There was, however, in the condition of the Jews in Jesus' day, this great difference as compared with that of Jews under Jewish monarchs, in that being now enrolled as Roman subjects, they were not required by the law of the empire to observe the ordinances of the Jewish religion; and hence it is not surprising if some may have availed themselves of the opportunity to evade the payment of religious dues, and became lax in the observance of tithe-paying and other religious duties.
But concurrently with this possible laxity, and perhaps provoked thereby, there had sprung up a great zeal for religion among the Jews, as manifested by three religious parties.
Of these the Essenes, who arose about the second century B.C., renounced their worldly goods, lived in communities in the desert, and greatly extolled the virtue of poverty (Cohen volume 2, p. 19). There were also the Sadducees, who, if not absolutely rejecting tradition and the unwritten law, brought them to the test of the Pentateuch, the authority of which they acknowledged; whilst closely allied with these, there were the Pharisees, who accepted all the Old Testament writings with the rabbinical interpretations thereon, and who were exceedingly zealous for the religion of their forefathers.
The Pharisees arose about B.C. 150, and were not so much a sect as what we in England should now call a "party." Josephus speaks of their fraternity as numbering about six thousand (Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus, volume I, p. 311). The object of their association was twofold: first, to secure extreme care and exactitude in the payment of tithes and religious dues, and secondly, to promote the observance in the strictest manner, and according to traditional law, of the ordinances concerning Levitical purity.
A candidate had to be admitted into the Pharisees' confraternity in the presence of three members (Edersheim, volume 1, p. 311; Bechoroth 30B). He might undertake the obligation as to complete tithe paying without going forward to the vow concerning purity; but he could not undertake the latter, and supposed higher degree, without passing through the lower.
If he entered upon the first degree only, he was simply a Naaman, who undertook four obligations, namely, to tithe (1) what he ate, (2) what he sold, (3) what he bought, and (4) not to be the guest of an "outsider." Having attained this degree, he was looked upon as a person accredited, with whom one might freely transact business, since he was assumed to have paid on his goods and religious dues.
If a candidate took in addition the "higher" vow, he was called a chaber, or associate, who (in relation to the subject before us) undertook not to sell to an outsider any substance, whether fluid or solid; not to buy from him any such; nor to be a guest with him, and not to entertain the outsider in his own clothes (on account, that is, of their possible impurity).
The Pharisees accordingly were tithe-payers par excellence as distinguished from "am-ha-aretz," or "people of the land," the uninstructed ones, who knew not, or cared not, for the oral or unwritten law, and were looked down upon by the learned as "accursed," John 1:49. A Pharisee was regarded as an aristocratic, punctilious religionist; an am-ha-aretz as a "heathen and a publican," Matthew 18:17.
What attitude, then, did out Lord assume in regard to the paying of tithes and religious offerings as respectively observed, or more or less neglected by these two classes of Jews? It would be impossible that He should have been neutral; and we cannot imagine that He grew up in carelessness, or ignorance, or indifference to, this prominent feature of a Jew's religion. In His days tithe-paying in Palestine was not only recognized, but "in the air," as witnessed by the minuteness of the directions of the Mishna.
Any man having a spark of religion was necessarily brought face to face with this question continually. To buy a pennyworth of figs in the street involved also the responsibility of considering whether or not they had been tithed; and something similar had to be thought of even when a few leaves of vegetables were cut off and thrown aside to lighten a burden. No class of people, moreover, was free from the observance of these details, for they had to be remembered alike by the field laborer, the gatherer of fruit, and the errand-boy.
Accordingly, when our Lord's parents went up, as they did every year, to Jerusalem, and in the ordinary course of things took their second tithe, with legal appropriate offerings, it could hardly have escaped the observation of their Divine Son that the festival tithe was regarded as sacred; that it might not be pledged nor sold on credit; and that if perchance for convenience of carriage some of it were turned into money (say at Nazareth), the coins received had to be perfect, nor might those coins be mingled with ordinary money.
