As much as we might groan and grumble about it, we know that paying taxes is part of our responsibility as citizens of this country. Just as we should know that as parishioners we have a responsibility to contribute to the financial support of our parish. It is evident, however, from the strained and meagre budgets on which so many of our parishes operate that this is a sadly neglected area of our Christian life. Why is this? And what can be done to correct it?
Priests feel awkward about speaking on the subject: they do not want to be perceived as greedy of filthy lucre; money tends to be a sensitive issue; people grow tired,even resentful of frequent appeals, and priests do not want to cause offense by suggesting that someone is not giving enough, or to imply that the Sacraments carry a price tag. Parishioners, meanwhile, often do not know what is expected of them in this regard: there are the token memberships dues, but there are no “rules” for financial giving, as there are for fasting, for example. Because such giving is purely voluntary, we tend to give from our “surplus,” after our “real” expenses have been met: food, utilities, health insurance, etc.
It is all too easy to assume that other parishioners are in a position to give more than we, and that once we attain financial security we, too, will contribute more to the parish. Those of us raised in the Church may harbour the attitude: the parish has “always” been there; it has “always” managed to pay the bills; what comes in on the collection plate is supplemented by the annual bazaar, and if something special is needed – say, a new set of vestments – the parish makes an appeal. Others may have a spiritualized perception of the parish as a place where “laying aside all earthly cares” includes financial concerns. Many of us give when we feel inspired to do so, and we may give very generously to some cause that strikes us as being particularly worthy, but this does not fulfill our obligation to our parish, which seldom figures as the recipient of such inspired giving.
These various attitudes and haphazard practices are in large measure responsible for the financially constrained state of so many of our parishes today. In the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, only the largest parishes – and not all – support their clergy. People expect their priest to be in church Sunday after Sunday (not to mention Saturday nights and feastdays), arriving before and leaving after everyone else, to be on call for counselling and emergencies, to be available for services of needs – molebens and panikhidas – on top of working full time at a secular job and attending to his family. How can clergy in such situations possibly be expected to have the energy to properly nurture parish life or do evangelical work? Many of them are already on the brink of burn-out. Clearly, if our parishes had reliable and adequate incomes – such as could support a priest – they could be much more effective, both in their internal and external missions.
These practical considerations, however, are not the heart of the matter, which is, first and foremost, a spiritual concern. Supporting one’s parish should be as much an accepted part of spiritual life as prayer and fasting. We give not for the benefit of our parish – this is simply a consequence; we give for the benefit of our souls. Our giving should be guided not by parish budgets but by Biblical principles.
In the Old Testament, the Israelities were commanded to give a tenth of their increase to the Lord (Lev. 27:30-34; Num. 18:21-24). This is called a tithe, and in contemporary terms translates to ten percent of one’s gross income.
With the establishment of the New Covenant, many of the Old Testament laws and regulations became obsolete. Christ Himself, however, makes it clear that the tithing requirement was not abolished. In an oft-quoted passage on the subject, He does not upbraid the Pharisees for paying tithes, but for neglecting the weightier matters of the law: judgment, mercy and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other (i.e., tithing) undone (Matt. 23:23). Christ came not to destroy the law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17), to breathe life into what had become a dead and empty legalism. It was not the Pharisees’ observance of the law that Christ denounced but their attitude: their pride, their boasting, their self-satisfaction, their disdain for those who did not keep the letter of the law.
This was their measure of righteousness. But what does Christ say to us: Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 5:20). And He proceeds to contrast the minimalism of the Old Testament law with the maximal intent that lies at the heart of His new testament ethic: Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill… But I say unto you, that whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment (Matt. 5:21-22). Adultery and divorce are similarly redefined, while an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is supplanted by the higher command to turn the other cheek. Leading His listeners further up the spiritual ladder, Christ enjoins them to love their enemies, do good to them that hate you… Finally, He says, Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.
In this spirit, we can see that tithing is a baseline requirement, as it were, of our spiritual life. We should practice tithing as a matter of course. Nor should this give us cause to be proud, for we are simply doing that which is our duty to do, as unprofitable servants (cf. Luke 17:10). Tithing precedes almsgiving on the path to perfection where, far ahead of us, we have the example of those early Christians who sold their houses and lands and laid the proceeds at the apostles’ feet for distribution (Acts 4:32-25), and of the widow whose two mites that she cast into the treasury constituted all her living (Mark 12:42-44).
Some may protest, “How can I possibly tithe on my salary, when I am just making it as it is, what with regular expenses and saving for college tuition and retirement…” A single mother with two boys, barely making ends meet, raised similar objections when a friend recommended that she set aside ten percent of her slim paycheck. But she decided to try. She began at three percent, and, discovering that she scarcely noticed the difference, increased the amount to five percent, seven percent, and soon she was saving ten percent. The woman is now a financial advisor on Wall Street.
Many Protestants practice tithing, and there is no reason we Orthodox should not do likewise. If we are afraid of the financial strain this might impose, we can begin with a lesser amount, like the woman in the above example, or like someone learning to fast. Eventually, however, we should work up to the ten percent that is our moral obligation. It should become a matter of conscience, like fasting, or saying our morning and evening prayers. Whether other people in the parish tithe or just how the parish uses our money should be of no concern to us (assuming no evident corruption). What we give, we give to God – with no strings or emotional attachments. And we should tithe willingly, recognizing that all we have is from God, and that our tithe will accrue to our spiritual benefit, as promised by the Lord, Who said through His prophet:
Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove Me now herewith … if I will not open you the windows of ehaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it. … and all nations shall call you blessed… (Malachi 3:10-12)