Sunday, June 13, 2010

Where Your Treasure Is...

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today’s gospel lesson [Matthew 6:22-33] is a short excerpt from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, containing three segments which combine to form one of our Lord’s most pointed messages on the subject of sacrificial Christian giving.

Most of us understand--at least in theory--that Christians are supposed to be givers, and not givers only, but generous and cheerful givers. The first in order of importance is our giving to God in the form of a tithe or first-fruits offering. Normally this is given to the church for use in the construction and maintenance of our place of worship, for support of the clergy, and for caring for many families and funding the many works of mercy the parish performs on your behalf. This offering, taken from the very top of our income, is our personal acknowledgment that all things come to us from God, and is thus a very concrete act of worship on our part. If you do not happen to believe that God is your provider, but rather that every dollar in your wallet is there by your own sweat and blood, then you will see no need to worship God by offering back a gift of thanks to Him. Similarly, if you see your Christianity as primarily individualistic in nature, rather than as something tied to a holy community, you will be less likely to invest in that community and share with it the resources that God has entrusted to you. Almsgiving is another form of Christian giving, also tied to the idea of humanity itself as the larger community for which we are also responsible before God.

The New Testament scriptures are filled with references to Christian giving, as is indeed all church history down through the ages. With all this giving, we might suppose that Christians have always been rich, but this is hardly the case. Quite often churches have been built and furnished, and the poor, sick, and needy cared for by sacrificial giving on the part of the faithful. If we remember the example of the God-praised widow who put all she had to live on in the Temple treasury, we realize that even poverty is no excuse for not giving at least in some measure, for all are expected to worship God, to contribute to the Church, and to care for the poor as they are able.

In the verses just prior to this morning’s section of the gospel, our Lord instructed us to not lay up for ourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in to steal, but to lay up treasures in heaven where their value is everlasting. As always, Jesus is after something much more important than our money by telling us this; He is after our hearts. “For where your treasure is,” He said, “there your heart will be also.”

Your heart lives where your money does. This is the teaching of Christ and there is no clever, human way around the truth of it. If every cent of our hard-earned money goes back into the things of this world--no matter how vital or important those things might be--our hearts will always be attached to them, our hopes will always be that we have enough of them, and our minds will never rise above concern for them. If however we invest first and even sacrificially in the kingdom of heaven, our hearts and minds will gradually be freed from their enslavement to the things of this world to set themselves on the things above. This basic Christian teaching sets the stage for what follows next in the Sermon.

Immediately, Christ began to speak of the eye as the lamp of the body. The eye is of course the organ of seeing through which, by means of light, we perceive the world around us. Jesus is using the eye to symbolize our overall perception of reality, telling us that if our perception is darkened--or in other words, not illumined and informed by the light of Christian revelation--then our whole body, all of our thoughts and our entire manner of living, will be full of darkness.

Why did He say this right after telling us not to lay up for ourselves treasures on earth? Most likely because He understood that people would not grasp the importance of laying up treasure in heaven rather than on earth. In effect, He is telling us, “I know you don’t understand; I know you think I am wrong. But you need to have your eye enlightened by the Holy Spirit to see that what I am telling you is truth and life.”

This is important to bear in mind because what Jesus has to say next is even more difficult. He tells us that we cannot serve two masters; we cannot serve God and mammon.

Mammon does not refer to money, but rather to greed. Here, Christ personifies greed as if it were a false and idolatrous god at whose altar people willingly sacrifice even the well-being of others for the sake of their own financial gain. Clearly no Christian could live this way, for the gospel commands us to put the needs of others ahead of our own, and to be givers, not hoarders. Yet--humbly asking your forgiveness--I must point out a very serious fact concerning this. If we do not tithe or pledge or otherwise give sacrificially to support the very real financial needs of our holy community and the poor in our midst, we are exactly guilty of putting our own needs first at the cost of others. In such a case, Christ--who never shies away from revealing the truth that can save us--boldly tells us that our eyes are dark, our hearts are set on earth instead of in heaven, and we are worshiping the wrong god.

These are tough things to consider, and uncomfortable. Few things make people more defensive than the subject of money. Yet considering the unequivocal language and powerful imagery that Christ uses here, we would do well to take very seriously what He has to say and search to see to what degree it might apply to us.

I know that there are people in our community who are suffering financially and cannot make a regular tithe. Some have even received help from the parish as we are able to give it. But at the same time, we have many more families and individuals who are in a position to make more generous and regular offerings, but simply do not. Typically our parish finances are contributed by a small minority of families who give sacrificially from their own limited means to provide a place of worship for the rest of us. Many of these families are no better off than the rest of us, but their priorities are different, and they have learned that tithing is not simply a matter of personal piety, but of corporate responsibility in the household of God.

