Jesus not only criticized the religion of the scribes and Pharisees—He attempted to re-define it. In the “First Woe” [see last week’s discussion] Jesus pointed out that salvation was linked to that of others, and that those who value their relationship with God and who are spiritual leaders have an obligation not to burden others with religious demands. He noted that His own religious burden was light. Our obligation is to enable and encourage the practice of religion, not to discourage or disable its practice. We seldom consider that we are judged upon the religious beliefs we impose on others.
In the Second Woe, Jesus used strange language that needs to be explored:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense you make long prayers; therefore you will receive greater condemnation. (Matthew 23:14)
Mark put it this way:
In His teaching He was saying: “Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and like respectful greetings in the market places, and chief seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets, who devour widows’ houses, and for appearance’s sake offer long prayers; these will receive greater condemnation.” (Mark 12:38-40)
But immediately after this, Jesus…
… sat down opposite the treasury, and began observing how the people were putting money into the treasury; and many rich people were putting in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which amount to a cent. Calling His disciples to Him, He said to them, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the contributors to the treasury; for they all put in out of their surplus, but she, out of her poverty, put in all she owned, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:41-44)
This passage is usually used to justify sacrificial giving. God expects us to give our all, to hold back nothing, since blessings ensue from giving without restraint. But to me, the context in which Jesus made these remarks about the widow puts them in a different light. The widow seems to have fallen pray to predatory and greedy scribes and Pharisees who “devour widows’ houses”—who did not hesitate to drive people to destitution through demands for payments and offerings to the temple. The religious payments might even involve the seizure of property, hence leaving poor widows without even a place to live.
Jesus was saddened and angry that the widow had succumbed to the belief that God requires this degree of sacrifice as a test of faith, a blind submission to God and at the same time a down-payment on blessings that were supposed to result from passing the test. Jesus here reminded us that there is no quid pro quo for grace. Giving brings blessings but that is not the point of the story. The point is that the religious leaders were fleecing believers to an unconscionable degree and doing so by linking the giving to God’s will, while displaying their own piety in the form of extravagant clothes and behavior. Such hypocrisy, said Jesus, would ultimately result in all the greater punishment.
Jesus strongly condemned the use of religious teaching and practice to solicit funds in church. The early Christian church had this to say:
Now, brethren, we wish to make known to you the grace of God which has been given in the churches of Macedonia, that in a great ordeal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality. For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, begging us with much urging for the favor of participation in the support of the saints, and this, not as we had expected, but they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God. So we urged Titus that as he had previously made a beginning, so he would also complete in you this gracious work as well.
But just as you abound in everything, in faith and utterance and knowledge and in all earnestness and in the love we inspired in you, see that you abound in this gracious work also. I am not speaking this as a command, but as proving through the earnestness of others the sincerity of your love also. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich. I give my opinion in this matter, for this is to your advantage, who were the first to begin a year ago not only to do this, but also to desire to do it. But now finish doing it also, so that just as there was the readiness to desire it, so there may be also the completion of it by your ability. For if the readiness is present, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. (2 Corinthians 8:1-12)
So I thought it necessary to urge the brethren that they would go on ahead to you and arrange beforehand your previously promised bountiful gift, so that the same would be ready as a bountiful gift and not affected by covetousness.
Now this I say, he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:5-7)
The number one reason “nones” (poll-responders claiming no religious affiliation) give for not attending church is that the church is always asking for money. A CNN article titled “How Passing the Plate Becomes the Sunday Morning Stick-up” said:
David Lee had just opened his wallet for two successive offerings at a church one Sunday morning when a pastor walked onto the pulpit to pass on a request.
“You all going to think I’m crazy, but God says give again,” the pastor said.
The congregation rose from their seats to march to the front as the church organist played a soothing melody. As they dropped off their offerings at the altar, the pastor urged them on with, “God says give everything; don’t hold nothing back.”
The organist then picked up the tempo, and the pastor shouted, “God says run!” The offering ended with people surging toward the altar like music fans rushing a concert stage.
“It was pandemonium. They weren’t just giving money, but shoes, watches and diamond rings,” Lee says. “There were people dropping alligator shoes on the altar.”
