By Bishop Ann Svennungsen
Did you get your taxes done? Perhaps, the storm gave you time needed to finish. Perhaps, you just got your Form 4868 done early (and if you’re not familiar with Form 4868, kudos to you). Perhaps, you plan for a big refund, so you mailed your tax return as soon as your W-2s arrived.
Whatever your situation, I think Christians should stop and say a prayer as they drop their tax forms in the mail or press “send” to submit their electronic returns. If you look at the programs and people our taxes support, it’s easy to make connections with the purpose of the “tithe” in Scripture.
Biblical tithing refers to the practice of giving one tenth of one’s income to God. “Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field,” it says in Deuteronomy 14:22. “All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s; they are holy to the Lord,” according to Leviticus 27:30
The tithes were used to support God’s work to care for the poor as well as support the community of faith. And, beyond the tithe, God called Israel to practice gleaning, Sabbath, and remission of debts – additional ways to serve the poor. As God says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”
CLEARLY, SOME OF OUR STATE and federal taxes serve the vulnerable among us: Medicare for those over 65, supplemental social security for those who are disabled, education for all ages, health care for adults and children in poverty, food stamps, tax credits. We may disagree about when tax-funded programs are the best way to serve the poor or about the proportion of our tax dollars going to social programs versus defense spending. Part of faithful stewardship includes our advocacy around such priorities.
Yet, at the end of the day, we can say a prayer as we pay our taxes – asking that the contributions we make will do good work for the sake of our neighbor, especially the neighbor in need.
So, do we tithe before or after taxes? My response: Just start somewhere! We tithe because we care about the world and the church’s proclamation. Paying taxes is no substitute for faithful giving to and through our communities of faith. It is no substitute for sacrificial generosity. Everything we have comes from God. It all belongs to God. Discipleship is not just about 10 percent. It’s about our whole lives – 100 percent.
Luther wrote “Mammon is the most common idol on earth.” How can we support and challenge one another to look more honestly at our relationship with money – and to know the grace and freedom to risk even greater generosity?
I close with a few words by beloved former Bishop Margaret Payne:
There was a young lady of God
Who thought tithing excessively odd
But she let out sigh
And she gave it a try
Now she thrives on nine-tenths of her wad.
The joy of having resources that are already set aside for giving, the delight of selecting which part of God’s work to support, the freedom from the endlessness of always wanting more — these are some of the pleasures of tithing. When we see this, … then we can tithe, and go beyond a tithe, with gratitude and grace.