There’s very little that’s more embarrassing than to go to a worship service, and discover after it begins that you don’t have anything in your wallet to put into the offering plate. You feel as though every eye in the sanctuary is staring at you as you pass the plate along or shake your head at the usher.
Don’t let it bother you too much. The offering is just that: an offering of ourselves and our gifts to God. Finding your pockets empty while in worship is not the same as being found on a train without a ticket; no one is going to toss you out the door. It is not the price of admission.
It is not even like the donation booths at the Festival of Lights. There, the signs read, “Requested Donation: $20 per car.” And then the booths have gates that force you to stop. There are no gates on this sanctuary.
And the Trustees are not talking about putting any up – at least not yet.
Because the offering should be a joyous time. One pastor I know refers to the offering as “the best part of the service.” It’s the best part because it’s when we get to invest in God’s work. Lives are changed, souls are saved, the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, the homeless are sheltered, the dying are comforted as they move from this life to eternity. The Kingdom grows – and we know that we are part of it, through the giving of our gifts.
That is how Paul views the offering in the passage we just read. He writes in verse 7: “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” There is no requested donation.
But it was not always that way.
In Hebrew Bible times, the tithe was a 10% tax on crops, animals, and income to support the priests and Levites who handled religious ceremonies and sacrifices on behalf of God’s people. It was not – to the best of our knowledge – collected during worship, but was brought periodically to the tabernacle or the Temple.
But there was another tithe – which Hebrew families were to set aside so they could go to Jerusalem for the four major festivals. They were to offer it to the Lord, and then celebrate with it. It was something of a vacation fund, so God’s people could rest and have fun with their family and friends.
And there was a third tithe – spread over three years, so it amounted to one-third of a tithe – which was used to take care of widows, orphans, and people with disabilities who could not work.
Plus special offerings. If you were especially blessed by God, you might want to give more to show your appreciation.
You’ll be relieved to know that the requested donation is no longer at least 23 1/3 percent. You’ll also be relieved to know that the New Testament does not even mention tithing. It does, however, have much to say about giving alms. Alms comes from the Greek word for mercy, so it is a voluntary, special offering for people with special needs.
The tradition goes at least as far back as Jesus’ day. When He told the story of the widow’s mite – how she gave all she had – it went into the alms box at the back of the Temple. That is the kind of offering that we read about time and again in the New Testament.
And that is the offering that Paul is writing about in this passage. Specifically, the special offerings the Corinthians were giving for the poor Christians in Jerusalem.
Yes, Paul needed money to support his ministry. He had to have food and clothing, a place to stay, and money for boat fare and land transportation – as well as postage for all those letters to the various churches. But most of the money collected went to help other people.
Even Christians who believe that the tithe still applies cannot agree on how to calculate it. Some say the 10-percent must be calculated before taxes, while others say after taxes is fine. Some say we can reduce the percentage because a significant portion of our tax money goes to help the poor, the elderly, the sick, and people with disabilities. Others say that doesn’t matter.
And that brings us back to our key verse for the day: “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
Each person should decide ahead of time what to give, based on the ability to give. Circumstances differ, allowing some to be more generous than others who have the same income. And we should never compare our giving with what others give.
But we should give it prayerful and careful consideration. Sadly, a lot of people don’t. And that shows in most collection plates: the typical Presbyterian gives 1.5% of his or her income – which indicates that for many, they give what is left over after they are done spending and investing in their futures. The investment in God’s kingdom seems to come at the end of many people’s list of priorities.
I am happy to report that this congregation is doing a good bit better than that. But for a lot of Christians, it’s not a financial problem – it’s a heart problem. It is either a lack of faith in God’s ability to provide, or a lack of understanding that everything we have is God’s in the first place. And when that faith is lacking, the joy of giving is also lacking.
It has been said many times that we cannot outgive God. The more we give, the more we have available to give. That is God’s challenge to His people in today’s passage from Malachi. He even says to them, “Test me in this. Put me to the test. See if I don’t come through.”
It’s not all that different from the idea that we can never run out of love. The more we love, the more love we have to give. Ask parents who have a lot of children. Maybe their patience is pushed to the limit at times, but they never find their supply of love running short.
And it really is all God’s to begin with, isn’t it? As the old hymn tells us,
“We give thee but Thine own, whate’er the gift may be.
All that we have is Thine alone: a trust, O Lord, from Thee.”
That brings us to more of what Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly; whoever sows generously will also reap generously.”
This is not the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” – which teaches that the more money you give, the healthier, wealthier, and wiser you will be. Paul’s own history of poverty, want, rejection, imprisonment, beatings, shipwreck, poisonous snake bite, and execution in Rome should tell us that is a lie.
When Jesus speaks of sowing and reaping, He is talking about the non-tangible benefits of investing in His kingdom – like the joy of seeing people come to faith, the peace that comes from knowing that children have food to eat and the elderly have good medical care, and the delight of watching kids singing God’s praises in Vacation Bible School.
Paul calls this “the harvest of your righteousness” in verse 10. Then he writes in verse 11: “You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.”
So the ultimate reward of our giving is seeing people thanking and praising God for supplying their needs through us. We become God’s pipeline for blessings, and to know that God is being worshipped as He deserves is a great blessing to us. And the more joy we get from giving, the more we will give – and the more joy we will get.
But there is more blessing for us – because those who are helped will pray for us. Often when you drop some money in a cup held by someone at the intersection, he or she will tell you, “God bless you.” Some may be invoking God to legitimize their panhandling, but I’m sure many of them sincerely want God to bless you.
The percentage or the amount is not what matters – it’s the attitude of our hearts. Are we happy to give?
Do we see it as an investment in God’s kingdom? May we all be cheerful givers. Amen.