When, further, it is remembered that for a wife to set before her husband untithed food was regarded as an offense sufficiently grave to warrant her divorce, (Mishna, Treatise Ketubah, and De Sola and Raphall, p. 259) it will be seen that in our Lord's time, and with respect to this burning question, none could be neutral.
Was Christ's position, then, as regards tithe-paying, that of an am-ha-aretz, that is, one of the uninstructed? He certainly was not so regarded by His contemporaries. The multitudes not only heard Him gladly, but, quite early in His ministry, after the Sermon on the Mount, the crowds were astonished at His teaching, for "He taught them as one having authority," Matthew 7:28-29. Even in His own country, in the synagogue at Nazareth, many were astonished; and though some of them asked for the source of His learning, none of them doubted that the wisdom was there, for they asked, "What wisdom is this which is given unto Him?" Mark 6:2.
Later on, at Jerusalem, the Jews marveled, saying, "How knoweth this Man letters, having never learned?" (John 7:15) and as it was at the beginning of His ministry, "All the people were astonished at His doctrine," Matthew 7:28, so it continued to its close, "for all the people were very attentive to hear Him," Luke 19:48. Hence by the populace our Lord was never looked upon as "uninstructed," "not knowing the law," or in any way approaching "a heathen man or a publican." Nor was He so regarded by the learned. When only twelve years of age He surprised the doctors in the temple by His remarkable understanding and answers; and just as Josephus tells us (Life, section 2) that he himself when a youth was frequently consulted by men learned in the law, so the Scribes and Pharisees sometimes consulted Jesus -- not always, let us hope, in malice, but sometimes rather to discover His attitude towards what they regarded as criteria of orthodoxy. We have an instance of this when they brought to Him a woman taken in adultery, John 8:3, quoting, as they did, the law, and inquiring for His opinion. On another occasion He was asked under what circumstances divorce was permissible, Matthew 19:3. Again, they asked what was the first and great commandment (that is the most essential principle) of the law, Matthew 22:36-38, and the Pharisees wished, likewise, to know when He thought the kingdom of God was coming, Luke 17:20.
The foregoing are not inquiries such as educated men would put to an am-ha-aretz. Such questions concerned their highest branch of learning, namely the law -- the law, probably, both written and unwritten, to which again our Lord referred His inquirers. And that such questions were skillfully answered was borne witness to sometimes by expressed approval, as in the words, "Well, Master, Thou hast said the truth," Mark 12:32, and sometimes in general terms: "We know that Thou sayest and teachest rightly," Luke 20:21.
It is noticeable also that the Pharisees expected to see our Lord, as a teacher, living up to a standard resembling their own. Hence they asked His disciples: "How is it that your Master eats and drinks with publicans and sinners?" Matthew 9:11. And on another occasion they murmured, saying, "This Man receiveth sinners and eateth with them," Luke 15:2, things which the Pharisees expressly undertook not to do. But there would have been in this nothing to murmur at, and the questions would have been without point, had they regarded Him as one of the uninstructed or common people. They murmured because they expected Him to set what they thought a higher example.
The strongest proof, however, that the Pharisees regarded our Lord as an observer of the law, like themselves, is seen in the fact that early in Christ's ministry, "as He spake, a certain Pharisee besought Him to dine with him, and Jesus went in and sat down to meat," Luke 11:37. Nor was this the only occasion on which He did so, for later on in His ministry He went into the house of one of the chief Pharisees to eat bread on the Sabbath day, Luke 14:1.
Now, we remember that the Roman centurion at Capernaum was sufficiently familiar with Jewish custom to be aware that Jesus would contract ceremonial defilement by coming as a guest under his Gentile roof, Luke 7:6, since it was considered a breach of the law for a Jew to keep company or be guest with one of another nation, Acts10:28. But the fact that we find two Pharisees, one of them a chief Pharisee, inviting our Lord to be their guest, is clear proof that these rigid religionists did not look on Jesus as a heathen man or a publican.
