A “Sermon on the Amount”
There is no character in Scripture more fascinating than Abraham. For those of you who don’t know his story, a brief introduction will help you understand what a wonderful passage we are studying in this blog. The story of Abraham begins with the death of his father. Terah. Abraham’s father was the head of what a Bedouin-like tribe we know as the “Hebrews.” They had begun their journey near Babylon, in the Ur of the Chaldees. In Haran, near today’s Damascus, Terah died (Genesis 11:27-32).
Abraham was now the head of the family. By now, Abraham was well-along in years. He was comfortable. He lived in or near a relatively wealthy city. However, Abraham had a problem: he and his wife Sarah were without children. He had no heir to whom to leave his property, position, and responsibility.
One day, when Abraham was already an old man, the Lord came to him and told him that, if he would go from his home to a land which God would show him, the Lord would give him descendants and bless the whole world through him (12:1-3). Scripture tells us that Abraham believed God and so by faith and trusting in God went from Haran in order to receive the promised blessing. This action of Abraham resulted in his becoming a hero of the faith, whose trust in God is used over and over again as a symbol to faith all believers should have (Genesis 15:6; Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6; Hebrews 11:8-10, 17-19).
When Abraham left Haran, he took with him Lot, his nephew. He also took along his cattle and sheep all of his belongings his wife and his family. Anyone who’s ever seen a travelling Bedouin group can imagine many people walking through the desert with camels and donkeys carrying their belongings as they led their herds of goats and sheep along the Fertile Crescent south towards what we today know as “Israel.”
Eventually, Lot and Abraham had so many sheep that their herdsman were constantly fighting for grassland and water. If you remember from our series on the 23rdPsalm, sheep graze land almost to the stubble of the grass. Therefore, it is necessary to move them from field to field. You just cannot have too many sheep grazing together in a single area.
Therefore, it was necessary for the Lot and Abraham to separate (Gen. 13). Given the choice by Abraham, who might have chosen the best land for himself, Lot chose a fertile area in southern Judea near the Sodom and Gomorrah. He eventually moved into Sodom. Later, the king of Elam and his allies made war against the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and their allies (Gen. 14). (These kings were really little more than chieftains who controlled a particular city and the surrounding land.) Eventually, Lot was captured with his belongings and wives and taken into captivity (14:11).
Upon hearing this, Abraham gathered up 318 men and fought a battle, rescuing Lot, recovering his belongings, and capturing himself a great deal of booty. Today’s text takes place after that battle, as Abraham meets a mysterious figure called “Melchizedek” on his way home. Melchizedek, whose name means “King of Righteousness,” was the king of Salem. We think that Salem was in the same location as modern Jerusalem. Their meeting probably occurred somewhere near that spot.
In the New Testament, Jesus is called a “Priest after the Order of Melchizedek.” You see, Melchizedek was not in an Aaronic priest of the law of Moses. He lived hundreds of years before Moses. Melchizedek was a priest of the Most High God prior to the Law being given and prior the Jewish priesthood. Similarly, Jesus was not of the tribe of Levi; he was of the tribe of Judah, in the line of David. Yet, on the cross, he demonstrated himself to be our High Priest. Jesus is a King of Righteousness, having fulfilled the law by his life and sacrificial death.
Text and Prayer
With this long introduction, let’s read and hear the word of God as it comes to us from Genesis chapter 12:
After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abraham, saying,
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
Creator of heaven and earth.
And praise be to God Most High,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.”
Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. Then, the king of Sodom said to Abraham, “Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself.”
But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth,that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me—to Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Let them have their share.” (Genesis 14:17-24).
A Tithe of Friendship and Gratitude
When people talk about tithing, and when pastors preach on tithing, they often begin with the later biblical passages after the law of Moses. They forget that tithing existed before the law of Moses. People have expressed their gratitude to God for the blessings of life since Cain and Able at the beginning of Genesis (Genesis 4:3-6). These were offerings of thanks and gratitude for the harvest God had provided. It is important that we remember that giving and tithing begins with gratitude.
In today’s passage, Abraham has fought a great battle against kings with superior numbers and better trained armies. On his way home, he met Melchizedek, the King of Salem, a Priest of the Most High God and King of Salem. When they met, Melchizedek brought out wine and bread and they shared a fellowship meal. The same elements Jesus used in the Last Supper as he instituted the meal as a symbol of our new fellowship with God by faith in Christ.
As was pointed out several weeks ago, hospitality is a big part of Middle Eastern culture. When Melchizedek, reached out in hospitality and friendship to Abraham, Abraham responded with gratitude by giving a tithe to Melchizedek. In this way, these two men were bonded together as friends by the terms of their culture. This is a wonderful picture of our relationship with God.
