Tithing has become controversial doctrine in today’s Church. Why? Tithing has been taken out of context and applied to the extreme beyond its context and limits of applicability. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others” (Matt. 23:23, NAS).
What is the tithe? The word “tithe” comes from an Old English root meaning “one tenth.” It is the common English translation for the Old Testament Hebrew word group. The tithe was an offering of one’s agricultural income to the Lord as an expression of thanks and dedication. In the Old Testament agricultural economy, tithes were paid not in cash, gold or goods but in crops or livestock, for only the agricultural fruit of the Promised Land was to be tithed – not other forms of income. Although today we commonly think of the tithe as “10 percent” as a result, apparently there are three tithes in the Old Testament, two every year and a third every third year, or an average of 23.3 percent of one’s annual produce from the land.
There was also provision for freewill offerings and personal giving above and beyond the tithe, so that the tithe never stood alone. Tithes were given by the patriarchs Abraham (Genesis 14:17-20) and Jacob (Genesis 28:22); a system of tithes was instituted in the law of God given through Moses (Deuteronomy 12; 14; 26); and the prophets rebuked the children of Israel for failing to give the tithe to God (Malachi 3:8). The idea of the tithe is still present in the New Testament (Matthew 23:23), but it is never explicitly applied to believers. Instead, almost all Christians are called to more extravagant freewill giving in response to the gospel of the Lord Jesus, based on faith in God as provider (2 Corinthians 9:6-10). At the time of Jesus the scribes and Pharisees kept not just the Law but also the traditions of the elders very strictly. They kept the law so strictly that in case of tithes, they counted even the leaves and stems of little vegetables. They studied the law and taught the people the law. Also, they boasted that they were keeping the commandments of God very well.
They studied the law to keep it literally, but they forsook justice, mercy, and faithfulness, which were the fundamental spirit of the law. Jesus openly pointed out their greed, dissipation, and lawlessness hidden in their hypocrisy and rebuked them for it. They did not repent, but stood against Jesus. They knew the law very well, but they did not understand the heart of God in giving them the law.
The Meanings of Justice, Mercy, and Faithfulness: Here, justice is to follow the thing that is right. By outward appearances the Pharisees and scribes were very righteous according to the standards of the law. In their deeds they kept the commands of God very strictly. But inwardly, they always thought about how they could receive recognition and respect from the people. They were hypocritical because they only tried to appear to be righteous before men. Namely, their hearts were filled with unrighteousness. Matthew 23:5-7 says, “But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries and lengthen the tassels of their garments. They love the place of honor at banquets and the chief seats in the synagogues, and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called Rabbi by men.” The “Phylacteries” refer to two small leather boxes worn by Jewish men containing parchment scrolls with scripture written on them. The Pharisees made larger phylacteries and carried them with them to show off their godliness. More simply put, they carried ‘bigger Bibles’ than other people. Also, when they were fasting, they contorted their faces to let other people know. On the outside, they seemed to be meditating on the word of God, praying, and fasting. But, in their hearts they didn’t have righteousness which is the willingness to follow the right thing.
How is it with you? In any case, I urge you to check whether or not you are keeping the word to appear righteous in the sight of men without even realizing it. Those who practice righteousness before God will have the same deeds regardless of the situations or circumstances. Whether others see you or not, whether you are in a high position or not, or whether it is beneficial or harmful for you at the moment, you just follow what is right according to the word. It’s because you are always conscious of God, and not men.
As God’s true children and spiritual workers, you keep the word of God to be recognized by God and not by men. You live by the word of God because you love living in goodness and resembling God. I hope you will cultivate justice in your heart and live a truly righteous life.
Next, mercy refers to love and generosity. You can keep the law in a way that is pleasing to God only when you have love and generosity in your heart. First, you must have love for God. Jesus lamented that the Pharisees and the scribes did not have such love. In order to keep the law completely, you must also have love for neighbors as well as for God. In the Gospel of John chapter 8, the scribes and Pharisees brought a woman before Jesus, lodging accusations against her. John 8:4-5 says, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” It was a right thing to stone her according to the law of the Old Testament. But in their hearts there was only the cunningness to test Jesus and receive the pronouncement that would condemn her. They did not have any trace of mercy or compassion of God towards sinners. God wants to save just one more soul. If you have any trace of this love of God, you would have mercy on those souls, too. According to the law, sinners must be put to death. But our God forgave us of our sins by sacrificing His one and only Son, Jesus. He showed us love that goes beyond justice. If we completely cultivate mercy in our hearts, we will keep the law of God, and we will only show goodness to our neighbors.
Lastly, ‘faithfulness’ refers to our faith towards God. Hebrews 11:6 says, “…and without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” The Pharisees and scribes thought they believed in God, but they did not truly believe. They kept the commandments, but they only had external service to be recognized by others. Namely, they did not acknowledge God who is searching the depths of their hearts. If they really believed in God from the heart, they would have believed in God, who rewards good deeds, and they would have practiced righteousness with hope. God allows for better heavenly places to those who will take hold of them by force. That ‘taking by force’ has the meaning of trying your best to cut off the worldly things, learn the word of God, pray, and look up to this God. It is to believe in God who will reward you when you practice the word. In this way you can then cast away sins and work faithfully with joy. It’s because you know your place is being constructed in a better heavenly place and there are more rewards being stored up. I hope you will keep all the commands of God with faith and joy that tell us to do, not do, keep, or cast away certain things.
Now, I have explained the importance of justice, mercy, and faithfulness, but does that mean that deeds are not important? As Jesus said in the reading passage, we have to do these things, namely we have to cultivate justice, mercy, and faithfulness, without neglecting the others, namely without neglecting the deeds such as giving the tithes. If we cultivate justice, mercy, and faithfulness in our hearts, we will naturally have the deeds of following and keeping the commandments. You can keep on practicing the word of God with your heart even though you have not yet fully cultivated justice, mercy, and faithfulness. God will see your heart and guide you to quickly and fully cultivate justice, mercy, and faithfulness in you. Namely, your faith will increase quickly. On the contrary, you should not mistakenly think that you are living by the word just because you have outward deeds. If that’s the case, your faith might even stop growing.
How to Cultivate Justice, Mercy, and Faithfulness: Jeremiah 4:4 says, “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD and remove the foreskins of your heart, men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem.” Here, to remove the foreskins of heart means that we have to wash away our heart that is stained with sins and evil. In the Old Testament circumcision was physically done to the body.
In the New Testament, we do true circumcision, which is not the circumcision of body, but of the heart. It is said in Colossians 2:11, “And in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ.” In the above verse, the removal of the body of the flesh is to cast off filthy flesh from our heart.
We can cultivate justice, mercy, and faithfulness when we fundamentally remove the dirty sins and evil, which is the perishing flesh, by circumcising our heart. Also, we must not stop circumcising the heart midway. Unless we circumcise our heart, we cannot learn the word, pray, or work faithfully with all our heart. So, if you circumcise your heart, you can live in overflowing joy every day. Also, because you have cast away dirty things from heart, the fragrance of Christ will be spread around you (2 Corinthians 2:15). Tithing without Justice, Mercy and Faithfulness is hypocritical. I believe in tithing, and do tithe. I hope you will become true children who can be praised that you are beautiful and proper in whatever you do, so that you can give great joy to God.
Dr. Lewis Akpogena