Ownership

Malachi 3:6-12

For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. 7 Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?” 8 Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, “How are we robbing you?” In your tithes and offerings! 9 You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me– the whole nation of you! 10 Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. 11 I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren, says the LORD of hosts. 12 Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight, says the LORD of hosts. (NRSV)

Mark 12:13-17

Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15 Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” 16 And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him. (NRSV)

Ownership

If you were to go to my study and look inside the cover of any of my books you’d see my name written on the cover page. The very first thing I do when I get a new book is mark it as mine. I just got Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes and I’ve already written my name it it. I had to, or my daughter might have claimed it as hers. My name is also written in permanent marker somewhere on most of my stuff.

Ownership is an ancient concept. There are references to written property deeds in the Bible. We’ve found papyrus scraps in the desert sand that record business transactions. We keep the deeds to our property locked up in a safe place. We go to great lengths to obtain, maintain, designate, and secure the ownership of our possessions.

Ownership is related to power. Our ability to maintain ownership, as individuals and as nations, depends upon social, political, and sometimes military power. Governments often reserve the right of Eminent Domain to expropriate personal property for the greater good. It’s not always for the greater good of the person they’re essentially stealing from, but…

When we own something, we declare that it is ours. But ownership is never absolute for us. We believe that we own things, but no one can take it with them when they go. Ownership is never absolute. I might think the books in my office are mine, but someday, someone’s going to scratch my name out and put theirs down in its place. We only have our possessions for a little while. So if our stuff is not ultimately ours, then to whom does it belong? Who is the absolute owner? And if it’s not us, then what ought our relationship with the stuff we have be?

One interesting, but often overlooked thing about Jesus is that he taught more on the subject of money and possessions than any other topic except for the Kingdom of God. Let me say that again. Jesus taught more on money and possessions than any other subject except for the Kingdom of God. Does that surprise any of you? But we don’t like to talk about it in church because it’s such a powerful topic. It’s very personal and often touches the core of our values, our habits, and our lifestyles.

How we handle, manage, spend, hold, or give money often reveals the most meaningful things about us. Where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.

The reason Jesus taught so much on money and possessions is because these are spiritual issues. For most of us, the majority of our earthly existence is spent on acquiring money and possessions. And that’s not a bad thing in and of itself. Money is darn useful stuff. I’d rather have it than not. It’s a practical and necessary resource. We need it in order to live and provide for our families. So we need money. We need possessions. Money and possessions are good things. What’s critically important for Jesus is our relationship to them.

When I was in middle school I read the book, Where the Red Fern Grows. In the book, Billy Coleman needed to catch a raccoon in order to train his two dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann. He did so by putting a shiny coin inside a hole in a log. Then he hammered nails into the hole in such a way that it made for a very small opening. Raccoons love shiny objects, and sure enough, a raccoon fell for the bait. The small hole made by the nails was just large enough for the raccoon to put its paw in and grab the coin, but with its paw clenched around the coin it couldn’t get its paw out of the hole.

All the raccoon had to do in order to escape was drop the coin, but it held fast to it even when Billy came up to it and clubbed it to death. The raccoon wouldn’t let go for anything. What captures our heart captures our whole being. Whatever it is that we refuse to let go of is the thing that is most important to us and, therefore, influences every one of our decisions whether we realize it or not.

I chose the text from Mark for the punchline only. I love that line, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus ate his breakfast with awesome sauce that morning. It’s such a great line. The thing is, we think we know what that means, but we don’t! We think it means, Well yeah, pay your taxes and give to church. But it doesn’t. It’s so much more subversive than that, that most of us miss it completely.

Do you know what belongs to the emperor?

Nothing! Not a dang thing!

Do you know what belongs to God?

Everything!

There was this story going around about some atheists who worked really hard to discover the secret to creating life. And they did it! So they had a meeting with God and said, “Well, God, we don’t need you anymore. We’ve advanced beyond you. We’ve even figured out how to create life without you. So we’re good. Take a hike.” And God was impressed. God said, “That’s really cool. Show me!” So they bent down and started to scoop together some dirt and clay, when God said, “No, no, no, no, no, get your own dirt.”

God created everything, so God owns everything. We are only stewards and tenants of what God has made and what God provides for us. When we believe we own the stuff we have, we can start to border on idolatry. We’re close to putting ourselves in the place of God. We are only stewards. We can have money. We can have possessions. But we have to remember our place. Stewards are supposed to deal with what they have according to the desires of the owner.

