Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Lost Art of Tithing

Dear Theophilous,

There’s an awkward moment we go through each week at Mass. Over the years we’ve gotten used to it. But it’s still awkward none the less.

Each week at the offertory the usher hands me the collection basket. I then pass it along to my son, who gives it to my wife, who hands it to the next family in the pew… Empty! No envelope. No bills. No coins. Nothing! Making this all the more awkward is the fact that because we are so involved in parish ministry, we’re usually in the front pew; so the empty collection basket we pass along really is empty.

I always get a kick out of sharing this story with my students. They know how important my prayer life and the sacraments are to me, so their eyes open wide in unbelief when I tell them I put nothing in the collection plate. Then one by one they clue in, and somebody from the back will pipe up, “They take it right from your account, don’t they? Like a car payment.” All I can do is smile.

Yes, our parish has pre-authorized giving. The regulars who are at Mass every Sunday know this, so they don’t bat an eye when we pass them the empty collection basket. Christmas and Easter are another story… I don’ turn around to look, but I can imagine the confused stares of people thinking, “Hey! Didn’t that guy just read? And he’s not putting anything in the basket?”

It’s probably the same incredulous feeling I had when our pastor pulled me aside during the Archdiocese of Toronto’s Family of Faith campaign to tell me that our family is one of the parish’s more generous donors, so would we consider helping out even more. Really? We’re one of the more generous? I get the tax receipt every year and feel ashamed that we haven’t given more.

All of the faithful are called to help with the needs of the Church:

The fifth precept (“You shall help provide for the needs of the Church”) means that the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his abilities. (CCC 2043)

Traditionally this has been seen as one-tenth, 10%, of one’s income; known as the Tithe or in French la dîme (hence the name of our 10-cent coin). Again, looking at our taxes, I know we are far from being close to tithing our income – it’s more like a nickel. Hence my uncomfortable surprise to learn that we are one of the more generous families – especially when we put nothing in the basket.

This got me to wondering, where did the notion of 10% come from anyway. Was it just a tax dreamt up by the Church when Pope was also a temporal ruler over central Italy? The first ever income tax?

Actually, tithing pre-dates the Church as we know it. It was even in place before Christ walked on the earth. The faithful were called to give 10% long before the priests instituted the temple tax. Giving one-tenth of all one’s possessions goes all the way back to Abraham:

King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him (Abram) and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ And Abram gave him one-tenth of everything. (Gen 14:18-20)

Out of thanksgiving for the blessings he had received – thanksgiving for victory; thanksgiving for the abundance bestowed upon him – Abram gave the priest of God Most High 10% of everything he had.

When I look at my paystub every two weeks, 10% before taxes, seems pretty steep. There is a mortgage to pay, car payments to think of, government taxes to consider, and food to be put on the table. I’m not so sure there’s room for another 10% to come off the top.

Christ never said it would be easy, that’s why he made such a big deal out of the widow who placed two pennies in the poor box:

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mk 12:43-44)

Giving is supposed to hurt.

However, the Church in her wisdom understands that the faithful must also live so that we can spread the Good News. That is why the words “each according to his abilities” is added at the end of the teaching in the Catechism.

This isn’t meant to justify putting less in the collection basket so we can afford to go out to a fancy restaurant or make payments on a luxury sedan, but it does open up opportunities to give in other ways. A part of your 10% could be in donations to other charities. There are so many worthy causes, both local and global, but do your homework first to make sure that your charity of choice does not actively promote teachings or actions that are contrary to the Gospel. Marx coined the phrase time is money and this couldn’t be more true when it comes to volunteer hours lessening the financial burden of a local charity. Find out where your hidden talents lie, and you will be surprised at the satisfaction you get from helping out.

This generation seems to have lost the art of tithing, of giving from our needs rather than our abundance. In a society based on consumerism, it’s too easy to put tithing, especially to the Church, last. We need to realign our priorities, distinguishing between needs and wants. Most of all we need to remember the Church and to give generously, it’s what keeps the lights on.

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