The Full Tithe and Caring for the Poor

psalm146Listen to any sermon series on stewardship and invariably Malachi 3:8-10 will be invoked. It makes for a powerful message: it has an accusation—if you don’t give at least 10% to the church, you are robbing God (vs. 8-9); it has clear instructions—“Bring the full tithe into the storehouse” (vs. 10a); and it has a wonderful promise—that if you tithe, God will “open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing” (vs. 10b).

That’s a great sermon, and often quite appealing. It holds out 10% as the goal of effective giving, “effective” meaning that it unlocks the door to God’s bounty for the church and for each individual.

Don’t give just 5% or even 9.5%; bring the full tithe i.e. at minimum 10%, and you are no longer considered a robber of God and his church and will receive all sorts of blessings from God.

But is that what the full tithe meant in ancient Israel?

There are different tithes for different purposes that are found in the Old Testament, and it is actually a bit difficult to unravel them.  For instance, Numbers 18 provides a tithe for the Levites since they were the only tribe not to receive a portion of the land. The other tribes tithed to provide for the Levites in return for their service.

Deuteronomy, however, does not seem to mention this tithe. Rather, it provides a tithe for the annual festivals and celebrations the Israelites observed, and the Levites are included in another tithe which was collected every third year, which, in addition to the Levites, provided for “the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns.” (Deut. 14:28-29)

Are the tithes in Deuteronomy in addition to the tithe in Numbers 18, or in place of it? Is there one tithe, two tithes, or three? Consensus seems to be that there were two annual tithes and every third year an additional tithe was collected for the poor.

It’s this third tithe that I think gives us a key to understanding Malachi. In fact, Deuteronomy refers to this one as the full tithe:

“Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.” (Deut. 14:28-29)

There is more. The context of the oft-cited verses in Malachi is a warning to Israel about the coming Day of the Lord, when God will judge the nations. The two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, were conquered and sent into exile because of idolatry and because they failed to take care of their poor. 

Malachi tells post-exilic Israel that it still exists, not because of the faithfulness of their ancestors, but because of Yahweh’s faithfulness. “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.” (Malachi 3:1)

But on the Day of the Lord, all nations will be judged, including Israel.  And for what will the nations be judged? “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts. (Malachi 3:5, emphasis mine.)

This is the language of Deuteronomy 14, and then some: cheating laborers of a fair wage and giving false testimony—rigging the judicial system in favor of the powerful—were crimes against the poor and powerless.

Don’t do these things that your ancestors did that led to the destruction and exile of the nation, Yahweh says. Return to me he implores.

When Israel asks how they shall return—of what things do they need to repent?—he replies with the familiar passage: stop robbing me by keeping the tithe for the poor for yourselves. Take care of the poor in your towns, he says, and I will prosper and protect the nation.

It’s important to note that Malachi isn’t addressed to individual Israelites, telling them that individual charity is the way to care for the poor in their towns—it’s addressed to the nation (vs. 9).

Not just Israel, but all the nations will be judged, Malachi says, by their treatment of the poor. If a nation exploits them, ignores them, does not provide for them, even blames them, that nation will stand condemned before the Lord.

But if a nation has compassion upon the poor, provides for them and seeks justice for them, the Lord will poor out his blessings upon that nation, giving it his protection and prosperity.

And that’s not just Malachi’s message. All the prophets proclaimed it, and it underlies the Law of Moses.  Moreover, Jesus taught it.

In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) Jesus says that when the nations are gathered for judgment on the Day of the Lord, the criterion by which each nation will be judged will be its treatment of “the least of these.”

This is the message of the full tithe. I am sure that the Lord is happy when we give generously to support the church, and most churches are deserving of every dollar they receive—but that is not really the message of Malachi. And when we don’t tell what the real message is, we run the risk of putting our churches and our nation at risk of God’s condemnation.

Image created at The Quote Factory

Don't Buy My Book!!!
I agree to have my personal information transfered to MailChimp ( more information )
My eBook "The Essence of Jesus: A Fresh Look at the Beatitudes" sells on Amazon for $3.99, but you can get it FREE by subscribing to my blog!
I hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.