A Reflection from Bishop Stacy . . .
Here’s a question I’ve often wondered about. Why is it that the only thing Episcopal clergy are fundamentalist about in their preaching is tithing? I’ve noticed we take an uncharacteristically legalistic approach on this subject. I have some thoughts as to why that might be.
This Sunday’s Old Testament lesson (Dt. 26:1-11) is about the obligation to return to God the first fruits of the harvest. It is a variation of the theme about the obligation of tithing. Interestingly, though, the Old Testament, which we Christians sometimes ignorantly characterize as legalistic, even the law itself, Torah, which includes the Book of Deuteronomy, does not approach giving so much as duty or a discharge of legal obligation as an opportunity for the joyful giving of thanks. In fact, Deuteronomy portrays the act of the giving of the first fruits of the land as a liturgical call and response between God and God’s people, a way in which God shares with the people God’s own joy. God’s joy is expressed in giving to us; ours in expressed in turn the same way.
Deuteronomy is a book of rubrics very much like the rubrics or worship instructions of our own Book of Common Prayer. Rubrics prescribe the right way to worship. Deuteronomy goes into some detail about the giving of the first fruits because the issue is right worship, by which we mean joyful worship, thankful worship, and not really about legal obligation at all.
It prescribes that some of the first fruits are to be gathered in a basket and taken to the priest. The priest, in turn, will take it and set it down before the altar. It then prescribes the appropriate liturgical formula: “You shall make this response before the Lord your God.”
What the response turns out to be is a recitation of God’s saving acts toward the people of Israel. It begins with a reminder of where they came from, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” It recalls the people’s time in Egypt, their oppression and enslavement by the Egyptians, and God’s deliverance. It concludes with the recognition that, after all this, God ‘brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
It is then and only then that the act of giving occurs. “So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.”
First comes God’s call to the people in generosity and salvation. Then comes the people’s response of gratitude and generosity in return.
Giving is not an obligation. It is a response to God’s prior generosity—God’s deliverance from oppression and God’s provision of an abundant home. God calls in generosity. We respond in generosity. It is not, I hope, no matter how many stern stewardship sermons I hear, not about what we have to do to make God happy but about what we have the opportunity to do in gratitude.
It all has only one purpose according to Deuteronomy. “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.” It’s not about duty. It’s about celebration.