I realize that no one thinks they can afford to tithe. Many quite sensibly fear that they will not have enough for themselves if they tithe to God. Jesus also addressed this fear in the last part of our gospel lesson when He said, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” After showing how God cares abundantly even for the flowers and the birds, Jesus concluded, “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things [i.e. your material needs] shall be added to you”.

Some of us frankly doubt the truth of this. Though we seldom see our fellow parishioners walking around hungry, thirsty, and naked because they gave their tithe and God forgot them, we still want more proof, in black-and-white, that God is going to meet our needs if we tithe. Perhaps we might even admit that we lack enough faith to believe it can be done. But isn’t that the same as saying that our hope for well-being really is tied to our money, and that mammon is the only god that we can truly and deeply trust?

I won’t say to you that tithing is easy. Often it does involve some level of personal sacrifice and perhaps even struggle. But what makes us think that we can be Christians in this fallen world without sacrifice and without struggle? What an insult to the holy saints and martyrs! Sacrifice and struggle are often required of us by God in order to form a greater faith and enlightenment and a more heavenly direction in our lives.

Have you ever considered that the tithe offering is meant to be a bit of a sacrifice? It’s intended to change our whole perspective about money and lead us toward trust in God. Does that sound like an easy operation? If we put tithing off until some time that we imagine it will be more affordable and painless, aren’t we rather missing the whole point? As I mentioned at the beginning, Jesus is not after our money, but after that which is of much greater value to Him: our hearts. He knows well what we so often fail to grasp, that our hearts live where our money does. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We cannot undo this truth. If we wait to tithe, we are only extending the time that our hearts are wedded to this world rather than to heaven. If we begin to tithe, even at a tiny level with our father-confessor’s blessing to eventually work up to a full tithe, then we are investing our hearts into our parish and into the kingdom of God, which is exactly what Christ tells us we need to do.

Sacrificial giving has always been the foundation of Christian spirituality. Before the early Christians became saints and martyrs, they first became givers, laying their goods at the Apostles’ feet. I know of no better way for us to free our own hearts from bondage to this world and to set them firmly on the path leading to the kingdom of heaven.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

3 Comments:

At 6/13/2010 10:09 PM , Blogger Russell Earl Kelly said...

I was under the impression that Eastern Orthodox did not teach tithing.

True biblical HOLY tithes are always only food from inside God’s HOLY land of Israel which God had miraculously increased. Tithes cannot come from what man increased or from outside Israel. Jesus, Peter and Paul did not qualify as tithers. Money was essential for sanctuary worship but was not tithed. NT giving for the Church after Calvary is primarily sacrificial.

According to Numbers 3; 18:21-24; 1 Chron 23 to 26 and Neh 10:37b the first Levitical tithe was to be used to support Levite SERVANTS to the priests. They functioned as builders, guards, janitors, bakers, treasurers and politicians.

The Levites gave the best tenth of the tenth to the priests (Num 18:25-28; Neh 10:38)

Those who received the Levitical tithe were not allowed to own or inherit property and were commanded to KILL anybody else attempting to enter the sanctuary (Num 18).

A second tithe (20% total) was eaten by everybody at the 3 annual feasts.

A third tithe (23% total) was kept in the homes every third year solely for the poor.

Tithes were never used to send out missionaries to convert Gentiles.

 
At 6/14/2010 6:00 AM , Blogger cheerful said...

It's good to give cheerfully because we know "God loves a Cheerful Giver." Suggest you check out www.cheerfulgivers.org

 
At 6/14/2010 7:18 AM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Mr. Kelly, your understanding is quite correct; the Orthodox Church does not teach tithing as a law, and generally does not use the word at all. In this country, parishes normally rely on free-will "pledges" and any additional monetary gifts from their parishioners to meet financial needs. The principle of giving generously, cheerfully, and yes even sacrificially is a good one however, and a 10% target (whether we choose to call that a pledge or a tithe) is reasonable to that end for most families. Our Metropolitan has indeed encouraged his clergy to promote that target goal among the faithful, again not as law, but as a measure of responsible Christian giving.

My use of the word "tithe" in this homily is non-technical and not meant to reflect any Old Testament connotation or continuance of OT law, nor to imply any broader use among the Orthodox. It is merely the word we have customarily used at St. Barnabas to promote faithful giving. Our approach has always been compassionate and pastoral. We have never insisted on a flat, "one-size-fits-all" percentage; some of our families give far more than 10%, others give less as they are able. Nevertheless we have tended to hold to that 10% number as a good yardstick by which the faithful can measure their giving.

I hope that clears up any misunderstanding. Thank you for your interest!

 

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