Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Domestic Church: Giving Our First Fruits to the Lord


Worth reflecting on this lenten season (Luke 12:15-19, 33-34)...
And he said to them, "Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." And he told them a parable, saying, "The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, `What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?' And he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
Giving with a joyful heart, and treating money and possessions as God's and not our own, takes some practice and trust in God's providence. If one isn't used to giving regularly and substantially, it can take a huge leap of faith to try to correct course in the midst of entrenched financial obligations like home mortgages (or rent), bills, food, etc. For the vast majority of Catholics, and for many other Christians, this is exactly the case. Absent a solid upbringing that formed habits of giving, coupled with an absence of solid catechesis about the necessity of giving, we're reduced to the guilt-tripped $20 bill in the collection plate on Sunday as our only financial charity. Unfortunately much too often expectations are also set so low from the pulpit at our parishes that the situation becomes a negative feedback loop -- financial charity is so low that priests set the bar low to encourage at least some level of giving, which further indoctrinates low giving expectations, resulting in less giving over time, leading to further lowered expectations from the pulpit. What is needed is some collective backbone, and above all trust in the Lord.

Ultimately there's no single percentage of income that can be applied to every person in terms of necessary level of giving. However, both Biblically and historically, the best place to start is tithing 10% of our income (that's 10% before taxes). That number usually arrives like a rock in the stomach of most Catholics who hear it, simply because tithing is almost never taught or expected at that level. I remember once speaking to a priest about tithing 10% and why it's never taught directly, and he noted that he could never do that or expect that level of giving from his parishioners. That's a sad state of affairs. Our parish, the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake, MN, is a tithing parish. That is to say, a 10% tithe is taught and requested of every incoming member to the parish at initiation classes, it's taught from the pulpit directly, and many, many parishioners fulfill this challenge (whether or not all of the tithe is given to the parish -- most split some between a few places). In an over 25 year history, the Church of St. Paul has never had a fund raising drive of any kind. Despite multiple church building expansions, the parish has no debt after recently submitting the last mortgage payment from the last expansion. And this despite the fact that that parish itself tithes at least 10% back to other charities. Last year the parish gave 16% of it's income to charity. Trust in the Lord and solid catechesis does amazing things.

But is a 10% tithe a specific requirement? The short answer is no. A 10% tithe was a specific requirement of the law of the Old Testament, but in Jesus' fulfillment of the law it is no longer binding on the faithful. As such the Church herself does not require a specific percentage, only that each give according to one's ability (cf. CCC 2043). But this is too often passed off by pastors as "So, do what you can" and left at that. We must all keep in mind that:
“...Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:6-7).
For most people, this requires some type of goal or guidance. Certainly if one is in financial straights, or hard times, one is allowed to decrease or suspend tithing (though I know of amazing stories of God's providence in cases where tithing has still been kept in such times). But strictly giving out of our surplus is not what God desires of us in our normal, everyday lives. The Lord asks us to go deeper than that in our discernment, to find the courage to give out of our living instead of simply out of our surplus (remember the poor widow who gave both her coins?). For someone who makes $1 Million per year, giving 10% doesn't really cut it. The proportion of that level of income that is surplus is much higher than someone with an income of say $30,000 per year, thus illustrating that 10% isn't necessarily a magic number. But for that vast majority of us, 10% is a life-altering type of tithe. I.E., you could maybe have a more expensive home, or a more expensive car, were it not for the 10% tithe. And if this is true, then we're off to a good start. We have made the choice to give our first fruits to the Lord and not to material things.

The benefits of tithing are enormous. Tithing fosters cheerful giving. How easy and joyful it is to give when we've set aside 10% of our income each month, like a bill, instead of being guilted into giving a meager amount from our wallet in the collection plate. The pain is also much less after we've made that first adjustment to our lifestyle to accommodate tithing; one gets used to living off of 90% of our income soon enough. Living off 90% of our income alone has enormous benefits in causing us to let go of our money worries and our control issues and let God have control. Seeing that we really are just fine living off 90% of our income has a sobering affect on all those worries we used to have when living off 100%. Planning and diligence in this area are work that is rewarded with heavenly treasure (the only kind that matters). Too often we live as lavishly the maximum of our income will permit (or worse, beyond our income) that when confronted with the prospect of giving 10% it seems ridiculous, or that we couldn't possibly do that. Starting small and gradually working up to a significant level of giving is certainly a valid way of remedying this situation.

I pray that in the coming years of the new springtime of the Church that the Holy Spirit ignites a new wave of catechesis, generosity, and trust in the Lord in the area of tithing!


Sarah said...

Excellent stuff, Brendan! I say Amen!

Therese Z said...

I tithe 10% after tax and insurance and I can't say enough about how freely it makes me give. I never measure a request for charity against my checkbook balance; I know it's going into an annual amount and I can write the check cheerfully. I also know I will make certain annual gifts and don't worry that I'll "forget."

God blesses my money handling with serenity when I tithe. When I was laid off - twice - I didn't really ever worry, and I still tithed from my unemployment income. I knew I would work hard and God would give me what I needed, even if it was temporary poverty.

Brendan Koop said...

Thanks for sharing that Therese. The reality is the Church needs people like you to share your tithing principles, not as an act of pride or boasting, but simply because our society needs that so much and needs good, practical examples that show that, "yes it can be done," and there are so many benefits. Certainly we need to take care to avoid pride or "receiving our reward" here on earth instead of heaven, but at the same time if no one talks about tithing then no one is challenged to go beyond their normal routine. Stories like yours encourage others to consider if they could make such a sacrifice to foster growth in holiness. Thanks again!