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The Tithe in the Bible

Section 11

Christ's Teaching
on the Tithe

We now come to Christ's direct teaching on tithe-paying and religious beneficence. Here we may observe that the Founder of Christianity proclaimed expressly, at the outset of His ministry, that He was not come to destroy THE LAW, but to fulfill it, and that whoever would do and teach the precepts of that law should be called great in the kingdom of heaven, Matthew 5:17-19.

In harmony with this, when a lawyer stood up and tried Him, saying, "Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" the Lord replied, "What is written in the law?" Luke 10:25-26. Besides which, we know that the law was invariably referred to by Him as the proper standard of godly living, and therefore (by implication, of course) the right standard of proper giving.

As for almsgiving, and religious beneficence in general, Jesus Christ laid down several broad and deep principles as foundations on which His followers might build.

"Give," He said, "to him that asketh thee; and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away," Matthew 5:42. "He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath food, let him do likewise," Luke 3:11. Again, "Give, and it shall be given unto you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, shall they give into your bosom," Luke 6:38.

Another of these far-reaching principles was addressed to His apostles on the first occasion they were sent out to preach: "Freely ye have received, freely give," Matthew 10:3. And our Lord enunciated one other principle, which, in its own sphere, has no parallel in the literature of the world, and which, though not recorded in the gospels, seems to have been a household word among the early Christians, so that is sufficed for an apostle to enjoin upon the elders of the Church at Ephesus to "remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how He said, It is more blessed to give than to receive," Acts 20:35.

Besides the foregoing exhortations on giving generally, our Lord expressly enjoined upon His followers the habit of giving as a religious duty. "Sell that ye have," said He, "and give alms," Luke 12:33.

Nevertheless, the giving was to be no mere perfunctory distribution of money, irrespective of the motive by which it was prompted. The giving of alms and doing righteousness, in order to be acceptable in the sight of God, was, He taught, not to be done ostentatiously, so as to be seen by men, but rather so unobtrusively that one's left hand was not to know what the right hand was doing, Matthew 6:1-4. Nor was a gift to be offered on the altar by a man at variance with his brother; but rather, the gift should be left before the altar, and a reconciliation be first effected,"Matthew 5:23-24.

Neither, again, was almsgiving to be done with a view to reciprocal favors:

"When thou makest a dinner or a supper, call not thy friends, nor thy brethren, nor thy kinsmen, nor rich neighbors; lest haply they also bid thee again, and a recompense be made thee. But when thou makest a feast, bid the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and thou shalt be blessed: because they have not wherewith to recompense thee: for thou shalt be recompensed in the resurrection of the just," Luke 14:12-14.

As a further encouragement to such almsgiving and righteousness, the Lord Jesus taught, in effect, that such good deeds thus done would be taken as done to Himself:

"I was an hungered, and ye gave Me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave Me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took Me in: naked, and ye clothed Me: I was sick, and ye visited Me: I was in prison, and ye came unto Me . . . . Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these My brethren, even these least, ye did it unto Me," Matthew 25:35-40.

As for the amount, scale, or proportion in which alms were to be devoted, no gift, Jesus implied, could be too small, if worthily offered: for a cup of cold water only, given in the name of a disciple, was in no wise to go unrewarded, Matthew 10:42. But, whatever may be lawfully inferred as to the religious value of gifts of intrinsically small worth, it is quite clear that it was not intended as a standard for those who ought to give more; inasmuch as we have already seen that the teaching of Christ; as recorded in the gospels, enjoins an almost lavish system of beneficence, indeed there seems to be no limit to the claim which Christ made upon His followers as to the consecration to Himself of their persons and their possessions, saying, "He that loveth [not merely his money, but even] father or mother more than Me is not worthy or Me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me," Matthew 10:37.

In contrast to (or shall we not say in fulfillment of?) the legal spirit of the Old Testament, which named the proportion in which men should contribute of their substance to God, Jesus Christ bade His followers to seek first and before all else God's kingdom and His righteousness, promising that all such things as food and clothing should be added to them, Matthew 6:33. Moreover, they were not to lay up for themselves treasure upon the earth, but to lay up for themselves treasure in heaven, Matthew 6:19-20. Hence when the rich young ruler asked the Lord what he should do to inherit eternal life, the answer was: "Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven," Matthew 19:16-21.

