Today in the Spirit: Proper 24A

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In Year A, we now follow in the footsteps of our Lord to the days in which the religious leaders in Jerusalem sought to trap Jesus in order that they might execute him. We will hear first, out of Matthew 22:15-22, their question to him as to whether it is right to pay taxes to Caesar or not. Though both Mark and Luke also have versions of this narrative, this is the only Sunday in the three-year lectionary cycle when we hear it. To the question of the Pharisees, our Lord gives the memorable reply: “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (21).

If ever we were looking for a Stewardship Sunday from the BCP lectionary, this would be it. The church’s choice of a supplemental OT reading this week is Malachi 3:6-12, in which by the mouth of the prophet YHWH challenges the second-temple community of Israelites to bring the full tithe into the storehouse (of the temple). The appointed Psalm 96, a song of praise, picks up on the theme of giving as a part of our worship with, Ascribe unto the LORD the honor due unto his Name; bring offerings and come into his courts (8, BCP Coverdale). We may very well imagine ourselves reciting this psalm on Sunday as those who have taken the test of the Lord on tithing in Malachi and found our God to be true to his word about providing abundantly. 

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Beginning with Proper 24A, we move to a five-week series of readings from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Out of 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 we will hear Paul’s opening words of praise to God followed by his commendation to this group of saints who have become an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia (7).  The appointed Collect is a prayer to God that he would set the whole Church free “from the bondage of sins,” and, in keeping with the theme of giving generously to God from our resources, “give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in our Savior Jesus Christ.”     

The Collect

Set us free, loving Father, from the bondage of our sins, and in your goodness and mercy give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Bring the Full Tithe into the Storehouse (Malachi 3:6-12)

Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts. Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts (10-12).

This passage articulating a test from God for his people with respect to tithing will cause the worshiper to hear Jesus’ words render…to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21) with greater conviction. It should be noted that most of what we know about the practice of tithing comes from passages in the Pentateuch (the first five OT books) which provide laws in anticipation of the people of Israel in the desert making their home in the Promised Land and establishing the place that he will choose, to make his name dwell there, the temple in the Holy City (see Leviticus 27:30-32, Deuteronomy 14:22-27). The Hebrew word for tithe (maaser) is not just a tenth but the setting aside of the tenth for God.

In terms of devotional application, as with many concepts connected with worship introduced to us in the OT, we need to decide for ourselves how much to take a literal approach to making our giving to the church for the work of the gospel. Does our “tithe” mean ten percent? For some it will; and if so, good. For others, the discernment of our “tithe” may be different, maybe much more than ten percent. For some tithing will be entirely to the local church; for others, no. (To my congregation I teach that you make your “tithes” to the local church and offerings elsewhere). While the OT teaching is by law, NT teaching on giving money is by conscience. Individuals on their own (and married couples together) need to discern what their giving to the church should be and to then do it with cheerfulness (2 Corinthians 8:7) and confidence that there is abundant provision from the Lord in keeping with the message of this passage. 

Today, Holy Spirit, I hear the words of Malachi and accept the challenge to present my whole tithe to you, whatever that may be according to your guidance. 

Ascribe to the LORD…Bring an Offering (Psalm 96)

Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
    ascribe to the Lord glory and strength! 
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
    bring an offering, and come into his courts! 
Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness;
    tremble before him, all the earth! (7-9).

This psalm is assigned at various times in the three-year cycle, including Christmas Day and World Mission Sunday (Year C). Among the songs of praise in the Psalter this one is particularly unrelenting in keeping the worshiper focused with eyes upward on the splendor of God’s majesty. There are no lapses into lament over personal troubles or prayers for vengeance over enemies–just praise. Notice the triads Sing to the LORD (1-2), Ascribe to the LORD (7-8), and Let the [Creation] (11-12) used to keep the congregation looking Godward.

On a Sunday in which attention is paid on rendering to God what is God’s and bringing the full tithe, this psalm makes the act of giving a due portion of our wealth to God a natural expression of worship. Ascribe to the LORD..bring an offering…Worship the LORD! With eyes up, there is simply no consideration of smaller matters like “I can’t afford this” or “There won’t be enough.” Outside the sanctuary we will count the cost of our church giving, but at worship, when the bread and wine comes forward and the envelope goes in the basket, we are lost in the transcendent praise toward which this great psalm encourages us.

Today, Holy Spirit, trembling in worship before your heavenly throne and jubilant in the company of all creation singing your praises, I make the meager offerings of my time, talent and treasure to you without reservation.  

Work of Faith (1 Thessalonians 1:1-10)

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.
We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ (1-3).

Paul came to the church in Thessalonica on his second missionary journey in around 50 AD. His visit there lasted only about a month (see Acts 17:1-9), and it appears that he sent this first letter only a few months after his departure. We might wonder, then, what could Paul have in mind when he wrote at the outset of his letter of their work of faith and labor of love in the city? The church consisted of a few families–some Jewish, some Greek–under the leadership of a few green pastoral elders whom Paul may have hastily appointed before he left the city. The group remained under the threat of persecution even after Paul left. 

What Paul had in mind by their work (Greek egron: activity) and labor (Greek kopos: effort) was almost certainly not large-scale evangelistic campaigns or grand social action projects, but Christian activity at the level of individual, family and small group interaction. It is good for the church to be involved occasionally with big projects designed to reach large numbers of people. But we need to ask, is there also that which Paul, in the Spirit, finds so compelling here—a depth of discipleship which comes out of personal devotion to Jesus Christ done in secret (Matthew 6:6) and quiet service to people immediately around us? Oswald Chambers uses the phrase “of the Atonement” much like Paul uses in our Lord Jesus Christ in his letters:

“The Atonement of Jesus has to work out in practical, unobtrusive ways in my life…Beware of the piety that denies the natural life, it is a fraud. Continually bring yourself to the bar of the Atonement—where is discernment of the Atonement in this thing, and in that?”

Today, in the Spirit, let me look for in myself and others that which Paul so appreciates in the lives of the saints in Thessalonica, work of faith and labor of love where I live and work and commune.

To God the Things That Are God’s (Matthew 22:15-22)

Then [Jesus] said to [the Pharisees], “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard it, they marveled. And they left him and went away (21-22).

The focus on paying tithes and taxes in this group of readings (and certainly in my commentary on them so far) might lead one to believe that our Lord’s reference to the things that are God’s in the Gospel reading is only about money. It is not just about money but the heart. The Pharisees were actually good tithers of things (see Matthew 23:23), but they were greedy for wealth and lacked a heart of devotion to God and obedience to his commands. Hearing this reading from Matthew today might cause us to recall Jesus’ teaching on the mount, For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:21).

Let me say a word to those of you who are already good tithers. Watch out that you do not catch yourself thinking, “Well, I pay my healthy share, and that’s enough.” When we can write relatively bigger checks to the church, the temptation may arise to think that we have simply paid for any further devotion to God. The fact is making a ten percent donation of our income to the church can become easy once we are in the routine. If we become self-satisfied in making our tithes, we might, if we are not careful, fail to hear from God about giving something else—maybe money beyond the ten percent, or maybe service to the church, and its members and its mission, that have nothing to do with money. That which belongs to God for our rendering is everything—not just a portion of our wealth. The question is, picking up the language of the Collect, are you “set free from sin” so as to give of your time, your talents and your treasure? Therein lies the “liberty of that abundant life” in Jesus Christ. There is the treasure where our hearts rightly belong.

Holy Spirit, bring into more focus Jesus’ own vision of me not merely as a tither but as one whose heart belongs to the Father God.   

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

View more from Geoff Little

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