Our Lord's enemies, even, who watched His every word, action, and behavior in order to find fault, never accused Him of not paying tithes or ecclesiastical dues; and if not to pay tithe in Athens was a sufficient handle wherewith a Greek comedian might hold up to ridicule a rich commercial statesman (see Sacred Tenth, p. 27) whose obligation to pay tithe was not nearly so plainly enjoined as was the case with the ordinary Jew, how gladly, may we not suppose, would the enemies of our Lord have exulted over a similar shortcoming, had they been able to hold up Jesus to scorn, as a transgressor of this command of Moses, and of its interpretation according to the traditions of the elders?
But let us pass on to inquire if we can learn anything respecting our subject from our Lord's own example. On the eighth day He was circumcised, and when the days of Mary's purification, according to the law of Moses, were accomplished, they brought the child Jesus to Jerusalem, to present Him to the Lord, and "to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord," Luke 2:21-24.
Mister Sundlight's description of this ceremony as now observed by the Jews in Lemberg has been quoted, and he adds:
"Whilst watching the proceedings, I was reminded of a similar incident which happened in the life of our Lord, commonly called 'The presentation' . . . Simeon, being no doubt one of the officiating priests in the temple, performed this rite, and that accounts for his taking up the child Jesus in his arms and blessing Him. Thus we see that the Redeemer had also to be redeemed, for it behooved Him to fulfill all righteousness," Jewish Missionary Intelligencer, March, 1903, p. 43.
Again, when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Nazareth, whence His parents went to Jerusalem every year, at the Feast of the Passover, taking up their Son also when He was twelve years old, after the custom of the feast, Luke 2:39, 41-42.
Here, then, we find the Evangelist careful to note that both parents and child were strictly observant of the Mosaic law; and, in harmony with this when, later on, John hesitated about baptizing One so much greater than himself, Jesus answered: "Thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness," Matthew 3:15. So, again, during our Lord's ministry, He more than once showed His allegiance to the law, saying, for instance, to the leper healed after the sermon on the mount: "Show thyself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded," Matthew 8:4, whilst later He similarly directed the ten lepers: "Go, show yourselves to the priests," Luke 17:14.
We know of only one occasion when our Lord was applied to for money, and then it was not for a compulsory tax imposed by the Romans, but when His disciples were asked, at Capernaum, whether their Master paid the contribution for the support of the temple services. Moses, it is written, levied at God's command, for the furnishing of the tabernacle, a half-shekel for every one numbered; also, on the return from captivity, the people charged themselves with the third part of a shekel, yearly, for the service of the house of God, Nehemiah 10:32, and it was to pay this contribution that Peter was directed to find a stater, or the equivalent of two half-shekels, in the fish's mouth, to pay for himself and his Master, Matthew 17:24-27; Edersheim, Temple, p. 47.
Concerning our Lord's personal arrangements about money, we know that though Himself a poor man, yet He was accustomed to give to the poor, John 13:29. He and His little company had, indeed, a purse, and Judas carried it; but three objects only are hinted at upon which its contents were spent. At the well of Samaria we read of the disciples having gone away to buy food; John 4:8, and on another occasion the well-known habits of their Master left His puzzled disciples only two uses for money they could conjecture, when, the traitor having left the room, "some thought because Judas had the bag that Jesus said unto him: Buy what things we have need of for the feast [which reminds us of the festival tithe], or that he should give some thing to the poor," John 13:29.
Hence it has been beautifully observed that the slender provision of Jesus and His little company was disposed of under a tripartite division, for daily wants, God's ordinances, and charity, The Lords Offering, p. 108. Looking, therefore, at our Lord's perfect example in scrupulously keeping the law, we are left to infer that He not only paid tithes and all other religious dues, but that He probably exceeded what the law required.