Today is our Gift Day, a day when we ask you all to dig a bit deeper into your pockets and purses and give a little bit more, if you are able, to help with the running of the church. I realise that many of you already make extremely generous donations to Church funds and I will be forever grateful for that. I also realise of course that nothing gets any cheaper; despite inflation apparently being very low I’m sure that you’ll all agree that the regular day to day expenditure never seems to go down, it only ever seems to increase. The wholesale prices of energy are lower than they have been for a number of years and yet the retail price, that is the price that you and I pay, never seems to come down quite so much, if at all. I am also aware that there are many demands on everyone’s money, not least from the various and numerous charities urgently seeking funds to help the immigrants and refugees who are seeking to leave the despair and violence of their own countries and come to the UK or to Europe to look for a better life.
The concept of giving to help others is very old and goes all the way back to the early days of the Jewish people. The Law, as laid down in Leviticus, clearly stated that everyone was to tithe, that is, give 10% of what they had. Leviticus 27:30 clearly states, “A tithe of everything from the land, whether grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord; it is holy to the Lord.” Leviticus 27:32 adds, “Every tithe of the herd and flock – every tenth animal that passes under the shepherd’s rod – will be holy to the Lord.” There were other rules regarding redeeming these tithes or substituting money for livestock and crops but in essence everyone had to pay a tenth of what they had as a tithe. All of these tithes would then be taken to Jerusalem to be used in a variety of ways.
The only people exempt from this tithing were the Levites since they had no land and no income as they were responsible for the running of the temple, the synagogues and all religious instruction. A further instruction stated that whenever a meal of the tithed offerings was held they were to be invited without cost.
It seems that there were three different tithes. I mentioned the Levites a moment ago and they were the recipients of one of those tithes; as God’s workers they needed to be supported as they had no other means of income. We learn more about this in Numbers 18:21-24 where we are told, “I give to the Levites all the tithes in Israel as their inheritance in return for the work they do while serving at the tent of meeting.” Rather interestingly, the instructions in Numbers 18 regarding the Levites state that they were to give a tenth of what they received as a tithe; a sort of tithe of the tithe!
Secondly, there was the Poor Tithe which was paid more or less every third year. This tithe helped those who had no land or were unable to work for whatever reason and, as part of this; itinerant beggars were given a daily meal. It was apparently felt that if they were given a weekly supply of food there was a fear that they would go from village to village to claim several weekly supplies! That sounds very familiar as there have long been rumours that some users of food banks in this country may have been doing exactly the same!
And finally there was a Festival Tithe that was collected on other years. This tithe was used to fund and provide food for the many festivals that were held in Jerusalem and was a wonderful way for the poorer people to save for such large occasions.
To digress for a moment, I’ve always felt that laws and regulations handed down by the EU are made worse by the UK habit of ‘gold plating’ them; that is, unnecessarily adding to them. The same happened with the tithing system. The system seemed simple enough and yet, the powers that be added to them and made them become a great burden. Later, in New Testament times the Pharisees seemed to believe that by tithing in the way that they did they would gain acceptance with God. We read in Matthew 23:23, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter, without neglecting the former.” Luke says something similar in Luke 11. This thought of giving a tenth of even herbs and spices was an example of this ‘gold plating’ since the extension to the law stated that everything that is eaten and that grows out of the earth must be tithed.
All of the forgoing came from the Old Testament and the Mosiac Law. Now, I may be wrong but I can find no mention of tithing in the New Testament. However, despite that I’ve no doubt that the people continued to tithe just as they had done for hundreds of years; having said that there doesn’t seem to be any actual mention of tithing or the laws and regulations that surrounded it. That’s not to say that there was no giving as we understand it as we can see from these opening verses of 1 Corinthians 16.
Let me give you just a bit of background about Corinth. This was a major commercial city in Greece and was to the west of Athens. Paul visited there during his second missionary journey somewhere around 49 AD when he preached the gospel and founded the Christian church, a church which consisted mostly of Gentiles. This city was a rather corrupt place full of idolatry and immorality and the Christians there were struggling to deal with that. Consequently Paul wrote this letter to them in about 55 AD to try and encourage them and help them with these problems.
At the time Paul wrote the letter the people in Jerusalem were experiencing poverty and famine and so Paul was trying to collect money to help them. Paul asked all the churches with which he was associated to join in with this collection and this included asking those believers in the Corinthian church to add to that collection. It is important to understand that the church in Jerusalem consisted mainly of Jews whilst the church in Corinth consisted mainly of Gentiles, two groups who had generally not got on too well together and basically ignored one another. However, do you remember what Paul told the Galatian believers? He wrote to them and said in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile ... for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Since we are all united in Christ it is incumbent upon us to help one another regardless of our origins and that was what Paul was urging the Corinthian church to do.
