Jesus and the Tithing Controversy
By Fr Joe Bardenrier
“How much do we have to give?” That is the burning question. Many Christians seem to have confused ideas on the issue. Probably because one priest says one thing, and another priest says something different.
And Lord have mercy on the poor soul who attends church in town and then, from time to time, travels upcountry. “Do I have to tithe in both churches? Can I split my tithe in half and give 50-50? What about 70-30?”
St Paul spoke at length about giving money and being generous. He reminded us of our Lord’s words: “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7). He never mentioned the need to pay a tithe. Neither did any of the other apostles.
Today the official teaching of the Church on this issue is stated in the Code of Canon Law. It does not mention tithing. Nor is the term tithing used in any of the other church documents written by popes in the last fifty years. Does that mean we should never use the word?
I am not saying that. Just remember that, in some places, Christians would find it strange to hear you use the word “tithing”. Many view tithing as an Old Testament practice (see Numbers 18:21).
What does Canon Law say? Church law consists of a collection of “canons” (from canon number 1 to canon number 1752). None the canons use the word tithe or tithing. Only one canon, out of the 1752 canons, addresses our obligation to take something out of our pockets and hand it over to “the Church”.
The Code states: “Canon 222 §1: Christ’s faithful have the obligation to provide for the needs of the Church, so that the Church has available to it those things which are necessary for divine worship, for apostolic and charitable work and for the worthy support of its ministers.”
Note that, in the next paragraph of that same canon, the Code goes on to point out our obligation to help the poor. Pope Francis has spoken about this repeatedly from the first day of his pontificate. The Code states: “Canon 222 §2: They are also obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the Lord’s precept, to help the poor from their own resources.”
WHAT WOULD JESUS DO?
The Gospel never mentions Jesus paying a tithe. It does, however, imply that he kept the Mosaic Law and that he expected other Jews to do the same. So he probably did tithe and would ask other Jews to tithe.
The most striking “tithing” episode in the life of Jesus features a poor widow. She put two copper coins into the Temple treasury (the equivalent today of two shillings).
Jesus called his disciples and said to them, “In truth I tell you, this poor widow has put more in than all who have contributed to the treasury; for they have all put in money they could spare, but she in her poverty has put in everything she possessed, all she had to live on.” (Mark 12:43-44).
We can argue till the Kingdom comes about percentage of this and percentage of that. But did Jesus do that? Should we be talking “percentages”?
The generosity Jesus wants from us cannot be fixed by a rule. The person who pays full tithes may be no better than the Pharisees that Jesus condemned. Giving ten percent of all they owned did nothing to please God because their money came from “swallowing the property of widows, while making a show of lengthy prayers” (Mk 12:40).
God sent John the Baptist to prepare the Jews for the coming of Christ. John told them, “If anyone has two tunics he must share with the man who has none, and the one with something to eat must do the same.”
Peace demands justice. Love demands generosity. In my experience, a lot of Christians want some kind of hard and fast rule. All I can do is ask: Where in the Gospel does Jesus give us a fixed percentage?
What Jesus said is actually more frightening—to be honest, even somewhat frightening to myself personally. Our Lord said: “None of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions.”
At this point, you may want to ask, “What, are you kidding me? I have to take all my money out of the bank and dump into the coffers of the Church?”
Jesus never talked about “giving money to the Church”. He certainly never made any statement implying that we had to give everything to priests and bishops. He was emphasising something different when he talked about “giving up all possessions.”
Everything we own must be used to serve God. If we ever waste money on vanities—trying to impress others with how rich we are—God will not be happy with us, no matter how much we tithe.
The story of Ananias and Sapphira remains one of the most chilling accounts in the Bible. Saint Luke narrates the event in the Acts of Apostles. The couple was willing to give a lot more than ten percent. But they were cheating when they handed over the money to the Apostles. They gave fifty percent. Fifty percent! But they gave it pretending to give the whole price from a plot of land they had sold.
Fifty percent didn’t save Ananias and Sapphira. Ananias dropped dead, and then Saint Peter said to Sapphira: “You hear those footsteps? They have just been to bury your husband; they will carry you out, too” (Acts 5:9). And instantly she dropped dead at his feet.
Does the death of Ananias and Sapphira make God seem like a cruel tyrant who won’t be satisfied till he has squeezed every coin out of our pockets? Anyone who sees it that way doesn’t understand the Gospel.
God doesn’t need our money. He asks us to be generous with one another. He is trying to teach us to love. Here lies the great mystery of love. It tells me that I don’t really love if I hold back. I love only when I am ready to give to the one who needs my help.
HOW MUCH TO GIVE?
How much do you have to give the Church this year? First, get rid of the idea that being generous with God starts and ends with giving money to the Church. Christians serve God in many different ways. Giving money to the church is only one. A family with many children may give next to nothing to the Church in cold cash, but that family may do more to serve God’s kingdom than all the rest of us put together.
Even so, a lot of Christians want a simple answer to a simple question: “Father, just tell me what percentage I have to give!”
I realise that I am disappointing some readers by failing to spell it out. And yet, I ask: If the bishops have not given a specific answer to that question, who am I to answer it?
Let me conclude by going back to the words of St Paul that were mentioned earlier: “Each one should give as much as he has decided on his own initiative, not grudgingly, or because he is forced to, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7).