The following article is a fuller version of the piece that first appeared in Next-wave. As well as Jesus and the nonviolent revolution, this article has been heavilly influenced by John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus and Stuart Murray's Beyond Tithing.
Though I began to follow Christ over 14 years ago, I can still remember the first sermon I heard after I became a Christian. The text was Malachi 3:10 and the sermon was a call to tithing as an expression of radical Christian commitment. As eager converts are prone to do, I lapped up every word of it and became a fiery advocate for tithing.
A year or so later, I wrote to the pastor of the church to inform him that God was withholding blessings from our church because we had failed to continue emphasising and obeying the command of Mal. 3:9-10:
"You are under a curse - the whole nation of you - because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the Lord Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have enough room for it."
What I failed to notice is the explicit Jewish context of Malachi 3 and the fact that this whole passage is addressed to the 'descendants of Jacob.' God charges his people with failure to live up to their covenant obligation to care for the Temple in Jerusalem. I also missed that the rewards offered to the nation if she did tithe were a repetition of God's covenant promises to the people of Israel. There is simply no getting away from the Old Covenant context of the book of Malachi.
Today, I no longer tithe, nor encourage those in our church to do so. In fact, I would echo the words of Stuart Murray in saying that tithing may be biblical, but it is not Christian. The problems with advocating tithing as a Christian discipline are numerous:
-It seems that the Hebrews were expected to bring two tithes every year, with a third 10% every three years, givng a total of 22%.
- Tithing was an essential part of an intricate economic system and does not work well when removed from that context, which also included Jubilee, tithing one's possessions (not just income) and care of strangers, widows and orphans.
- The tithe functioned in Israel like a tax, not a voluntary offering (hence, "robbing" God in Malachi 3:10). - Nowhere are followers of Jesus encouraged to tithe, nor is the Old Testament practice used as an example to encourage a similar practice in the church.
- Tithing is unjust: 10% is not enough for the rich and too much for the poor.
As an example of this latter point, Donald Kraybill argues that someone 'earning $10,000 a year gives $1,000 and retains $9,000. The person earning $100,000 gives $10,000 and can live extravagantly on $90,000... It's not important that one family gives $1,000 and another gives $10,000. What is important is that one family struggles to make ends meet with $9,000, while another family self-righteously spends $90,000 lavishly because, after all, "they have tithed".'
For this reason and others I can no longer advocate tithing. It is not that I have a problem with giving or want to cling scrooge-like to my pennies. It is that the practice of tithing is not radical enough for followers of Christ. Instead, I believe that the Christian approach to giving finds its impetus and its fullest expression in the life and teachings of Christ.
This belief was powerfully brought home to me some time ago, when I read a small booklet by Andre Trocme, entitled Jesus and the non-violent revolution. It completely shook my world and forced me to re-evaluate everything that I thought I knew about Christ and being a disciple. The rest of this article is a brief summary of his views and how they might be applied to the topic of giving.
At the commencement of his ministry, Jesus stood up in the synagogue in his home town and delivered what might be called his Nazareth Manifesto:
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour." (Luke 4:18-20)
Sitting down, with every eye now on him, he then gave the punch-line: "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." Jesus was announcing that he would proclaim and put into effect the year of the Lord's favour, the year of Jubilee.
According to Leviticus 25, the fiftieth year was to be a year of release and freedom. All debts were to be cancelled, all slaves released and wealth redistributed with land being restored to its original owners. The Jubilee law was aimed at preventing the accumulation of capital in the hands of a few and reminding the Israelites that everything they thought they owned actually belonged to the Lord. Unsurprisingly, the Jubilee was rarely applied. However, it did inspire a prophetic hope and challenge that God would one day act on behalf of those that had been denied justice. Then Jesus arrived demanding that the Law be put into immediate effect - "today." In doing so, he was announcing the implementation of a new order characterised by liberty for the oppressed and a radical redistribution of wealth.
