Thursday, February 28, 2008

Faith Works 3-1-08
Jeff Gill

Marching Into a Sea of Numbers

Christians aren’t exactly known for their math skills.

Maybe “be fruitful and multiply” and “they divided his garments,” but generally the practice of adding one to one to one and getting not three, but one – well, that makes you an unlikely candidate for treasurer.

There is one math problem that gets frequent discussion around Christian circles, and that’s how to calculate ten percent (hint: divide by ten).

The Biblical tithe gets a fair amount of discussion and debate, with some arguing that the storehouse tithe spoken firmly of in Malachi is still binding on believers today, and others looking at tithing from one set of qualifications or another.

Mormons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, hold to a firm tithe on the gross that is used for what the storehouse tithe was intended to do, which was feeding the widow and the orphan, the stranger and the sojourner. The “Bishop’s storehouse” is meant to provide for member needs, so that they can count on the faith community for support and not a governmental entity, but is often used for general relief as well.

Islamic folk have a smaller percentage that goes to the poor and needy, but the “zakat” is also for them a firm number, easily calculated. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call it 2.5% of your gross income, beyond the amount of your income needed for basic subsistence.

What bothers me as a Christian pastor is that so many believers and couples don’t know what 100% is, which puts every other percentage into play.

What’s 100%, and why do I care?

Well, if you don’t know what you make a year, then you can’t honestly make plans for the year in giving or saving or anything else by percent or even in round numbers. So many people only know what they make an hour, or a week, maybe what they bring in per month.

If I were to suggest to such a person that the monthly figure could be put times twelve, there might be an angry “sure, I knew that” coming back at me. OK, fine.

But you need to know what your personal or household gross, or total income is before any other percentage has any meaning, from giving to savings to taxes.

A for instance – many households see their tax refund as “magic money,” a kind of bonus that shows up to brighten their springtime.

But the reality is that the refund is your money, withheld beyond what you owed in taxes, returned with no benefit from savings or investment. You earned it, pay period by pay period, but if you enjoy general ignorance of what you’re making, you won’t be bothered by what is or isn’t coming home.

This is why I’d say, before anyone gets out in the weeds of debating what constitutes a proper modern-day tithe, they need to know a) how much does this household bring, in total, from our paid efforts per year, and b) add up all the federal, state, local, property, and calculated sales taxes, and divide b) by a) and multiply times 100. That will tell you what percent of your gross income goes to care for today’s poor and needy, maintain education, and other functions once provided by religious bodies.

Some folks get all rhetorical and think “I pay half my income in taxes,” and others have no idea how big the number is, never having considered the question. I’ll tip y’all off that most of you will come up with a number somewhere between 18% and 40%, with a third most common.

Is doing that math a religious duty? Nope, but if you think your faith calls you to be responsible and accountable for your overall stewardship, I’d think that this is a necessary first step towards your religious duty.

So, if you’re entirely average, you’re now looking at a bit more than 75% of what you earn in total. What will you do with that? Set aside ten percent for the work of your faith community?

That’s fine, except if you think doing so means you can do whatever you want with the stuff that’s left over, I’ll hazard a guess that God would rather you kept your money, although the church treasurer would have different opinions in all likelihood.

The point of tithing, however defined, is to remind us that the money we receive is a gift, no matter how hard we worked for the paycheck. We give so that we learn how all our income is a blessing, which is from God, and all that we have will be God’s again, if not into a landfill. Our giving is where we come to understand what the true nature of what we “have” can be, and starts the process of looking at everything from a different, eternal point of view.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him how your church deals with stewardship and giving at

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