Why tithe and what is the purpose of tithing? The general opinion in most of the churches I have ever been was that tithing was what you gave to God through the church in order for the church to continue to survive and function in the world. This section in Deuteronomy gives a different picture of the purpose of tithing, though:
When you have finished paying the entire tenth part of your produce on the third year—that is the year for paying the tenth-part—you will give it to the Levites, the immigrants, the orphans, and the widows so they can eat in your cities until they are full.
Here the tithe doesn’t go to the tabernacle/temple at all. When it is paid, every third year, it is given to those who cannot take care of themselves and have nothing. In this way every three years the poor have their fill. This actually goes beyond helping those who have fallen on hard times financially. They are cared for every seven and fifty years in God’s economics. Rather, this takes care of those who have no possibility of helping themselves. Widows and orphans have no inheritance and no property. Levites have no inheritance and no property. Immigrants have no inheritance and no property. These are people who most likely will be permanently destitute of provisions in life unless something radically unexpected happens.
So, every three years the tithe is paid. Ten percent of what all of Israel earned is given in that third year to alleviate the needs of the destitute among them. This is a wonderful image of the blessings of God being shared by the entire community. I know many pastors and congregations who emphasize tithing as our response to the blessings of God in our lives, perhaps not with this exact reason in mind, but for the sake of ministering to, with, and for the poor as a part of it.
The interesting thing, though, is that the tithe is not a Christian concept. This is one aspect of life that was not carried over from Judaism at first. If you read through Acts, the first Christians (who were Jewish, keep in mind) did not give ten percent, but rather shared everything they had so that there would be no one destitute among them at all. This goes well beyond a three-year tithe. This gets to the heart of possessions and how we use what we have been given every day.
All that we have is God’s. We are stewards of his creation. And we have been entrusted with his possessions to use them on his behalf to fulfill his will in the world. This is what our earliest ancestors in the faith understood. When we reduce this concept to giving ten percent of our wealth (and I know many pastors who would be shocked and utterly amazed if people actually gave ten percent!), we claim ownership of something that is not ours and relegate the tithe to God almost as payment for our material blessings.
Perhaps it is time to see the true purpose of tithing once again, to alleviate the pain and suffering of the destitute among us, and how the Church elevated this far beyond the ten percent gift so that all benefited from all of God’s blessings.