So the question we need to ask ourselves, probably on a constant basis, is Am I doing that? Are we, the stewards of God’s creation, handling and dealing with our money and our possessions in ways that God—a.k.a. the owner—finds acceptable and pleasing? When God asks us to give an account, what are we going to be able to say?

In the old Methodist hymnal there’s a song called We Give Thee But Thine Own. It didn’t make it into the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal, probably because we don’t like it. The first two lines say this:

We give thee but thine own, What e’er the gift may be: All that we have is thine alone, A trust, O Lord, from thee.

May we thy bounties thus As stewards true receive, And gladly, as thou blessest us, To thee our first fruits give.

When we give to the Church, we give to God but God’s own. We are only stewards. What we sometimes fail to realize is that giving can actually be a source of joy and freedom. The problem with money and possessions is that these things often end up possessing us. We know we need them, so we hold on to tight! We end up a lot like the raccoon in Where the Red Fern Grows. We’ll hold on to that shiny coin even if it kills us. But, when you can give your money and possessions away, it no longer has a hold on you. It no longer has power over you.

God has given us everything we have. Yes, we’ve worked hard for it. But we don’t own it. We are stewards, and the owner has asked for a tithe, a mere 10%, to be given back to God.

The text from Malachi 3 is pretty blunt. God tells us through the prophet that the people are robbing God. In the text the people respond to the accusation, “How are we robbing you?” and the Lord replies, “In your tithes and offerings!

God wants his people to bring the full tithe, the full 10%, into the storehouse. You see, this is how this whole thing works. This is how it was set up by God in the beginning. When God settled the Israelites in the Promised Land, the Levite tribe didn’t get a portion of the land. Instead, they got a few cities that were scattered all over the place. The Levites were the priestly tribe. They were in charge of worship and service in the Tabernacle, and later the Temple. They studied the Law of God. They were the pastor-types of the day.

God told the other tribes to bring their tithes to the storehouse so all of this worship stuff could happen. Even back then, it took money and possessions to support public worship and ministry. Then, the Levites also had to give a tithe of the tithe. So everyone was expected to give a tithe to God. Everyone.

This is how it works here, too. When you give, when you bring your gift to the storehouse, you are supporting the mission and ministry that we are called to do as God’s church. The church is not a building. The church is people. We are called to mission and ministry. But we can’t do much without resources. That’s why God tells us to bring our tithe into the storehouse.

The most incredible part about what God says through Malachi is verse 10. God says, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing” (NRSV).

Everywhere else in the Bible we’re told, Don’t put God to the test! But here, in Malachi, God challenges us. God throws down the gauntlet. God says, Put me to the test! Bring your full tithe here! You’ll still have enough! Try me!

Now, to be clear, this is not prosperity gospel. This is not something where we can think, Okay, cool, I’ll throw a twenty into the plate and God will bless me with a hot new car. No. What happens when we start to give as God wants us to give is that God changes us. God adjusts our attitudes about money and possessions so that these things no longer have a hold on us. Money and possessions no longer rule our lives. When we can give the stuff away, we suddenly find that there actually is enough for us. I think that’s the blessing. We no longer live in the fear of scarcity, which often holds us hostage.

The reasons we give are simple. We give out of gratitude to God who has provided us with all things. We give because we want to grow in discipleship. We give because through our giving we serve God. We give because through our giving we help other people. We give because we need to learn to let go of those things that can get in the way of our relationship with God.

God asks us to bring our full tithe, 10%, to the storehouse in order to provide for the mission and ministry of the Church. It’s not a matter of finances so much as a matter of faithfulness. Churches rarely have financial problems. But churches often have faithfulness problems. Faithful giving is simply a matter of knowing who and whose we are.

If you tithe, thank you for your faithfulness. If you don’t tithe, thank you for what you do give. Yet, I also want to encourage you to work toward tithing. You can even take baby steps. Whatever percentage at which you’ve been giving, increase it by 1% each year until you’re giving at 10%. It can be a scary thing to give what God asks of us. I know because I’ve been there. But when we finally let go and learn to give, it becomes a source of joy and peace. We learn to be grateful stewards who are content. That’s what I hope for each of us. Contentment is where faithful stewardship begins.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

(Scripture quotations marked NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version).

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