Tithing has become the hot-button issue of our day. Just as the early church was divided on the issue of circumcision, the modern church is divided on the issue of tithing. “You should do it.” “You should not.”
In this three-part series we’ll look at the tithe and its place in the new covenant.
Let’s begin with the story of the first tithe. As you read this story, don’t go looking for principles or moral lessons. Instead, go looking for Jesus. (Hint: he’s represented by one of the characters in this story.)
When Abram came back from his victory over Chedorlaomer and the other kings, the king of Sodom went out to meet him in Shaveh Valley (also called King’s Valley). And Melchizedek, who was king of Salem and also a priest of the Most High God, brought bread and wine to Abram, blessed him, and said, “May the Most High God, who made heaven and earth, bless Abram! May the Most High God, who gave you victory over your enemies, be praised!” And Abram gave Melchizedek a tenth of all the loot he had recovered.
The king of Sodom said to Abram, “Keep the loot, but give me back all my people.” Abram answered, “I solemnly swear before the Lord, the Most High God, Maker of heaven and earth, that I will not keep anything of yours, not even a thread or a sandal strap. Then you can never say, ‘I am the one who made Abram rich.’” (Gen 14:17-23, GNB)
This is a story of two kings. First, we have the King of Salem who represents Jesus. His name means king of righteousness and he is the prince of Salem which means peace.
Melchizedek-who-represents-Jesus shows up unexpectedly and does a most Jesusy thing: he serves communion. Remember, this was before Passover and the cross. Melchizedek appears, as out of thin air, with bread and wine and saying, “Let’s give praise and thanks to God.”
And why should we thank God? “Because, Abe, God has been good to you! He gave you this extraordinary victory. One small clan against four professional armies. Do you really think you won on your own?”
Abram could have replied, “My goodness, you’re right. We should’ve been slaughtered. Surely God was with us!” The lights go on and Abram has an encounter with grace. What does he do next? He gives God’s man a tenth of all the loot, thus treating him as a partner in his endeavor.
Now for the second king. The king of Sodom speaks a generous line – “keep the loot” – yet Abram refuses his gesture. “I want nothing from you. Not even a sandal strap.” A minute ago Abram was gushy and grateful; now he’s proud and hard. “I don’t want anyone saying you helped me.”
Clearly something has changed.
The two kings
If Melchizedek represents Jesus, the king of Sodom represents self. (Remember, Abram would not have gone to war except his nephew Lot found Sodom pleasing to the eye. Lot walked by sight, trusted his own judgment, and the result was a disaster.)
There are some neat contrasts between these two kings: Melchizedek promotes trust in God; Sodom inspires self-trust. Melchizedek is the king of righteousness; Sodom is self-righteous. Melchizedek gives grace; Sodom gives law. Melchizedek asks for nothing; Sodom says “give me.”
What do we learn from this?
If you are thinking, “God gives us grace so we can tithe,” you’ve missed Melchizedek and found Sodom. Like Lot, you’re relying on your own understanding to draw a moral lesson that is not there.
Melchizedek does not appear in the story for the purpose of extracting money from Abram. He shows up to draw attention to God’s goodness. “God gave you…” And if Melchizedek showed up unexpectedly in your story, he would say the same thing. “You are blessed because God has given you …” This is grace, and when you see it you will respond with generosity because grace begets grace. It happens effortlessly.
A similar thing happened with Abraham’s grandson. Jacob encountered the Lord at Bethel and vowed to give a tenth of all God gave him (Gen 28:22). Whether Jacob actually followed through on his promise is a subject for debate and there is some evidence he didn’t (see Gen 35:14). But the point stands: When you encounter the goodness of God, it makes you generous.
Look at what happened when Jesus had dinner with Zacchaeus. Like Melchizedek, Jesus showed up unexpectedly bringing the favor of God to a man who did not deserve it, and the result was generosity.
Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount. (Luke 19:8)
No one told Zac to give half his stuff away. It was a spontaneous and joyful act made in response to grace. When you meet the Giver of all good things, it makes you want to give.
A personal example: The other night I was driving home alone and talking to Jesus when suddenly I felt his presence with me in the car. It was so wonderful. Do you know what the first thought that came to my mind was? “I want to buy Christmas presents for my kids.” In June! This was a crazy idea yet I couldn’t wait to do it. We dressed up, had a full-on party, and it was fun.
Do you see the difference between law and grace? The law demands generosity and kills it. “You’re not getting a sandal strap!” But grace boasts of God’s goodness and asks for nothing, and the fruit is crazy generosity.
Tithing under grace?
So is there such a thing as giving a tithe under grace? The answer has to be yes, because Abram did it. But the answer can also be no, because it didn’t happen anywhere else in scripture. It was a one-off, spur of the moment decision made in response to grace. Just because he did it doesn’t mean you should.
So what’s the takeaway?
When we imagine God speaking to us with the words of Sodom – “Give me” – we put ourselves under law. We’ll either give out of self-righteous pride, or we’ll bristle like Abram. “Not even a sandal strap!”
But when we hear Jesus speaking to us with the words of Melchizedek – “You are blessed by God Most High and he has given to you!” – we will give because grace begets grace. A generous Father has generous children. It’s in our DNA.
What should you give? There is nothing you should give but plenty you could give. You may give a tithe or a mite or half your possessions. There are no rules. You are free to give anything you like in any way you like.
You may even give Christmas presents to children in June.
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