Tithing Blinders

John 2: 13-22, Exodus 20: 1-17

Passover. Crowds converging. Population triples in Jerusalem

Pilgrims travel and arrive to pray, tithe and sacrifice.

Peddlers offer animals of sacrifice at high prices – taking an opportunity to make an extra buck.

Sheep, Cattle, doves and money changers fill the temple.

Jesus. Anger. Whip. Tables overturned.

People are chased out of the temple.

Sheep and oxen – driven out.

Coins of money changers are scattered.

Those who sell doves are told to get out.

Authorities question – but Jesus’ response only creates mis-understanding.

Disciples remember.

Jesus has de-civilized and re-earthed the temple.

This story – according to Wes Howard Brook – is to be read together with the preceding story of the wedding feast at Cana where water gets turned into wine. The Cana story reveals God’s offer of abundant new life through the image of “overflowing wine and wedding joy”. In contrast, the temple cult is a threat to this new life and Jesus challenges this existing order that does not provide either abundance or joy (Barkley Commentary, New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary).

In the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the cleansing of the temple takes place at the end of Jesus’ ministry and is the catalyst in the plot to kill Jesus. John’s placement of the story at the beginning of his ministry brings into focus Jesus’ authority as the son of God.
The mood of the story is one of urgency, haste and intensity as Jesus’ actions are provocative. Jesus takes center stage – leading the people out of the scarcity and captivity of the temple cult.  Coming to the Passover celebration in Jerusalem would have been a loud, busy and crowded
experience as every male within 15 miles was required to come to pray, sacrifice and pay the tithe. The tithe was to be paid so that worship rituals could take place in the temple everyday. Those people living further away also made an effort to come to Jerusalem bringing their foreign currency, which was considered unclean. The money changers charged extra for the exchange so that the tithe could be paid with the “approved” temple currency. Animals bought for sacrifice outside the temple were often rejected because of imperfections and blemishes. Poor pilgrims were exploited by having to buy animals inside the temple at an increased cost.

Jesus would have had multiple problems with the rule-oriented nature of the temple system. His actions challenge the rules and practices of tithing and sacrifice. He viewed God’s house as being desecrated, that the uproar of market activities that filled the gentile court would have prevented anyone from being able to pray and saw animal sacrifice as no longer relevant. Jesus comes into the temple and turns Melanie things upside down and inside out. For 1 person to accomplish the feat of ejecting all the people and animals out of the temple- would have been seen as a miracle.

Jesus speaks directly to the dove sellers, as doves were the animal of the poor – naming the exploitation. STOP – making my Father’s house into a house of commerce. Here Jesus identifies God as his father for the first time. Jesus’ response to the authorities, after they demand a sign – was seen as foolish and ridiculous – I will raise the temple up again in 3 days. His disciples on the other hand see evidence of the prophecies coming true. Jesus confronts the whole system, not just its abuses – making the lavish rites of temple worship irrelevant. He disrupts the most significant feast so no sacrifices or tithes could be offered. Jesus challenges the rules and practices of tithing as they no longer open a fresh revelation from God.

In a recent gathering with other SMC’ers talking about economic perspectives, we looked at this text and named our questions. We named our difficulty in relating and participating in “the system”, noting we are often blinded by our participation in it. As Jesus challenges the system, we too live in a system that needs confronting. Our questions pointed towards its scarcity and our fear in trying to live differently. The reality is that we trust a system that cannot provide what we need, our global economy cannot provide enough for all. In contrast, all will eat and be satisfied in God’s economy. Ched Meyers describes our affinity with the system and inability to live without it as a compulsion (can’t imagine doing things differently) and powerlessness (what can one person do?) – “we are possessed by our possessions and held hostage to private ownership and control”. He challenges us to socially relocate to live/work in proximity to the disenfranchised in order to view the world from that space. To think of alternatives to private ownership and practice consumer celibacy.
I have never heard anyone critique tithing as something that should be an obsolete practice of the church. Tithing may have been something I learned from my family of origin – that giving 10% of your income to the church is what you do – you just do it. I don’t really know how other people decide how much to give to the church, but the tithe has been a practice of the church for centuries. Stuart Murray’s opening line in Beyond Tithing – suggests that some people think, “ the church is always after our money.” He goes on to critique tithing as “unChristian” and believes the church is overly reliant on tithing to cover expenses. He believes tithing blinds us from practicing more justly because we think we’re doing enough by giving 10% of our income.

Although there may be evidence of it’s practice in the Old Testament – it was never practiced by the early church. Murray states that tithing became a compulsory, obligatory practice of Christendom and was instituted to maintain status quo. It continued to ensure that people were paid and buildings maintained. In fact, the tithe, along with church tax exemptions, helped the church to increase in wealth and power.
Anabaptists in the 16th C. out of protest, did not practice or teach the tithe. Tithing was associated with taxation which went to support war. They advocated for a more just distribution of resources and criticized the wealth of the state churches. A quote from Menno Simons, states that, the church has “their coffers filled…while the poor beg for bread at their doors” (p.165). The anabaptists practiced simplicity, holding things in common, economic sharing and mutual aid. The role of deacon was giving a prominent place as they cared for the poor.

