It is true that many of us do not give as generously to the Church and charities as we should. Tithing, a word meaning one-tenth, is a practice traced back to the Old Testament where the Israelites offer a portion of the harvest or the sacrifice of an animal to express gratitude to God (Lev 27:30). However, in interpreting the Bible, it is important to understand that while the message of salvation is from God, the message is often mingled with prevailing social norms and values which can be at odds with the teaching of Christ and the Church. This is particularly true with the Old Testament, where the author, while inspired by God, did not enjoy the benefits of the revelation of Christ. Hence, we need to be careful not to interpret everything in the Bible literally. Otherwise, a man might think it is permissible to have an adulterous relationship with a virgin as long as he intends to marry her (Deut 22:28-29); or we might think it is the will of God to put sinners to death (Gen 18:16.19:29); and we would have to remove all statues, crucifixes and stations of the cross from our churches for fear of offending our “jealous God” (Ex 20:4-5). The above are just a few examples on the dangers of blind literal interpretation of the Bible. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that there is a literal and a spiritual sense in interpreting the Bible (CCC 116-117). In this case, as is often the case, when we apply the literal formula of 10% to the complexity of our modern lives, we can often run into difficult situations. For example, consider the following:
- Is the 10% before- or after-tax income; and how do you account for different tax rates across different tax jurisdiction?
- Does the 10% only include our contributions to the Church; or does it include donations to charities?
- In many tax jurisdictions, contribution to the Church and charities attracts different levels of tax deductibility. How should we account for these different deductions?
- There are many parents that I know who make enormous sacrifices so that they can provide their children a good Christian education. After making these sacrifices, they simply do not have the means to contribute 10% of their income to the Church or charity. What should they do? Should they deny their children of a Christian education instead?
- How about a pensioner or an unemployed person whose benefit cheques are barely enough to cover the essential bills? What should he/she do?
Before his conversion, Paul was a Pharisee who was deeply committed to literal adherence of the 613 Torah Laws. After his conversion, Paul realised that literal adherence of these laws is not what God wants us to do. Hence, he wrote in Gal 2:16: “no one will be justified by the works of the law”.
By Paul’s teaching, we know that we are not bounded by the literal interpretation of the old laws. What are we to make of the tithe then? Canon Law 222 states that “The Christian faithful are obliged to assist with the needs of the Church so that the Church has what is necessary for divine worship, for apostolic works and works of charity and for the decent sustenance of ministers. They are also obliged to promote social justice and, mindful of the precept of the Lord, to assist the poor from their own resources.” Hence, we have the duty to contribute to the Church and charities. How much should we give then? CCC 2043 provides an excellent guideline: “the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability“. Personally, I like a rule given to me once by my spiritual mentor: instead giving the Church 10%, we should give LOVE%. In other words, how much we give to God ought to reflect how much we love God. Especially for those who are financially challenge, we need to remember that our gifts should not be limited to just our treasures (i.e. money), but also our time and talent.
Let us go forth to love the Lord; and give ourselves generously to Him!