As part of this giving towards the collection, Paul urged them, “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.” (16:2). To the Jews the first day of the week was of course the Sabbath. For the Christians however, we know from Acts 20:7 that their chosen day to worship was Sunday and so Paul seems to have been suggesting that taking up this collection should form part of their regular worship together. Note also that Paul mentions “each one of you” implying that both rich and poor should make a contribution. As we know that tradition of taking up an offering continues to this day, although it seems more than likely that what Paul is talking about may be in addition to any other offering that they may have made. We may think that we couldn’t, or perhaps shouldn’t, do the same as we are already paying taxes to pay for the welfare system so why give more. Let me remind you that the Corinthian believers were also taxpayers and Paul was well aware of that. He still urged them to give as much as they could and later in 2 Corinthians 9:7 Paul told them, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
Two interesting points arise from all this. Firstly, Paul is urging everyone to contribute regardless of their own personal financial circumstances. Paul didn’t stipulate how much someone should give, simply that they should all give something. Secondly, the collection was to be used to help fellow Christians in Jerusalem; Paul was asking them to donate funds to help people in another country! Does that sound familiar? The various charities involved are asking everyone to make a donation to help the refugees who are in camps in Lebanon, Jordan and a number of other countries. Many of those refugees could well be Christians and so we would be following Paul’s urging by helping them. Upon receiving this gift some time later, the believers in Jerusalem may well have felt that it was a fulfilment of a prophecy in Isaiah 60. The prophet says in Isaiah 60:11, “Your gates will always stand open, they will never be shut, day or night, so that people may bring you the wealth of the nations...” That may seem a slightly tenuous link to us but to those believers who knew scripture it would have meant a great deal. God will always provide, sometimes from the most unlikely of sources.
Jesus came to help the poor and we should be prepared to do the same. In Luke 12:33 we see Jesus urging His disciples to give to the poor when He said to them, “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” Later in Luke 14:13-14 we see Jesus having lunch at the home of a Pharisee. As they sat eating Jesus told the Pharisee not to invite his usual guests, his friends, relatives and rich neighbours, instead He told him, “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” I’m not sure that Jesus necessarily expects us to sell everything we have and give the proceeds to the poor although I’m sure that you can understand the principle.
Whilst it is all too easy to make excuses for not helping the poor, many of which really are excuses rather than reasons, there is no getting away from the fact that we should help when and where we can. We may think that they don’t deserve help or that we needn’t help because we don’t know any poor people ourselves. We may feel that any money that we give may be wasted or stolen. The simple answer to all that is to give to a reputable charity where there are safeguards in how the money is accounted for, handled and distributed. Paul had already thought of some of these things hence his comments in 16:3 suggesting that the Corinthian believers should select some of their own members to take the collection to Jerusalem. Paul intended to write letters of introduction and authority to enable these trusted people to take the money to their Christian brethren in Jerusalem, meaning that Paul would not handle any of the collection and everything would be seen to be above board. That is indeed what happened as we can read a list of the names of those who took the collection to Jerusalem in Acts 20:4.
That’s not the end of it though. Up to now Paul has been talking about giving in principle and giving to the poor in particular. However, his teaching on giving doesn’t end there. We also have to remember the needs of the church and its work since everything has to be paid for and the church has no direct income of its own. Consequently we have to rely on the generosity of members and adherents to provide those much needed funds. Paul makes a couple of brief comments to his protégé Timothy on this matter in 1 Timothy 5:17-18 when he says, “Give a bonus to leaders who do a good job, especially the ones who work hard at preaching and teaching. Scripture tells us, ‘Don’t muzzle a working ox’ and ‘A worker deserves his pay.’” (The Message). Please don’t take that as a plea for a bonus or a big pay rise! It is, however, a reminder that the church has financial commitments that need to be met, not just the salary of your Pastor. Everyone here is very generous but unfortunately we occasionally need to ask for a bit extra just to top up the coffers a little to cover the occasional extra expenses and that is what we are doing today.
Asking for money is always difficult, especially when people are already giving plenty. Paul knew that which is why he suggested putting a little extra to one side to add to the special collection that he was organising to help the poor in Jerusalem. We would all do well to consider that for the future! I do realise that whilst Paul’s collection was to help the poor we are asking today for money to help the church. However, giving is still giving and we should all think carefully about just how much we do give to help support the work of spreading and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Paul had already told the Corinthian believers that God loves a cheerful giver and so I hope that you will all be cheerful as you give just that little bit more.