My sister-in-law and her husband have always given 10% of their income to the church. Four years ago, about 1 year into their marriage, their finances got very tight. With the arrival of their first baby, and some unexpected medical bills, they fell behind in their bills, and were forced to charge some expenses. My brother-in-law’s teaching salary (their only income) wasn’t able to pay off this debt, and for months they prayed as to whether they should give less to the church and put some of their money towards their debt. They prayerfully determined that they should continue to give to God what was rightfully His and trust that He would provide for their family. I’m sure it was very tempting to transfer several hundred dollars each month away from the collection basket and towards their medical bills, but they pressed on, giving God their first fruits each month.
Several months later, with no real improvement in their financial situation, my sister-in-law and her husband entered the “big-bucks” drawing at our church. Sure enough, Father pulled out their ticket, and they won $6,000 that night—this $6,000 was almost the exact amount of their unpaid medical bill debt. My 200+ pound brother-in-law had tears in his eyes as he gave our old, barely 5 foot tall Italian priest a bear hug. I don’t think Father Anthony ever witnessed such a grateful winner.
Our financial trust in God is most tested when it hurts a bit to give the money away each month. But it is at times like these when God really proves that he is never outdone in generosity.
Generosity, specifically with regard to our finances and money, is a very difficult area for many of us. A recent study conducted by the Barna Group found that Catholics were the least generous of any Christian denomination—giving less than 2% of their income to the church and other charitable organizations. Evangelicals were in the “elite” of givers, with 24% giving 10% or more of their income. The only groups that gave less than Catholics were atheists and agnostics.
Historically, Christians were called to tithe. A tithe is not synonymous with simply giving, but is a specific type of giving whereby we donate 10% of our income to the Church. There are differing views on how to define “income,” whether that means gross, net, pre-tax, post-tax, etc. I don’t intend to address that issue here. Let’s just settle on 10% of some reasonable definition of income. Also, many Christians tithing to be applicable to donations to both the Church other charitable organizations. This is another issue beyond the scope of this post.
While tithing isn’t a hard and fast requirement for Catholics, it is a tradition of our Church, reaching back even to the Israelites. As such, I will argue that we should only break from tithing for serious reasons.
The tithe is a barometer, so to speak, of what most of us should be giving. Some families may be blessed financially and be called to give more. Other families may struggle with poverty and be called to give less. But for most of us, the tithe is a good measuring stick of what we should be giving back to our church.
There are plenty of Scriptural references to tithing, many of which are found in the Old Testament. The early Church took the tithing requirement from the Old Law, first making it an obligation of conscience, and then an obligation via ecclesiastical enactment. The Catholic Encyclopedia provides the following:
The payment of tithes was adopted from the Old Law, and early writers speak of it as a divine ordinance and an obligation of conscience. The earliest positive legislation on the subject seems to be contained in the letter of the bishops assembled at Tours in 567 and the canons of the Council of Macon in 585. In the course of time, we find the payment of tithes made obligatory by ecclesiastical enactments in all the countries of Christendom. The Church looked on this payment as “of divine law, since tithes were instituted not by man but by the Lord Himself.” (C. 14, X de decim. III, 30) (emphasis added).
While the New Testament doesn’t explicitly set an expectation of a tithe, it does require Christians to care for the poor and provide for their clergy, and I think St. Thomas makes an excellent point when he says: “…the people of the New Law are under greater obligations, according to Matthew 5:20, ‘Unless your justice abound more than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’”
After all, why should we give any less freely than those who were compelled to give?
Considering that we live in the richest society in the entire world, it is amazing that so few Catholics, and really so few Christians, take the call to financial generosity seriously. We put so much weight on material possessions, and our own personal desires, that most of us cannot give generously, or even sacrificially. Most of us do not budget 10% or even 5% of our income to charity. And yet we do budget money each month for things like a cell phone, a second car, dance classes for our child, cable television, a Netflix subscription, an internet connection, new clothes, dinners out, a cup of coffee each morning, a fast food trip, or even a nice bottle of wine. In our culture, these items are often viewed as necessities, and tithing is an afterthought.
I realize that this can be a very difficult topic in some marriages, particularly if finances are tight and there are many set expenses each month. A large mortgage, car payments, and other like expenses can make tithing seem impossible. I realize that nobody wants to move to a smaller house so they can tithe.
For this reason, it is obviously best to set up your finances with the assumption that you will give 10% as a tithe. But for many couples the decision to tithe comes after they bought the house and the car. If this is your situation, don’t just throw up your hands and say you can’t. Everyone can give something, so why not see what you really can give, even if that is only 1% or 2%, and then move in the direction of giving more over time. In a few years, you may be surprised how much more you are able to give.
So many of us have young growing families, and many of us are living off of one income. Most young families who are open to life are not exactly well off, but will struggle to pay their bills each month. With pressure to feed a growing family and put gas in our cars, it can seem impossible to commit to giving away a portion of our income each month, especially if that amount is 1/10 of our income.
And even if we decide we should give, with financial pressure comes a temptation to cut back on the amount we give, justifying it by saying things like: “God wants me to pay these medical bills now, not wait until next month.” “God wants me to save for my child’s education, that’s the more responsible thing to do.” “God wants me to make this house repair, after all, my primary responsibility is to provide for my family.” “It’s just one month, next month I’ll give 10%.” Unfortunately, as sinful human beings, most of us err on the side of giving less, not more of our income. Most of us, including myself, fall victim to these sorts of justifications when money is tight.
Many of these temptations can be avoided if you sit down with your spouse and budget a certain amount of your income each month to charitable giving. From past experience, I can say that we gave less when we didn’t budget for it each month. When you budget a certain portion of your income to charitable giving, it can become enjoyable to figure out what organizations will get that money. The money is no longer your money, but God’s money, and you really feel like a steward as you sit down and decide who will benefit from these funds.
The true spirit of tithing is to see the money we earn each month as God’s money, not our own. He has generously given to us, and we should graciously give back to him. But not just the leftovers. If the money is His, then God should receive his share first. That’s why the Scriptures refer to the “first fruits” of our labor being designated for God. This teaching is hard. But as my sister-in-law and her husband learned first hand, God is never outdone in generosity.