I was recently asked by a local parish priest to substitute for him while he was on vacation. He also asked to preach about tithing, as he teaches his parishioners about this important spiritual discipline and is aware how much the word of one priest can reinforce the work of another.
I agreed to do this, of course. Nevertheless, I cannot speak about tithing in isolation. As I understand it, tithing is part of stewardship and it is only in the context of stewardship that I can attempt to explain it.
A steward is an overseer or custodian. He is responsible for the care or management of something which belongs to another. He is accountable to the one who entrusted him. So stewardship is the care or management - with accountability - of something which belongs to another. What, then, is Christian Stewardship? What has been entrusted to us for which we are to give an account?
In the creed we confess: I await the resurrection of the dead. The Lord will raise everyone who has ever lived on the last day for numerous reasons. One of these reasons is for judgement. We must all give an account of how we lived our lives.
Why is this? Is not my life - my life? Yes - and no. Yes, my life is my life since it has been given to me. Let us consider: who has ever chosen to be born? Who has chosen his parents, ethnicity, the time or circumstances of his birth? No one. Life is a gift, a precious gift. Who gives such a precious gift? The Author of Life, He who has life in Himself. He Who is Life. He created us in His image and likeness. We are icons of God who are to grow by communion with God to be like God. As the Psalmist says: Know ye not that ye are gods? We are created to become by grace what God is by nature. God is so big and loving that He desires to share Himself with us. There is nothing more glorious or exalted than this.
In Genesis we read how God breathed the breath of life into man and he became a living soul. Thus the very breath within each of us is the breath of God. If our breath is not our own, but God’s, then our life is not our own - it belongs to God and we are accountable for it.
That we are accountable for our life is also clearly expressed by the Lord in the parable of the talents. In this parable we see that everyone is entrusted with something - some more some less - and that each must give account for the talent entrusted to him.
One talent given to everyone is the gift of life itself. Our life on earth has a beginning and an end. We live in time. There are three Ts in Christian Stewardship. The first T is time.
Time is something most precious. How can that be? Fortunes are made and lost and made again. But a day, a moment, an opportunity - a lifetime - when they are gone they are gone. There is no going back. We have been allotted only so much time and no-one knows how much time he has. Time is too precious to waste, yet waste it we do as if we have an overabundance of it. So how do we become good stewards of time?
It seems to me that the answer can be found in the Gospel reading for most of the feasts of the Mother of God. In it we see how Martha is busy with serving as the Lord was in the house I would think that at least some of His disciples were with Him. Martha was upset because her sister Mary was sitting at the Lord’s feet listening to His words. Martha complained to the Lord about Mary but was told that Mary had chosen the better part and that it would not be taken from her.
How we choose to use our time is critical. We can use it wisely or foolishly. The better part which Mary chose should be our choice too: God. Our priorities must be such that God is always first in our lives. Why, well beside the fact that He is God it is because no-one loves us as God loves us - no-one.
Making time for God is a priority. Going to church is a priority. Making time to pray at home is a priority. Making time to read the Scriptures, Lives of the Saints, etc… is a priority. This does not mean that it has to take up hours of our day. It means that this is something which we do first and do not leave for last - if at all.
After God comes family. The family is the domestic church. It is the training ground where we experience God and learn to love God and one another. It is the fundamental building block of both the Church and society, which is why the enemy is constantly attacking it. After God, our families must take priority.
After God and family comes work. This does not mean that work is not important. It means that the first two are more important. How we make a living is important. In many ways it enables us to prioritize God and family. For many work is not mere employment - it is a calling. Many of the most important jobs are not the best paid: fire fighters, police officers, paramedics, teachers, those taking care of the elderly or sick children etc… There are too many to count. Yet society needs them and they do it often because no-one else can or will. This brings us to the second of the three Ts: talents.
Talents are the gifts or capabilities God bestows upon us to use in this life. To some more is given and to some less. Those who are entrusted for more are accountable for more and those who are entrusted for less are accountable for less. We are all different. God gives us according to our abilities.
Now our talents or abilities are give to us to use in a timely fashion. First they are given to us to love and serve God. They are also given to us for our family life, including how we make a living.
None of us is given everything. We are given enough so that we participate in a common life, contributing that which has been entrusted to us while benefiting from that which has been entrusted to others. The first community where this is noticed is the family. While God comes first everything starts with family. We are born into a family. It is as a family that we are part of the Body of Christ - the Church. Our participation in the life of the Church is an important way in which we put God first.
