The word tithe actually means one-tenth and the act of tithing, a very ancient practice of worship, means setting aside a tenth of one’s income to return to the Lord. It was established in the Old Testament by Abraham and a man called Malchizedek (cf. Genesis 14: 18-20). Originally the tithe was given in the form of produce or livestock, as that was one’s “wealth”. As the culture shifted from a barter-based system of trade to a monetary exchange system, the tithe began to be paid in currency. Whether one gave livestock or money was not as important as understanding that it was a grateful response to a generous God. It was recognizing with gratitude all the blessings God had bestowed, realizing we have an inherent need to give as an act of worship, not merely as a duty. Loye Young, a Catholic blogger, summarizes with this true story:
“Home for me is a 16-foot travel trailer at a camping ‘resort’ in San Antonio, Texas. One afternoon last week, I was sitting in my lawn chair under the awning, which serves as my living room, when I saw my friend Adam walk by. He was carrying a plastic bag of Hot Pockets and Cokes he’d bought at the drugstore down the street.
Adam (that’s his real name) is in his early twenties, thin as a rail, and lives alone in a one room cabin down the hill from me. The cabin has no running water, so he uses the camp facilities for the restroom and to shower.
He works for minimum wage on an asphalt crew in the 100 degree Texas summer heat. His thick brown hair is sunbleached to a burnt orange color, because he never wears a hat. I see him most every day as he goes to and from his job. He doesn’t have a car, so a company pickup comes to get him and bring him home. He rides in the back of the truck. He always smiles. I’ve never seen him unhappy.
Anyway, as he was walking by, I said hello and so he stopped to chat. We exchanged some small talk about how hot the day was. Gesturing to the computer on my lap, he asked what I was working on. I told him I was writing an article about giving to God and what that means for our salvation. He looked at me like he remembered something, but forgot how he knew. What he said next, in his slow Texas accent, was as lucid, theologically accurate summary of Christian giving as I have ever heard.
’You mean tithin’, right?’ Adam paused and squinted his eyes. ‘God owns everything, so when he gives me something, I give him back 10%. If I do, he promises me a blessin’.’ Then he shook his head, grinned broadly, and said, ‘But I don’t give for the blessin’. I give because he wants me to. It’s all his anyway.’
I was reminded of the words of our Lord: ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants ‘ ( Luke 10:21). The article I was writing is 9,000 words long, but Adam had summarized it in 45 words!
I told him that if everyone understood what he just said, I wouldn’t have to write the article. He laughed and said, ‘Not everybody gets it.’”
Tithing as an Act of Worship
It is no accident that the fruits of our labor are offered at the same time as the presentation of the bread and wine. Just as bread and wine represent the “work of human hands”, the money collected represents the results of our work. This monetary gift represents the gift of ourselves to God, from our hard work and sacrifice. Just as God transforms the bread and wine and gives them back to us to share in His life, God accepts our monetary gifts and transforms it through the work of the parish community and allows us, as disciples, to fulfill our mission of making Jesus Christ known and loved.
“Honor the Lord with your wealth, with first fruits of all your produce; then will your barns be filled with grain, with new wine our vats will overflow.” Proverbs 3:9-10