People widely condemned an Atlanta megachurch pastor who asked his church to buy him a $65 million private jet. Yet there is no condemnation for countless church leaders across America who have turned the Sunday morning offering into a form of spiritual abuse,…
Quibbling over how churches collect money may seem trivial. But the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century was sparked, in part, by outrage over how the Roman Catholic Church collected money.
Church leaders sold everything from “indulgences” to people who wanted their sins pardoned to holy relics of dubious value. And researchers say that today’s surge in “nones,” or Americans who claim no religious affiliation, is driven by people who complain that religions organizations are too concerned with money and power.
No wonder the Apostle Paul, who built the first Christian churches, refused to take money from his followers, one pastor noted. Paul declared in 1 Corinthians 9:15-18 that he would only “present the gospel free of charge.” He supported himself as a tent maker.
What is the role of money in the church and in the life of the Christian? And does the disappearance of money (in the traditional form of coins and notes handed over in person, replaced by cards and iPhone payments often made online) make a difference in the quality of giving? What is the future of giving in a technological age? Can a church inspire giving without appearing to be extortionate?
Donald: Church organizations have to run on money. There are several structured giving programs—tithing, and so on—that make provision for that. We know what our members earn based on the tithes they pay. Can tithes drive people into poverty? Whatever the case, we certainly should not link tithing to salvation, but how would we manage the organization without tithes?
David: Right or wrong, tithing lends itself to modern methods of funds transfer. But perhaps the (inevitable) disappearance of traditional money from the wallet and purse will force change in the collection plate ritual. The absence of a palpable transfer of a dollar or 20 dollar bill might deter spontaneous giving, spontaneous sacrifice. An automated weekly collection would seem to me to tend to diminish the sense of sacrifice one gets from handing over what might be the last dollar bill in one’s wallet, at least until one can get to an ATM to replenish the wallet. I don’t think the difference will make much of a difference, however.
The bigger question is whether it is defensible for a church to take any money, period. At the very least, should the church not ensure that any money it does take does not impose an undue burden on the giver? How important is the aspect of “sacrifice”?
Kiran: Giving the tithe can be painful but not burdensome. To me, it is acceptable that some of it will be wasted in some way, because in the end most of it is used to good purpose. Giving in that way is giving back to God, rather than giving in expectation of a bigger payback from God—a quid pro quo. The ability to give back in the service of God is humbling. Can people without a church and therefore without tithes contribute? Of course. They can give directly to the needy.
Jeff: Malachi seemed on the face of it to be about quid pro quo: God said “Do this, and I will give you a blessing.” In our church, we say essentially the same: “Pay the tithe, and you can then participate in church.” That is a quid pro quo.
Jay: Suppose that giving money were a legitimate form of passing on grace. Money is quantifiable, so (under the supposition) it would enable us to quantify grace. The more we give, the more grace people would receive. The story of the widow sets this on its head: The rich give a lot of money but their gift is worth little; the widow gives a little money but her gift is worth a lot.
As well, it highlights the individualistic nature of giving: Quantity given has to be related to how much the individual giver can afford. It boils down to the individual’s relationship with God. In organizational terms, we are probably going to get it wrong.
Jeff: Jesus told the Rich Young Ruler that he had to give all his wealth in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. He established a direct correlation between giving (to the point of poverty) and the reward. Yet in many other parts of Scripture wealth is looked upon as a blessing.
David: The widow did what the Rich Young Ruler would not. But the widow went through a middleman—the temple—whereas (as I read it) Jesus was asking the Rich Young Ruler to give his money directly to those in need.
Jeff: Was Jesus seeking to benefit the poor or the Rich Young Ruler in bestowing his advice?
Donald: Add to those the issue of giving to the church to keep it going. Surely there is nothing wrong in giving to a church in whose organization one believes. But it is different from giving to God or to society. Have we defined our terms adequately?
On average, students from wealthy families, who will have been well schooled and gotten good grades in high school, will win scholarships and end up paying less for college tuition than students from poor families who lack the supportive environment that would otherwise have helped them achieve scholarship-worthy grades.
Jeff: Without the pretext that giving to church is the same as giving to God, tithing does not hold up.