If this seems to us a hard test, we may remember that it was not asking more than was implied on two other occasions, on one of which our Lord called the people unto Him with His disciples, and said to them all, "If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me," Matthew 16:24, a saying that was afterwards repeated with even more stringent conditions when there went great multitudes with Jesus, and He turned and said unto them, "If any man cometh unto Me, and hateth not his own father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple," Luke 14:25-26.

It follows, then, that if a man is required to give up, when necessary, such persons and things as are by an ordinary person most valued of all, a man's money may not be excepted from this general surrender. Matthew, at all events, did not treat such terms as merely figurative, when, called by the Lord Jesus, "he left all, rose up, and followed Him," Luke 5:28.

But, it may be asked, did not our Lord denounce the Pharisees? The reply is, "Yes, on several grounds, but not as regards their tithe-paying." When they rejected a plain command of God such as to honour father and mother, and quoted a traditional interpretation which allowed a man to escape from this duty as such by saying that his money was Corban (or a gift to God), this Christ pointed out, was making void the word of God by reducing what was a matter of obligation to one of free will.

In view of such perversions of scripture as this, Jesus bade His disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy, Luke 12:1. But no disapproval was expressed with the Pharisee who went up to the temple to pray, because he said, "I give tithes of all that I possess," Luke 18:12. His fault lay in trusting in himself that he was righteous, and in his contempt for others.

So again, in that chapter of repeated woes, one of them reads: "Woe unto you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for ye pay tithe of mint, and anise, and cummin," Matthew 23:23, which is in keeping with the Mishna, wherein Rabbi Simeon, son of Gamaliel, was of opinion that little buds or sprays of fennel and mustard were liable to tithe, Mishna, Maaseroth, chapter 4, sect. 6; Schwab, volume 3, p. 182.

But what then? Did the Lord disapprove of this minute tithing? Far from it, for He expressed approval, and said, "These ought ye to have done." Besides which, it should be remembered that the eight woes pronounced upon these religionists, are prefaced by the Lord's own statement; "The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do," Matthew 23:2-3.

Here then, certainly, is expressed our Lord's approval of tithe-paying, and up to a certain point, of the teaching of the Pharisees thereon, even when that teaching seems to have been colored with rabbinical interpretations such as could not be so minutely deduced from the laws of the Pentateuch only.

We do well further to remember, that our Lord was conversant with certain, at least, of the traditions now found in the Mishna, for He sometimes used its arguments in vindication of His conduct and teaching, as, for instance, when His disciples on the Sabbath plucked ears of corn and rubbed them in their hands, Jesus rebutted the charge brought against them by quoting a maxim of the Pharisees, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath," (Mark 2:27, compared with Yoma 85B, McClintock 8, 72).

Amongst a class of men such as the Pharisees, possessing such wide divergences of character and views, [The Talmud says there were seven varieties of Pharisees:]

  1. The Shechemite Pharisee, who kept the law for what he could profit thereby,

  2. The tumbling Pharisee, who hung down his head with feigned humility and frequently stumbled,

  3. The bleeding Pharisee, who, in order not to look on a woman, closed his eyes, and so sometimes injured himself even to incurring bleeding wounds.

  4. The Pharisee who wore a mortar-shaped cap to cover his eyes from beholding impurity.

  5. The what-am-I-yet-to-do Pharisee, who, not knowing much of the law, and having done one thing, asked "What next?",

  6. The Pharisee impelled by fear.

  7. The Pharisee actuated by love, who obeyed the Lord because he loved Him with all his heart (McClintock, viii, 72, referring to Mishna-Babylon; Sota, 22b: Jerusalem, Berachoth, chap. ix.] our Lord undoubtedly had many enemies; but there must have been some of them with whom He had much in common, and who were friendly, for we are told that certain of the Pharisees (and these seemingly with goodwill) came to warn Him "Get Thee out, and depart hence, for Herod will kill Thee," Luke 13:31.

We know, too, that Jesus accepted hospitality, as we have already noticed, from a Pharisee, eating with one at Nain, Luke 7:36, and afterwards entering the house of one of their chiefs to eat bread on the Sabbath, Luke 14:1. Besides these instances, we may reasonably suppose that our Lord was on intimate terms with Nicodemus, who was a man of the Pharisees, a ruler of the Jews, John 3:1, 7:50, 19:39.