Abraham recognized that his victory was not of his own doing. He realized that God had delivered him from his enemies. That’s what Melchizedek, says in his blessing. In response, Abraham tithed to his new friend. Our act of giving should be motivated by the same features that characterize the relationship between Abraham and Melchizedek: God has opened up his heart to us and provided salvation to us, bringing us into his household. We’ve been made friends of God. In joyful gratitude for all that God has done, we open our hearts to God and give back to God from what we have been given by his grace.
A Tithe of Blessing
Wisdom literature teaches that we should honor the Lord with the first fruits of our wealth. When we do this, God promises we will receive a blessing in return. Here is how it is put in Proverbs 3:
Honor the Lord with your wealth,
with the first-fruits of all your crops;
then your barns will be filled to overflowing,and your vats will brim over with new wine (Proverbs 3:9-10).
Wisdom literature is not a law or set of rules. Wisdom literature contains observations by the wise men of old about the results of human behavior given the nature of the universe and how God acts.  The wise men observed that generous people frequently received a blessing in return for their generosity. This was certainly true of Abraham!
Over the past week, I’ve had the opportunity to talk a number of our members about experiences they have had where God responded to their act of generosity by restoring to them as much or more of what they had given. Now, this isn’t a necessary thing. It doesn’t always happen. However, I can tell you, that in my life, I’ve been surprised how frequently exit generosity lead to blessings.
A Tithe of Trust/Faith
As time went on, the law of tithing was incorporated into the Torah. The word “Torah” is the Hebrew word we translate as “Law”. This is a good translation, but it leaves something out. The word Torah also means “Instruction”. If one reads the five books of the Old Testament known as the “Torah,” one immediately notices that the majority of the text is an historical narrative. It’s the story of God’s people as they live out the life of faith. The instruction we receive from the story is not law in the sense of rules. It is a way of life lived in faith and trust in the living God.
This is where we get to the next principle of stewardship and tithing: By the time of the prophets, the people of Israel were no longer respecting God, seeking the blessings of God, and responding to the grace of God by trusting God in all of life. Therefore, the prophets questioned the people and warned them about the consequences of their unfaithfulness and lack of trust.
Several weeks ago, I was in a prayer meeting on Thursday evening with a small group of people. One of those people was Margie Townsend, one of the members of our Pastoral Search Committee. At the meeting, we talked and prayed about our church and giving. Margie reached into her Bible and gave me a card that Hu Auburn handed out in 1999, almost twenty years ago!! On that card is printed Malachi chapter 3 verse 10. It reads as follows:
Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it(Malachi 3:10).
Often, this verse is used to talk about the law of tithing. Notice, however, that obedience to the law is not the focus of the prophet’s words. What’s mentioned is the blessing of living joyfully in faith and trust in God, giving to God and expecting that God will meet our needs because we are his friends, his children, members of his family and tribe! Once again, there is a law, a teaching, and we ought to follow it. But, that is not the fundamental reason to give. The reason to give is in response to the blessings we have received from God, personal, spiritual, emotional, and material.
Jesus and the Tithe
Finally, this morning I want to talk about Jesus and tithing. Often, preachers, scholars, and others say that the Old Testament practice of tithing no longer applies in the New Testament or to Christians. For a number of reasons, I don’t think that’s correct. Fundamentally, the reason I don’t think it’s correct is because God hasn’t changed between the Old Testament and the New Testament. God wanted to bless his people and have fellowship with his people in the Old Testament, and God wants to bless his people and have fellowship with his people today!
God wants to bless us to be a blessing to others today just as he wanted to bless Abraham. God wants us to be joyful members of his family as much today as he wanted the ancient Jews to be members of his family, so that they could be a blessing to others! He wants to bless the world through our faith, just as he wanted to bless the world through Abraham’s faith. God is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
In a passage in Luke, Jesus was doing mighty deeds of power, driving out demons, and teaching with great wisdom. The crowds were coming to him, and of course the Pharisees weren’t always thrilled by his teaching or action. At one point, Jesus says the following:
Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone(Luke 11:42).
This passage undercuts those who believe that Jesus abrogated tithing as a practice for God’s people. Jesus is not criticizing the Pharisees for tithing. He is criticizing them for legalistically tithing, but neglecting to love others and do justice and love God first.
Last week, John Murtha said something in our worship service that is very important: “We can give without loving but we can’t love without giving.” That’s exactly what the Pharisees were doing! They were giving without loving. They didn’t really love God or other people. What Jesus is saying is we should give, not legalistically, but out of the abundance of the joy of Christ in our hearts and the love we have for God and others!
Living as Grateful Friends of God
I want to leave us this today right where we began: Once upon a time there was a man named “Abraham”. God promised Abraham that if he would walk in trustful faith, he would bless him. Abraham responded to God in faith. God responded to Abraham’s faith. In the end Abraham received the blessing of the promised son. But he received something more, Abraham became a friend of God. Over years and years of walking by faith, Abraham’s personality became such that God called him his “Friend.” When we live like Abraham, walk in faith and living by faith, we also become friends of God. Tithing, you see, is simply a part of being a friend of God.
Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved
G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers(Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).