Abram, Melchizedek, Jesus and Tithing

A couple years ago we were going through some kind of exercise here at the church with our church leadership.  We had an outside consultant and he asked how this congregation talks about money. Someone responded with, “Susan never preaches about money.”

 

You can tell it bothered me because I remember it.  But I admit that talking about money is one of my least favorite things to do.  When my husband felt like we needed to work on our budget, I would suggest some other activity he really liked to do like, “Sure, let’s work on the budget but after we watch the football game”.  If that didn’t work I pulled out the nuclear weapon and suggested a trip to Dairy Queen.

 

So which is it, football or Dairy Queen?  Just kidding. I must say in my own defense that I do occasionally talk about money.  It is hard to be a pastor and not talk about money.  Not just because there is toilet paper to buy and electricity costs money but because Jesus talked about money all the time.  If you think that Jesus most often talked about prayer or loving your neighbor you would be wrong.

 

A man named Howard Dalton Jr. did a statistical study of the New Testament and this is what he writes about his study:

Sixteen of the thirty-eight parables were concerned with how to handle money and possessions. In the Gospels, an amazing one out of ten verses (288 in all) deal directly with the subject of money. The Bible offers 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions.

 

So, it seems like if we are going to take this whole New Testament church thing seriously than we have to talk about money.  I say that with fear and trepidation because I lose my mind when that is all pastors or churches talk about.  If you watch preachers on TV you know that they have absolutely no qualms about asking for your money.  I don’t ever want to sound like one of them.

 

I remember several years ago attending a day long workshop led by a man who had grown a church from 0 to 5,000 in a relatively short time.  He claimed that the trick was to make sure leadership was completely invested by making them sign a contract.  You couldn’t be a leader in his congregation if you did not sign a document saying that you would tithe your income.  Imagine how that would go over here.

 

So for those of you who don’t know the definition of a tithe it means you give ten percent of your income to a religious institution to help with the mission of that organization.  We think this is a Judeo-Christian idea but it is also found in other religions and traditions, as well.

 

People talk about tithing as a biblical principle but the Hebrew Bible really doesn’t give us any clear-cut directive about tithing.  There are a few snippets here and there but they differ from each other in application.  So today I am going to talk about money by looking with you at the very first reference in the Bible to the idea of giving 10 percent.  It occurs in Genesis 14 by Abram. Abram and Abraham are the same guy.

 

This is how the story goes.  One of the kings of Canaan began attacking the land of the other kings of Canaan and in the process Abram’s nephew, Lot, was captured and taken away.   So Abram got a crew together and went after the king who had captured his nephew.  Abram defeated the king and freed Lot and took all the loot that this king had stolen. On the way back to the land where Abram lived his nomadic life, he ran into two of the defeated kings of Canaan.  One was the king of Salem, a man named Melchizedek.

 

His name is interesting.  “Melchi” means “my king”.  “Zedek” means “righteousness”.  Melchizedek was the king of righteousness.  The story tells us that he was the king of Salem, which was the name for the pre-Israelite Jerusalem.  “Salem” means peace. So, in essence, he was the king of peace and righteousness.  This is the kind of story in which good myths are made. We are also told that Melchizedek was a sacral king – in other words he was both priest and king – something not allowed in the Hebrew tradition.  Finally, we are told that Melchizedek was the priest of the Most High God.

 

Melchizedek comes out to meet Abram when he returns from his victory.  Melchizedek is grateful to Abram for defeating the enemies of Salem.  In gratitude Melchizedek brings bread and wine and blesses Abram:  “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth.” In return Abram turns over 1/10 of everything he has just stolen back.  Not one-tenth of his income but one-tenth of the loot.  The way the story is told we know that he did it as an act of worship. It wasn’t a duty.  It did it out of gratitude.

 

The other king who is present invites Abram to keep the rest of the loot for himself.  But Abram says, “Let the men who went with me take their share but I don’t want a sandal thong or even a thread.  I did not do this to become rich and I don’t want anyone accusing me of such. I give it all back.”  So basically, Abram tithed the loot, let his crew take a portion, and then gave everything back that was left.

 

Then Melchizedek disappears again.  This was only a cameo appearance. But as we learned a few weeks back with a woman named Serach who was listed as a descendant of Jacob, there are stories outside the Bible about these elusive characters.

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Melchizedek turns up in Jewish and Christian sermons around the first century.

In these sermons we are told that Melchizedek had neither father or mother and since he is not listed in any genealogy he must be eternal.  Some of the stories say that King Melchizedek and Shem, the son of Noah are one in the same.  The Midrash says that Melchizedek was so perfect and spiritually advanced that he was born circumcised.

 

Whoever wrote the book of Hebrews picked up on these stories and included some of them in his writings.  The writer of Hebrews was trying to make the point that when you read the Old Testament you run into the foreshadowing of Jesus.  The writer of Hebrews claims that Melchizedek is a foreshadowing of Jesus:

  • A high priest who fulfills that role even though he does not come from the tribe of Levi.
  • A king of righteousness and peace
  • Who has no beginning and no ending
  • Who blesses us
  • And offers bread and wine

The book of Hebrews actually claims that “Jesus is a priest from the order of Melchizedek”.

 

Hebrews picks up the story of Melchizedek, not because it is fun to say…not because it talks about giving ten percent…no Hebrews talks about Melchizedek as a way of saying that the story of Jesus is foreshadowed in the Torah. The author of Hebrews uses Melchizedek, a bit part actor making a cameo appearance many, many generations prior, to introduce Jesus to us.

 

Many of you here know that I like to find the Christ figure in every movie I watch.  I think that all good movies have a Christ figure in them. What that means to me is that movies often have in them a person who sacrifices for the good of others or who blesses people or who takes sin upon themselves.  My search for the Christ figure in movies reminds me that Christ is constantly breaking into our narratives in surprising ways.

 

For my birthday this year my children paid for me to take a class in storytelling and essay writing.  At the first class we had to pick a story from our lives to work on and develop for the five-week course.  While everyone else in the class chose stories filled with depth and trauma, I chose what I thought was a light, funny story from my past…one that makes me laugh and would be fun to tell.  But in the process of the class my story developed into one of depth about a woman who was Christ for me and how I was Christ for her.  Jesus is always breaking into the narrative, if we are paying attention.

Wow….I’ve done it again. Did you notice how expertly I did that? I started out by telling you that I had chosen a story about money and now I’m not talking about money anymore.  I’m talking about encountering Christ in our daily lives. Sometimes I’m so good at not talking about money that I don’t even realize how easily I can change the subject.  But in my defense, you should know that the real topic today was never money.  Money is only a representation of something else.  Sometimes money represents idolatry and sometimes it represents generosity.

 

Abram’s response to meeting Melchizedek is to give him 1/10 of what he has with him. Abram didn’t give a tithe out of duty.  There was no law telling him he had to.  He didn’t sign a contract to give ten percent in order to hold a leadership position.  He gave because he could and he was grateful.  He got to give.  He could have given more.

 

The focus from this scripture is not money.  It is generosity.  Money is just the means by which we get to give. It should be done joyfully, freely and with gratitude for all the ways you meet Christ in the world.  Amen.