Murray believes the tithe can only be properly understood in its context of the Jubilee system in the Old Testament. He states there are many things wrong with the tithe used in this current age, including: “the unreliable biblical interpretation, history of oppression and bias against the poor, the dubious theology, pastoral difficulties, the tendency of churches that advocate tithing to devote most of their income to their own needs; the false sense of security and difficulty of seeing anything else in the Bible about giving and sharing while we wear the tithing blinkers” (p.217).

Standing by itself, the tithe does not contribute to the larger upside down vision of Jesus’ Jubilee that was good news to the poor. Murray hopes that the Jubilee model will graduate the church from tithing to consider more just/creative ways of thinking and practicing. New Testament economic alternatives to tithing include Jubilee and Koinonia.

In the Jubilee year – land was redistributed, debts cancelled and slaves were released so that wealth could not be concentrated in the hands of a few. It reminded Israel that they owned nothing and what they had was held in trust from the Lord (p,197). Our Exodus reading today – reminds us of the command for Sabbath rest, this day of rest disrupts our attempt to control nature and the forces of production. We must remember that the earth belongs to God. The feast days and sabbath days created a pattern of work stoppage, and a reminder that God provides enough. While the tithe was a obligatory, fixed percentage required by everyone. Jubilee, although, inconsistently practiced, brought a paradigm of new beginning and new hope (reminiscent of the wedding feast at Cana). In the early church’s practice of Jubilee – there was no needy person among them.

Koinonia was also a practice of the early church which described the community of fellowship, communion, intimacy, and joint participation, it also referred to economic terms of crowd-funding and business partnerships. The sharing of resources was distributed by the deacons in an effort to work towards increased equality – where there were givers and receiver, but not rich and poor distinctions. Koinonia was voluntary not compulsory, enthusiastic, celebratory, generous and yet far more demanding than the tithe as people gave beyond their ability. Koinonia also reflected a larger sharing between churches. Murray, critiques churches lack of sharing by stating, “the present distribution of resources is, from a mission perspective, both unjust and bizarre, with huge resources gathering interest in church bank accounts or wasted on expensive new church buildings, while there is minimal investment of resources in the areas of greatest need and greatest opportunity.” Where Koinonia is community sharing, the tithe is individual. Where the tithe was not threatening to those with wealth and power, Koinonia and Jubillee is very threatening.

God’s foolishness challenges us beyond status quo…to abundance. Let us take off our tithing blinders. Ched Meyers challenges the churches – “If our NA churches are to advocate for redistributive justice for the poor, we will have to cease mirroring the dominant culture of global capitalism, with its empty promises of upward mobility and trickle-down justice”. Talking about God’s economy is critical for us as we take a deeper look at managing the Thieme fund and consider our own congregational giving. What are we really doing together? Our Spiritual
Leadership Team is encouraging this broader discussion grounded in an understanding of scripture. In gathering resources to consider our approach to this conversation, I looked through SMC’s library and came up with only a few books. We have already named in our church structure that Stewardship is important to us – so I would invite any of you who want to be a part of the conversation or add to the list
of resources to let me know. We will be gathering again at the end of the month. A four week series in the Easter season will continue to look at economics to help us in our discernment and larger questions:

How can we order economic practices in the church and our personal lives in such a way that we give testimony with power to the resurrection of Jesus? (Richard Hayes – The Moral Vision of the New Testament)
How are we challenged by God’s foolishness, and being turned upside down and inside out?

How are we already participating in God’s foolishness? What about these headlines?

  • teacher goes the extra mile to affirm a student
  • doctor recognizes the emergency room’s revolving door and supports the development of medical respite for people to heal
  • lawyer raises arguments to name injustice of sending undocumented newcomers home – preventing the system from tearing families apart.
  • couple decides to invite homeless man to live with them after he is hit by a car
  • volunteers use vacation time to rebuild homes destroyed by disaster
  • women cut pieces of cloth in order to painstakingly stitch pieces of cloth back together – creating an art piece to raise money for overseas relief and development.
  • youth use penny power as a way to contribute to the work of the Mennonite Central Committee.
  • church buys property – sets aside land to ensure that one day space is available for marginalized people to live
  • church takes action as shareholders to transform corporate practices of mining
  • church sells property, not for a profit, but rather to house veterans and create a place of hospitality.
  • circle of support forms around known sex offender
  • Jubilee campaigns fight for living wages
  • Debt relief for developing countries is called for
  • More Just practices contribute to environmental sustainability
  • People subversively resist capitalism by bartering or giving items away on neighborhood buy-nothing websites

Let us turn the tables of competition, power, ego, ambition, and greed to instead use tools of collaboration, compassion, humility, simplicity, creativity, sharing and love. Amen.