We see this emphasis being spelt out a number of times in the gospels. The Lord's Prayer assumes that the disciples of Jesus would release all those indebted to them (Mt. 6:9-13). The parable of the merciless servant challenges those who would accept the benefits of jubilee, without themselves practicing it (Mt. 18:23-35). Likewise, the story of the rich young ruler is not about a rich man who didn't get into heaven, but a ruler who refused to bless the poor with jubilee, thus failing to enter into the new regime Jesus was implementing (Mt. 19:16-26).
We are not accustomed to reading these scriptures politically or economically. We usually limit their sphere to the forgiveness of sins, but I would argue that their theme is debt in its widest sense, with "sin" seen as one of the debts that we owe (or must release/be released from).
Putting it into practice
The early church didn't literally follow the stipulations of Leviticus 25. After all, like the law of tithing, Jubilee was an old covenant law for the nation of Israel in its own land. It could hardly be imposed on the international church that was spreading throughout the Roman Empire. However, Jesus had deepened and broadened the Jubilee and the spirit of the Jubilee had become a defining characteristic of life in the Kingdom of God.
So, it should come as no surprise that when the Spirit of God fell on the early believers we see a drastic redistribution of houses and possessions. This was no momentary experiment in radical economics, but a sign that a new age was dawning.
For the next couple of centuries money was given to care for orphans and widows, the elderly, the sick, victims of shipwrecks and exiles, and even to free slaves. Eusebius tells us that the church in Rome, in 250, regularly gave support to 1500 people in need, even though it was relatively small (See Murray, p. 127).
It is this kind of giving that will free us from the shackles of the love of money and fit us for the kingdom of God. Jubilee is good news for the poor, whereas tithing actually privileges the rich by calling for less of a sacrifice from them. Tithing makes no challenge on how much money we have left after giving - or what we do with it - and touches only our income, not our possessions. Jubilee addresses how much money we have, how we use it, our possessions, our concepts of private property and ownership and our debt.
I'd like to suggest a few steps that we might take to begin to see the spirit of jubilee being implemented in our churches. However, please recognise that I write as a fellow-traveller, not as one who has arrived!
1) Talk openly and counter-culturally about finances and how we handle our money.
2) Choose a particular project to support as a church, e.g. funding a staff member at a poorer church, paying for the education of a child, etc.
3) Banish snobbery, especially in our leaders! (There's nothing wrong with second-hand clothes!)
4) Name and resist the idol of consumerism.
5) Discuss openly the financial needs of those in the group and discover ways to redistribute resources in the church.
6) Develop links with churches in different communities, cultures or countries and learn how to share resources with one another (perhaps their hermeneutic for your surplus books?).
7) Let those who can afford to, pay the extra on their car insurance so that others might borrow the car if necessary.
8) Pursue hospitality:
a. Get rid of the excess clutter in your spare room so that you can put up guests for one another.
b. Consider sharing your home with the homeless.
9) Discover tactics for escaping from (and staying out of!) debt.
10) Explore the possibility of a common-purse.
When I think through some of the possibilities and implications of rediscovering Jubilee in our churches, I get really excited. When I consider how we might more faithfully incarnate the God who empties Himself and actually, literally, embody his grace to those around us, I am humbled and daunted and eager to do so. When I realise that the gospel really can be good news for the poor and freedom for the oppressed, I feel so blessed and so zealous to pass that on.
And I never felt that way about tithing!
Andre Trocme, Jesus and the non-violent revolution
John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus
Stuart Murray, Beyond Tithing
Donald Kraybill, The Upside down Kingdom
Richard Foster, The Freedom of Simplicity
 See Murray, Beyond Tithing, p.87. Cf. Genesis 12:1-3.
 The Upside down Kingdom (Marshalls, 1978), p. 147.
Trocme, Jesus and the non-violent revolution, p. 14. 
Cf. Yoder, p. 32.
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