Hot Button Issue

by Juan L. Mercado

Much of today’s headlines and broadcasts are dominated by Vice President Jejomar Binay’s ducking of the Senate investigation into his asserted unexplained wealth. That is a valid issue.

But early Christmas carols and decor are crowding in, as usual. Should we not be asking, not just the Binays but each one of us: What lies beyond those outstretched palms? ”Mano po, ninang!” early carolers blare, “Mano po, ninong!”

Take the hot-button issue of tithing—or giving a tenth of one’s income for distribution to the needy.

There’s never been any argument about aid in emergencies. The differences simmer elsewhere. Should sharing continue beyond public figures? How? And how much?

“‘Try me in this… Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food,’ says the Lord of Hosts,” the prophet Micah (3:10) wrote. “‘Shall I not open for you the floodgates of heaven to pour out blessings upon you without measure?’”

Abraham donated a tenth of war spoils to Melchizedek, king of Salem, the Old Testament recalls. Jews of that era brought 10 percent of the harvest to a storehouse. The stock served as a social safety net or a buffer against famine.

In our time, we read in a Jakarta monthly newspaper an article titled “Priscilla and Aquila,” written and published by former science and technology secretary Filemon Uriarte and wife Jean: “The tithe is a dare to experiment with generosity.”

In the Philippines, the Catholic Church leaves the choice to individuals. Some respond generously. Mormons must give 10 percent to the church. The tithe has been the Episcopal church’s yardstick since 1982. Muslims give yearly zakat to charity—that is the usual 2.5 percent of the market value of a believer’s assets. The practice has spread in many US Christian parishes.

“But can you put a price on faith?” doubts Suzanne Sataline in The Wall Street Journal. Opponents of tithing insist that they be free to donate whatever amount they choose. “Some pastors have changed their teaching and rejected what has been a favored form of fund raising for decades.”

Some Catholic parishes in the United States, today, ask churchgoers to tithe, says Paul Forbes, administrator of McKenna Tithing and Stewardship Ministry. A number of American Protestant churches have “gone plastic.” At “giving kiosks,” congregants whip out their credit cards when they attend services. Others conduct seminars that teach people in debt how they can continue tithing even while paying off their loans. Appeals go online.

Resistance to tithing deepens with the “megachurch effect.” Churchgoers question how their churches spend money.

“Like other philanthropists today, religious givers want to see exactly how their donations are being used,” Sataline adds. Growth of megachurches—some with expensive worship centers equipped with coffee bars and widescreen TVs—have turned people off to tithing.

Tithing isn’t just a theological issue, but a financial one. Giving to religion is growing more slowly in the United States than other types of giving, says Patrick Rooney, director of research at the Center on Philanthropy in Indiana University. That’s partly because people are attending church less frequently.

More Filipinos are challenged to engage in experimental generosity because of massive poverty. The Uriartes, like other pro-tithers, pitch their case in terms of personal experience.

“This challenge to try Him by sharing with the needy comes from a God who has given us everything that we possess. He invites us to try out this key for opening the treasures of heaven. He dares us to try Him in this to see for ourselves if indeed it does or does not work.

“God’s promises are always fulfilled. God remains faithful forever,” they add. God’s words spoken through Malachi are echoed by Christ.

“Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come” (Mk 10:29-30).

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” the itinerant Galilean preacher fumed. “For you tithe on mint, dill and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law…. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”

This suggests that Christ deliberately replaced the core value of purity with compassion. The difference in focus is far from trivial. It brought about the condemnation of Christ by the religious elite of His day. They fumed that He subverted the very core of religion.

There is no “maybe” about God’s promises. His promises always prove true. The “hurdle” we dread on sharing, we will discover, is something joyous, something that changes and blesses us, says “Priscilla and Aquila.”

“Try me in this.”

So, what really is the ultimate yardstick here?

The copper coins that a widow dropped into the collection box were dwarfed by the donations of the well-heeled. The rich gave from their surplus, the Master noted. “But this widow gave more than the rest because she gave all that she had.”


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