Your Malachi 3 tithing sermon and social justice
It’s that time of year. The summer financial crunch compounds the pain of reduced giving caused by a struggling economy. Church leaders are wrestling with next year’s dismal budget figures. And pulpiteers are charting a course over treacherous terrain: preaching about money to people who keep most of theirs for themselves.
The typical text being considered, from Malachi 3:8-10, is very familiar: “You have cheated me of the tithes and offerings due to me. You are under a curse. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse. If you do, I will open the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Let me prove it to you!”
Preachers know only too well that people are touchy about subjects they feel guilty about. You try to strike the right balance. Goodhearted people already being generous with their money will struggle to dig even deeper. The “hard soil” in the congregation will not recognize their need to change – or could lash out in anger at the messenger.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that Malachi 3 preaches better when interpreted in its context, which many tithing sermons, unfortunately, do not do.
The context is justice
In Malachi 3:1-6, we learn that God had been rejecting Israel’s sacrifices, not because the people weren’t offering them, but because they were tolerating injustice in their midst. Not only were evils like sorcery, adultery, and lying being practiced, but employees were being cheated of their wages, widows and orphans were being oppressed, and foreigners were being deprived of justice. Complacency about injustice was a symptom the people did not fear holy God, and only the Lord’s promise to Abraham kept him from destroying them.
The prophet Isaiah also spoke to Israel about this issue, with very strong language. In Isaiah 1:11-18, Israel is told that their tolerance of injustice has ruined even their most sincere gatherings. God refuses to hear their prayers or look on raised hands covered with the blood of innocent victims. The Lord calls on Israel to learn to do good and seek justice: “Help the oppressed. Defend the orphan. Fight for the rights of widows,” he says. “Come now, let us reason. Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow.” (Another passage that also preaches better in context.)
The special tithe
The connection between tithing and social justice becomes apparent when you look back at the law of the tithe given to Israel. In Deuteronomy 26:6-12, Israel was commanded to give, every third year, a “special tithe” of their crops. That tithe would ensure there would be enough to eat, not only for the Levites, but also for foreigners, orphans, and widows. The Lord specifically connected that gift to Israel’s own history as slaves who were mistreated and humiliated in Egypt – and to the gratitude Israel should feel for the Lord delivering them from hardship and bringing them to the Land of Promise.
The tithe was a gift of gratitude. It served not only to provide for the priests and Levites, so the house of the Lord could function, but it also sustained needy people in the community. That’s why Malachi 3:10 says the purpose of bringing all the tithes was “so there will be enough food” in God’s house. The God of Justice has a particular heart for people who are suffering injustice. He will not accept even the most sincere worship if his people are not answering the cries of the poor and oppressed. Even if all the tithes and offerings were being brought into the storehouse, but the poor were not being helped, why would God open the windows of heaven? How much worse, then, that not only was injustice tolerated, but the people were keeping God’s harvest tithe for themselves.
For the Christian, of course, the point is not that we are obligated by the law of the tithe. As with the Hebrews of the Old Covenant, however, God expects to harvest a crop of justice from his people (Isaiah 5:7). We offer him the sacrifice of a broken spirit (Psalm 51:17) and fulfill the Law and the Prophets by loving him and loving our neighbor as ourselves (Romans 13:8-10).
We live in a world where injustice multiplies, but God’s heart is that his people would multiply his justice. The Lord is not a cosmic referee angered by rule breaking, but a just father who earnestly desires that his beloved children walk in his ways and multiply his justice in a broken world.
A sermon on tithing doesn’t need to be a harangue about selfishness – even when selfishness is a major problem among the people. Instead, help God’s people hear his heart for the poor and needy, and show them his law as a sign, pointing to his desire for justice.
People will give generously to initiatives that help people in need, more readily than they will pony up cash for administrative overhead. When God’s people open their hands to the poor, God opens their hearts for his mission – and he throws open the windows of heaven to pour out immeasurable blessing.