STEWARDSHIP SUNDAY (TITHING OF FINANCES)
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Dale P. Andrews, Guest Lectionary Commentator
Distinguished Professor of Homiletics, Social Justice and Practical Theology, Vanderbilt Divinity School, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN
Lection – Malachi 3:6-12 (New Revised Standard Version)
(v. 6) For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. (v. 7) Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?” (v. 8) Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, “How are we robbing you?” In your tithes and offerings! (v. 9) You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! (v. 10) Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. (v. 11) I will rebuke the locust* for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren, says the Lord of hosts. (v. 12) Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.
I. Description of the Liturgical Moment
Stewardship is a form of discipleship. It is a way of life, not simply an event. Church practices for Stewardship Sunday seek to cultivate an understanding of God’s gift of life and God’s gifts in our lives by nurturing lives of giving. Stewardship of our resources then is a form of thanksgiving and response to God. Hence, stewardship is a form of discipleship leading into this covenantal relationship. In response to God, and empowered by God’s grace, we seek to worship God through tithes and offerings. This act of worship extends beyond the sacred hour into sacred service in God’s care for community and for creation. Stewardship Sunday occurs amidst this harvest season in thanksgiving and in sharing the substance of God’s gifts.
II. Biblical Interpretation for Preaching and Worship
Part One: The Contemporary Contexts of the Interpreter
The Church is hard pressed to preach obedience to tithing amidst a national, even global, economic recession. People in our pews challenge our preaching with unemployment, underemployment, ravaged savings and overwhelming fear. Whether in recession or prosperity, the pursuit of privilege is overwhelming itself, even if draped in veils of survival. We protect our resources in the face of deepening suffering, which frankly seems to make sense. Malachi 3 challenges us to transform our pursuit within covenantal relationship. Do we seek personal privilege or thriving throughout the community?
How do we preach privilege or God’s favor? All three Abramic world religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—appear to pursue and preach privilege even if it means killing in the name of God. Today’s nations and cell communities use destruction as a threat of faithfulness. How we preach obedience and God’s faithfulness is critically fundamental to these distortions of covenantal relationship with God. Malachi ventures into these troubling waters.
Part Two: Biblical Commentary
Where to demarcate this passage is difficult. Malachi is made of significant units. The NRSV Bible distinguishes verses 8-12 as a unit around the issues or demands of tithing. Still, the unit is generally held by scholars to be slightly broader, either beginning with verse 6 for many or verse1 for some. The context of the argument at stake here is around God’s judgment.1 Although verse 1 begins with the anticipation of a messenger, preachers may find it too tangential to decipher within your sermons just whom the messenger is. While the name Malachi means “my messenger,” this opening verse to chapter 3 may refer to Elijah. New Testament gospel references liken the messenger to John the Baptist. Notwithstanding, I suggest that preachers will find in verse 5 the theme of judgment underscored to which today’s passage responds directly. God will “draw near in judgment …” The causes of judgment in verse 5 are quite consistent with those identified elsewhere in prophetic literature—breaching the law in personal conduct and care for those marginalized and oppressed amidst the community.2
God’s judgment, however, is part of God’s immutable character. And so is God’s faithfulness in kind. Verse 6 answers the resounding questions of the community from verse 2:17, “Where is the God of justice?” Yet, this question really expects God to vindicate the community from their own oppressors. The book of Malachi is a post-exilic composition. While the Babylonian exile is behind them, the community of faith still struggles under another ruler—the Persian empire.3 The community of faith, the people of God, is looking for God’s faithfulness in the justice of their vindication. Verse 6 is God’s response. God has already been faithful in their survival!4 God has been faithful even when both priests and people of God ignored the statutes of divine covenant (v. 7). The stage is then set: “Return to me and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.”
Multiple forms of questions constitute a prominent feature of Malachi. Both rhetorical and responsive questions form a dialogical structure to the book.5 Verse 7c raises the responsive question from the community faith that carries forward the point of grievance, “How shall we return?” And the questioning from God retorts in verse 8, “Will anyone rob God?” As perhaps the most well known quote from Malachi, the language of robbing is stark enough. Yet, the verb carries as strong a meaning as defrauding God. The nation is charged with defrauding God in their tithes and offerings.6 By implication from verse 10, the covenant community was not yielding their “full” tithe. The call is to obedience to the covenant relationship. Tithing is relational. God expects the covenant community to embrace the fullness of the relationship in honoring God and God’s care for the community.