This is seen at the end of the previous mentioned reading of the Gospel on most feasts of the Mother of God when our Lord says that blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it. It is not enough that we hear the Word of God in Church or read it in the Scriptures; it must woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. What is the Great Commandment? To love God with all our being. Our Lord says clearly: if you love Me keep My commandments. The second commandment the Lord tells us, is to love our neighbor as ourselves. How? By putting the needs of others before our own. Loving is doing. Loving is participating in the life of the Church and in the lives of those about us.
This brings us to the third T: treasure. Tithing, the great sciatic nerve of Christian Stewardship. Tithing is very important, but we must understand it in the context of what is written above.
Let me emphasize something fundamental: God does not need our money. God needs nothing. Tithing is a fundamental discipline of Christian Stewardship for our salvation. Why?
If, as the Psalmist says: the earth is the Lord’s, the fullness thereof, the universe and all within it, if the very breath we breathe is not our own but the breath of God, then we have nothing, nothing is our own, for we have created nothing. All that we are, all that we have, comes from God, regardless of whether or not we use our time and talents wisely or foolishly. This includes our treasure.
There are many reasons. St. Paul says that the love of money (not money itself) is the root of all evil. Do we not fast on Wednesdays to remember how our Lord was betrayed for thirty pieces of silver? Is this not supposed to remind us not to betray our faith for financial gain? Tithing is a potent antidote to avarice.
The Lord Jesus tells us that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God. Why? Because a rich man trusts in his wealth, not in God. This is quite revealing because if we closely and honestly examine why it is hard for to give we will find that it is not because of the excuses that we make for not giving. We will find that it due to our lack of faith. We do not believe that God will provide tomorrow. We want assurance today and we find that assurance in wealth instead of God.
We need to go back to the Sermon on the Mount. In it Christ teaches us that we need not worry about what to eat, drink our wear. God loves us and will provide for our needs. We are to focus on the Kingdom of God and His righteous and all of these things will be added as well. We are overly concerned about this world and what we need to live in it. God has given us life for so much more than this world. We are created to commune, to participate in the Kingdom of God. This world is but a stepping stone, a tutorial for that life.
We must also mention the occasion when the Lord and His disciples were in the Temple observing the people as they brought their gifts to the treasury. Some gave more, some less, but the Lord pointed out a poor woman who gave a few coins. Now this a favorite Scripture of those Scrooges out there who want to justify their stinginess. They say that the Lord was happy with her few coins. But the Lord did not say this at all. He pointed out that she gave all that she had while others gave out of their abundance.
We must never judge how much a person gives or compare donations. We have different means and responsibilities. One person can give a $1000 donation and not feel it while for another a $100 donation can be quite sacrificial. We must not judge what one has in one’s bank account just as we must not judge what one has in one’s heart.
Finally, tithing is a form of eucharist - thanksgiving. Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee in behalf of all and for all. When we tithe we confess that all we have comes from God. We humble ourselves before Him and thank Him.
So how much should we give? In the Old Testament it is written 10%. The New Testament doesn’t mention how much. It certainly doesn’t abolish it. St. Paul sought donations for the saints in Jerusalem. We read in the Book of Acts that the believers sold their property and set the money at the feet of the Apostles. Selling all that one has and sharing in community is kept to this day in monasteries. In the Lives of the Saints I have read more than once how some couples gave a third of their income to the Church, a third to the poor and lived off a third!
I’m not saying that we need to give everything to the Church, nor that we should give away two-thirds of our income, or give 10% or even 1%. The point is we need to give. It is important to make giving a part of our budget. How much to give? Enough to feel it. We may not consider ourselves to be wealthy, but we are. Sure we may not be rich like the people who have a bigger, nicer home, car, maybe a boat etc… Yet we have a roof over our heads, clothes in our closets and food in our kitchens - more than enough. Most people in this world can’t say this. In the wedding service we pray that God bless the newlyweds to with enough to meet their needs and a little more to give to the poor. Remember - and never forget - the parable of the Last Judgßment.
Think about what could happen if we learned to give. Orthodox schools, hospitals, care for the elderly in a dignified, Orthodox manner. We could help people with all kinds of needs: unwanted pregnancies, mental illness, homelessness, hopelessness. There is no end. Sound ambitious? Not really. All we need to do is ask God’s blessing, make the time and use our God-given talents to work together. We have the money too. Orthodox Christians are not without resources.
This is but a brief introduction, a few words, regarding stewardship and tithing. Much more has been and needs to be written. It is important for us to understand what Christian Stewardship is and how to practice it. It is important for salvation, the salvation of our own souls and those around us. It is a way in which we thank and glorify God.
May our Lord Jesus Christ, through the prayers of His most pure Mother and all the saints, have mercy upon us and save us.