Summary: Giving as a response to God’s love.
You’ve heard it said sometimes that a person “knows just enough to be dangerous.” That doesn’t necessarily mean a person is learning to be violent, it just means that when we know a little bit about something, we might do something we would never do if we knew more. This was clearly the case with me before I went into ministry when I was working as a lay person in a church in Florida.
My issue was with the offering. I had no issue with taking up the offering or with giving. My family trained me to give ten percent of my income when I was a teenager and I have always kept that up gladly. My issue was the practice of putting the offering plates on the altar after the plates were full. The little bit of knowledge I had told me that the altar was where important things went, and it seemed to me that we were glorifying money when we put the plates on the altar.
That thought grew and grew in my mind until I could hardly stand it. We were worshiping money, I thought. It’s not right. So I began to complain, loudly. I got others on my side, and I’m sure the pastor must have prayed nightly for something to happen to me in my sleep. Finally, I voiced my complaint to one woman in the church who simply said, “Oh, I just always assumed that since the altar was the place of sacrifice, that’s where the money we sacrifice to God should go.” Bingo. The light shone and the pastor rested well from that point onward.
I had a little bit of information...the altar was where important things go. But I didn’t have the greater information about the altar as a place of sacrifice...a place of offering; and that other information made all the difference. Now I’m the one who puts the plates on the altar, and I really like doing it. I like lifting them up to God as our offering.
Remembering the struggle I had and knowing the struggles we all have around issues of money, I decided to do some teaching this morning on what the offering is and does. Its roots go way back in the Old Testament to the time when Israel was formed as a nation. There were 12 different tribes that made up the nation of Israel...and really, the whole nation was related since the 12 tribes were the descendants of the twelve sons of one man.
When the 12 tribes came into the land of Canaan...what is now Palestine...eleven of the twelve tribes were given land to settle. The twelfth tribe, the tribe of Levi, was not given any land. They were given a job instead. God told Moses that the tribe of Levi was to spend all its time and energy taking care of the tabernacle, which was the moveable tent that later became the Temple. In Christian language, the tribe of Levi was told they were to work full time in the church.
Because of that, they would have no time left over to grow crops or herd animals and would therefore have no food and no way to provide for their families. But church workers deserved their wages just as much as others, so God came up with the idea of the tithe. God said to the other eleven tribes...okay, the Levites are performing an important service. They are making sure that the worship of God stays active and true in the community. Since that takes all their time, the rest of you need to bring ten percent of everything you get to them so they can provide for themselves and for their families. That’s what a tithe is...giving ten percent for the support and maintenance of the church and its workers.
And no cheating, says God. Don’t bring the leftover sour stuff for the Levites. Farmers, bring ten percent of your best crops. Shepherds, don’t go bringing diseased animals...bring the good ones, the best ones. And so the practice of the tithe began. People brought tithes and they also brought offerings, which were additional gifts, above and beyond the tithe to help the poor and needy. That is why each Sunday when I ask the ushers to come forward, I instruct them to bring their tithes and offerings. They are distinct things...tithes support the maintenance of the church and the offerings are given to those in need.
That was still the system in Jesus’ day, and after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the early church gave it still more meaning. In the early days of the church, after Jewish Christians had been booted from the synagogues and before the church was established as an institution, there wasn’t really anything like the Temple to be maintained. “The church” was simply gatherings of people in different homes where they studied together, told the good news about Jesus, and shared in a meal together...which they brought, potluck.