (Heb. 13:5) Money must be used properly. Christians have a responsibility to use the resources given to them by God to further God’s kingdom upon the earth. When God’s people returned from seventy years of exile in Babylon they rebuilt the temple under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, “Some of the heads of families, when they came to the house of the LORD that is in Jerusalem, made freewill offerings for the house of God, to erect it on its site. According to their ability, they gave to the treasury of the work…”―Ezra 2:68-69.
We too have been delivered from captivity, and we have a duty and the privilege of building for God. When we invest our money in the kingdom of God, we also place our hearts there. When we invest our finances in the world, we tie our affections to things below and not things above. Jesus said:
Matthew 6:19-24 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; 21 for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
22 “The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is simple, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
24 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
Money can lead to terrible bondage, “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.” (Prov. 22:7) If we allow ourselves to fall into the slavery of debt, we are hindering our ability to follow the Lord properly. Often, our indebtedness prevents us from serving the Lord as he would have us serve. Money should be used to bring glory to God. When money is properly used to glorify the Lord, then the Lord will prove his power to provide for his people, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse…And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” (Mal. 3:8-11) When God is denied this opportunity, then the child of God has forfeited a great blessing.
Giving is a spiritual act. In this passage about the widow’s offering, Jesus observed people contributing their money to the temple treasury. Jesus is still watching people give. What would he say about our giving? There are sins of commission and sins of omission. Sin is not just the bad things we do it is also the good things we fail to do, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”―James 4:17.
Abram commenced tithing when he gave Melchizedek (priest/king) a tenth of everything. Jacob continued it. Jacob resolved to give a tithe (a tenth), “And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you” (Gen. 28:22). Malachi commanded it, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test…if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” (Mal. 3:10). Jesus condoned it, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Mt. 23:23) So tithing was commenced by Abram, continued by Jacob, commanded by Malachi and condoned by Christ. It was also commended by Paul, “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.”―1 Corinthians 16:2.
We cannot say that tithing (a tenth) is commanded in Scripture and binding on believers. However, it is clear from this that some form of continuous giving applies to Christians. This is one of the easiest places to neglect our duty, but it is also one of the most practical areas to prove our faith. We cannot fail to notice the promise of God in Malachi to those who give to God. We cannot fail to notice how God rewarded Jacob, “…for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.” (Gen. 32:10) There is an inescapable pattern here. But many preachers are afraid to preach it because of some who have distorted the truth in what has come to be known as, “the prosperity gospel.”
The Matter, Manner, and Measure of Giving
Jesus condemned the superficial giving of some when he commended the sacrificial giving of the widow’s offering. We do not give in order to gain. We do not give to God because he is needy. We give in thankfulness for his faithfulness. There are some basic reasons why people do not tithe. Some people simply do not understand the place that giving holds in the lives of believers. Some simply refuse to obey the Lord and do not give even though they know they should.
God has a rightful claim to our resources. All that we have belongs to God. It is not just ten percent that belongs to God it is one-hundred-percent. We need to examine ourselves about the matter, the manner and the measure of our giving. As the metal coins were cast into these trumpets, they made a loud noise and the more money that was cast in, the louder the sound. Those who wanted to put on a show could easily do so. This was a practice that was condemned by Jesus:
Matthew 6:2 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
2 “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be glorified by men. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward in full.
When the widow gave her two small coins, they sounded small compared to the offerings of the rich. But this widow’s testimony still stands as a great example of sacrificial giving. The tithe is a fair way of giving proportionately. We do not all give the same sum of money but the same percentage, and it is sanctified by the Lord, “Every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the LORD’s; it is holy to the LORD.”―Leviticus 27:30.
Tithing did not originate with the Law. Abel brought the Lord the first-fruits of his flocks (Gen. 4:4). Four-hundred-and-thirty years before the Law was given Abraham offered the Lord a tithe of all his increase (Gen. 14:20). We are not to give only when we have a windfall or some excess or unexpected bonanza. We are not to give only out of guilt ~ out of conviction, yes! People who give out of a sense of guilt stop doing so when the feeling of guilt stops. If you are wondering whether the tithe (ten percent) refers to gross pay (before tax and other deductions) or net pay (after tax and other deductions), I can’t help you there. Ask the Lord about it.
We are to give of our first-fruits. When we make the first part holy, then the rest becomes holy as well, “If the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, so is the whole lump, and if the root is holy, so are the branches.” (Rom. 11:16). When we tithe, we are declaring that everything else belongs to the Lord as well. We are to consider not just the matter of giving (i.e., the fact that we should give) we are also to consider the manner of our giving (i.e., cheerfully). But we must also consider our motives. The trumpets must have sounded very impressive when a large donation was given. They impressed men, but the widow’s offering impressed the Lord. It is not the sum of money that makes the offering worthy. It is the heart of the giver. We should give from thankful hearts. We should give cheerfully, “God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Cor. 9:7). We should give liberally. We are not to be stingy when it comes to giving to the Lord’s work or his people.
God blesses us in proportion to the level of our giving.× I know that might sound controversial but, “…whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” (2 Cor. 9:6). The context of this verse is financial giving. Remember Jesus said, “…give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”―Luke 6:38.
× We almost did not publish this article based on this very wrong and unbiblical statement. The rest of the article should not be set aside over one misinformed statement, so we opted for a note. The apostle Paul tells us that “each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly [or reluctantly] or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” – 2 Corinthians 9:7
There will be some who will protest that they cannot afford to give. That is not true! Regardless of what comes into our lives, we can always give. We cannot afford not to give. We should give sacrificially. If you wait to start giving until you have plenty, you will face two problems. First, you might never get to where you think you have plenty. Second, if you do have extra, it will seem like too much to give. The rich gave out of their surplus, but the widow gave all that she had. That got the Lord’s attention! It still does!
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 Some of this is extracted from Kieran Beville, Journey with Jesus through the Message of Mark, (Cambridge, Ohio: Christian Publishing House, 2015). Used here with permission.
 Frederick M. Lehman, 1917. This third verse is by Rabbi Mayer, 1096, which was anonymously altered. It was penciled on the wall of a room in an insane asylum by a patient. The profound lines were discovered when they laid him in his coffin.