These remarks, then, may suggest, in relation to our subject of tithe-paying, that it was in matters of conduct, rather than of principle, that Jesus found so much to criticize in dealing with the Pharisees. The Pharisee who invited our Lord to dine was surprised that Jesus did not first wash, as no doubt the host himself had done, after having seen that what he was about to eat had been duly tithed. But the Lord said: "Rather give alms as you are able, and behold all things are clean unto you." [I have wondered whether our Lord had this Pharisaic tithing in mind when, after a warning against covetousness, and uttering the parable of the rich fool, Jesus added: "Seek not ye what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink, neither be ye of doubtful mind" (that is as to tithing), but rather "sell that ye have and give alms," Luke 12:15, 28-29, 33; 11:41.]

But, passing now from the Pharisees, and our Lord's teaching in connection with them, we may notice three persons, all of them large givers in proportion to their incomes, who offered to God more than the utmost requirement of the law as to tithes, and each of whom was specially commended by Christ. It looks at first somewhat hard that the poor widow of Sarepta, who possessed only a handful of meal and a little oil in a cruse, should have been called upon to contribute to the support of the Lord's prophet; but she gave largely, and Jesus commended her as having received greater honour than all the widows who were in Israel, 1Kings 17:12.

Again, the crowds called Zacchaeus the publican "a sinner," But even if he were an am-ha-aretz, and not instructed in rabbinical tithing, he nevertheless gave half of his income to the poor, and the Lord Jesus called him "a son of Abraham," and was a guest in his house, Luke 19:9.

Yet another instance. When the Lord sat over against the treasury, and afterwards commended a certain poor widow who cast two mites therein, it was not because she paid her tenth (as did many of the rich, no doubt), nor because she paid a fourth (as the covetous Pharisees would do), neither because her demai, or doubtful tithe, had been paid, nor because (Zacchaeus-like) she gave a half, but rather because she cast in all that she had, even all her living, Mark 12:42.

How, then, shall we summarize these remarks on tithes and offerings in the days of our Lord, and His relation thereto?

All must allow that tithe-paying was enjoined upon the Jews by God, in the law; and we all contend that Jesus Christ, as a Jew, kept that law to the letter; therefore the inference seems inevitable (and we have found not a tittle of evidence to the contrary) that the Lord Jesus Himself paid tithes. [Here, of course, cannot dogmatize, for we do not know what means of livelihood of our Lord had at His disposal. But even if we think of Him as dependent on alms, we may remember that the demai chapter of the Mishna directs that the poor man who received pieces of bread, or fragments of fig-cake, should tithe each piece separately.] Nor does He appear to have expected less than this of His disciples. He knew perfectly well that a Pharisee was called upon to spend something like a fourth of his income for religious and charitable purposes, notwithstanding which, Jesus told His disciples that unless their righteousness exceeded the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, they should in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven, Matthew 5:20.

Jesus Christ did not promulgate afresh for Christians, as from a New Testament Sinai, the law against murder, or adultery, or any other law; but to show the binding and spiritual nature of the Mosaic law, and its far-reaching principles, He taught that these commandments may be broken by an angry word, or even a sinful look. Neither, again, did the Lord re-enact that His followers should pay a patriarchal tithe, a Levitical tithe, a festival tithe, a poor's tithe, a Demai tithe, or any other; but so far was He from repealing the law concerning tithes, or lowering God's claims on property, that He set before those who would be His followers a more complete fulfillment of God's law; and an ideal more lofty by far, leaving enshrined in the memories of His hearers those remarkable words "It is more blessed to give than to receive," Acts 20:35, and proclaiming to each of His would-be followers, "Whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be My disciple," Luke 14:33.


The Tithe in Scripture
by Henry Lansdell
Section 1
Cain and Abel
Section 4
Mosaic Offerings
Section 7
Tithing in
the Apocrypha
Section 10
Christ's Attitude
on Tithing
 
Section 2
Abraham and Jacob
Section 5
The tithe from
Joshua to Solomon
Section 8
Talmudic Teaching
on First and Second Tithe
Section 11
Christ's Teaching
on the Tithe
 
Section 3
The Three Tithes of Israel
Section 6
Tithing before
and after Captivity
Section 9
The Demai or
Doubtful Tithe
Section 12
Early Giving
by Christians
 
Section 13
Apostle Paul's Teaching


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