This commentary on Malachi 3 should come with a note of sermonic caution. Tithing and offerings are integral to stewardship and discipleship. We seek to give from the substance of what we have received, not merely from a dispensable apportionment. “Giving” and “blessing” can be adequately understood only in relationship and God’s character of care for relationship. The juxtaposition of curse and blessings in verses 8-12 are often depicted uncritically as a divine economic equation of simple theological arithmetic: “We give so that God will bless us.” In fact, problematic distortions of divine faithfulness end up in sermons of prosperity as an end in itself. In turn, any lack of prosperity becomes de facto evidence of unfaithfulness. Malachi reminds us that God will be faithful in our survival or in our thriving. Our giving seeks the fullness of faithfulness in worshipping God with thanksgiving and care for the God’s creation. The message here is that God seeks to honor our efforts to respond to God’s own grace—the blessings and call of covenantal relationship.
Talmudic literature stresses a forceful meaning to tithing, since all that the community possesses is due to God’s grace and our tithing reveals not only our obedience but also our worship and embrace of the covenant relationship.7 Many scholars point out the early appearance of tithing in the formation of the covenant by people in the book of Genesis, 14:20 and 28:22 in particular.8 Likewise, a post-exilic corollary on the role of tithing within the broad period of Malachi can be found in the reforms of Nehemiah 13:10-14.9 Between formation and reformation, tithing is tied to God’s faithfulness and faithful response in covenantal relationship.
In a surprising turn of events, God dramatically dares the community to put God to the test! Verse 10 invites the surviving remnant to test God’s faithfulness to the relationship. The curse of verse 9 is immediately countered with the promises of blessing in verses 10-11. Preachers should take note, however, that both the curse and the blessing language in this passage bespeak of God’s immutable character. God’s justice is not simply held off in the distance of national or even eschatological vision, but in God’s response to the community’s faithfulness. Verse 12 ends with the promise then of vindication through God’s response.
Despite the difficulty of mixing challenge and celebration in our sermons, this text appears to accomplish this (vv. 10-12). The challenge becomes the foundation to celebrate God’s faithfulness. Preachers will need to give priority in the sermon conclusion to one and only one. The role of challenge is hard to evade in the choice, in that it is God daring us to live into God’s blessing of covenantal relationship. We can celebrate, however, the dramatic dare in God’s own unyielding grace. The challenge therefore still remains central.
Language: This passage employs dramatic language to underscore the central components. The notion of robbing God steals one’s breath upon just hearing the words (v. 8). Equally disturbing is the charge of being “cursed with a curse” from God (v.9). How does one climb from beneath such a rock? And the deliverance of grace is no less momentous, the promises of blessing resound with divine charm, “nations will count you happy, … a land of delight” (v.12).
Sights: Even the promises of blessings evoke images of deliverance. The locusts or pests will not devour the crops and the vines will not grow brittle in barrenness (v. 11). The promises appear to be negations of cursed existence. These blessings also bear images of plenitude—streaming blessings “pouring” and “overflowing” from the “windows of heaven” (v.10). And the command to tender a “full tithe” of “food” into the “storehouse” (v.10) is teeming with bulging imagery, no less.
1. Polaski, Donald C. “Malachi 3:1-12.” Interpretation. 54.4 (2000): 416-417.
2. Schuller, Eileen M. “The Book of Malachi.” The New Interpreter's Bible, V. Vii: Apocalyptic Literature, Daniel, Twelve Prophets. Ed. Leander Keck. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996. p. 846.
3. Schuller, Eileen M. “The Book of Malachi.” The New Interpreter's Bible, V. Vii: Apocalyptic Literature, Daniel, Twelve Prophets. pp. 847-848.
4. Polaski, Donald C. “Malachi 3:1-12.” Interpretation. 54.4 (2000): 418.
5. Schuller, Eileen M. “The Book of Malachi.” The New Interpreter's Bible, V. Vii: Apocalyptic Literature, Daniel, Twelve Prophets. p. 843.
6. Davis, George B. “Are Christians Supposed to Tithe.” Criswell Theological Review. 2 (Fall, 1987): 85. Here Davis cites W. C. Kaiser, Jr., Malachi, God’s Unchanging Love. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984. p. 89.
7. Ibid., p. 86.
8. Cf. Davis, pp. 86-87.
9. Cf. Schuller, pp. 847, 870.