Kiran: I used to be solicited for money by many people claiming to be in need and I acquiesced to the point of financial imprudence. I stopped giving when I realized I was being cheated. Once bitten, twice shy. I also realized that in at least some cases of genuine need, a non-monetary response is better: Give a fishing rod rather than a fish. It is easier for the church organization than for the individual to make sensible determinations about what to give and to whom to give. It is more efficient to donate blood to the blood bank than to an individual.
David: I have an Indian friend who arranges for a volunteer to buy 25 inexpensive breakfasts (bread and fruit) and give them to poor people who gather to beg outside India’s churches, temples, and mosques every morning. There is no middleman, no overhead. The money goes to benefit the poor directly. My friend the donor is not religious. If he can do this, why can’t we?
Jay: By its very nature as a medium of exchange, money expects a quid pro quo. But grace is not a medium of exchange: By its very nature, grace is a one-way free gift with no expectation of quid pro quo. If giving money is the same as passing on grace, then what happens to the money—whether most of it goes to people only pretending to be poor, or to middlemen, or is spent on drugs or frivolities, etc.—is irrelevant. It is not the giver’s concern. The sower of seed in the parable is not chastised for sowing seed on rocky soil.
Jeff: Grace is unlimited. Money is not. But the message from the pulpit is that your limited stash is really God’s, so hand it over!
Donald: When we have wealth we may “pay forward” in the sense of giving not because of a perceived present need but for future needs, out of gratitude for our own blessing of wealth.
Jay: I give money to beggars and to needy students. What they do with it is for them to decide.
Donald: But tithes are not intended purely for the poor: They are to support the organization.
Jay: But the passages we are discussing are about giving to the poor and about a relationship with God and our fellow Wo/Man. We live in a quid pro quo world, but we need to think in an ideal world, if we are going to make the present world better.
Donald: The quid pro quo relationship with the church is fair and beneficial. Our tithes bestow blessings such as Pathfinders. This is not the same as providing breakfasts for the poor.
Jay: The motive of neither the tithe-giver nor the breakfast-giver is for us to judge. It may be to get to heaven, to be personally blessed, to help others. We can’t really know. Jesus can judge the motives of the widow and the Pharisees, but can we? Is giving money to the church so it can feed the poor more or less worthy of God’s blessing than giving directly to the poor?
Jeff: It’s impossible for human nature to give unselfishly. We always expect a quid pro quo of some sort.
David: At least later in the life of Mother Theresa, I think it safe to assume (from her documented failure of faith) that she did not expect much personally out of the sacrifice of her life to helping the poor. But it did not stop her from continuing to help them. I share Jeff’s dim view of human selfishness in general but to me it’s important to acknowledge the “odd wo/man out” like Mother Theresa to show that what Jesus asks of us is not impossible, so we have no excuse for not trying.
Jeff: We can’t know Mother Theresa’s motives.
Jay: If total unselfishness is unattainable, should we aim for it anyway?
David: If by attaining pure unselfishness you meet your goals for spiritual development, are you not being selfish? It seems we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t!
Kiran: Symbiosis is a biological quid pro quo that helps all symbionts. Every one wins.
Don: But if one is in a position of religious authority it is clearly forbidden (from the Woes passage we are discussing) to extort money from weaker people in the name of God.
Donald: If we ask for money to buy a table and chairs so a group of us can sit down every week and discuss things of the spirit, is that in the name of God?
Don: Is the collection not directly related to the notion that the donor’s motive is to give in order to get something back? Might not the widow have expected something back in return for her two mites?
David: When the pastor calls from the pulpit for collection, he (or she, in some churches) has no way of knowing whether the little old lady stranger reaching into her purse is a near-destitute widow giving her last dime to the church. Doesn’t the church have a responsibility to find out if its benefactors can afford to be its benefactors?
Donald: The very large Willow Creek church in Chicago used to conduct collections only on weekdays, when only members were likely to be present, not guests. When it began to collect at weekend services as well, the pastor prefaced each collection by asking guests to pass the plate without donating. They also said at conferences that if a donation to Willow Creek meant no donation to the guest’s own church, then the guest should refrain from donating to Willow Creek. This made it quite clear that to Willow Creek, the collection was for the church organization, not for direct charity.