In November, we start thinking about Thanksgiving. It was in 1621 that the first Thanksgiving feast in what later became the United States was held in Plymouth, Mass. The pilgrims and the people of the Wampanoag tribe shared their harvest and hunting bounty, in gratitude and peace.
But that Thanksgiving was only one example of many celebrations thanking God for the fruits of the harvest and going back a lot farther in history than the 17th century. In fact, we can see their roots in the story of Cain and Abel.
In Genesis, Abel offers the “firstlings of his flock” to God, while Cain brought “the fruit of the ground” (4:3-4). Things started out well — in thanksgiving — but ended badly.
The principle of tithing — giving one-tenth of everything earned back to God — traces back to Abraham (about 2,000 years before Christ). In Genesis 14, we see Abraham giving God’s priest, Melchizedek, “a tenth of everything” Abraham had won in a war fought to free his nephew, Lot.
After the Exodus (about 500 years after Abraham) — as Israel prepared to enter the Promised Land — Moses established the formal rule of tithing: “All tithes of the land, whether in grain from the fields or in fruit from the trees, belong to the Lord, as sacred to him” (Lv 27:30).
The ancient Jewish feast of Pentecost, (which takes place 50 days after Passover and also dates to Moses), was not only the time the Passover lamb is offered, but also began the barley harvest. This first harvest could not be eaten until some was offered to God.
Each autumn, for ancient Jews, the wheat harvest took place. Again, first fruits were offered to God. The Feast of Tabernacles (this year, Sept. 27 to Oct. 4) still marks the fall harvest, not only of wheat, but also of fruit, olives and the first wine. Called Sukkot, the feast lasts eight days and commemorates the end of the wandering in the desert.
For Jews, tithing enters into the picture between these two offerings of first fruits. Each year, devout Jews donate part of their yearly earnings — between 10 and 20 percent — during the days preceding the New Year, Rosh Hashanah (which was Sept. 13-15 this year). The word for this is tzedakah, and the offering goes to various charities. However, tzedakah does not mean “charity;” it derives from a Hebrew phrase translated as “justice” or what’s fair. It is an obligation for all Jews. According to the Babylonian Talmud (the interpretation of Jewish Scripture, the Torah), “Tzedakah is as important as all the other commandments put together.”
Not only Jews set aside their “first fruits” in acts of justice. One of the five pillars of Islam — Muslims also trace their faith history to Abraham — is the zakat: the notion that all things belong to God and that human beings are only stewards for God.
Zakat is a word meaning something that deals with “growth” and “purification.” According to Islamic teaching, zakat is calculated annually based on one’s income, after debts and above a certain amount needed to live on. Above this amount, 2.5 percent is to become zakat. Giving a portion of one’s wealth away is considered an obligation, both an act of worship and of purification. It is done at the New Year, at the end of the holy month of Ramadan, which this year was in June.
Zakat is not charity, but acknowledges the rights of the poor. In the eyes of God, those who are poor have a claim upon those who have more. Charitable giving, above and beyond the zakat, is also encouraged, and can add up to a full 10 percent, or even more.
Catholics are also told to give to others, because God has so generously given to us. As Dave Baranowski, director of Stewardship Education for the St. Louis Archdiocese noted, God “made the world and all that is in it. He made us and blessed us with absolutely every gift we have. Our lives, our families, our health, our education, our unique talents and skills, our jobs and our income are all blessings from God, entrusted into our care for the good of all peoples. Thus, when we tithe, we are really only giving back 10 percent of something that ultimately belongs to God anyway.”
Throughout church history, there have been times when Christians were required to give 10 percent to the church. The church’s Council of Macon (585 A.D.) ordered the paying of tithes. In the 8th century, the first holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne, made tithing to the church a part of civil law. And the Council of Trent (1545-1563) reiterated the order to tithe.
Modern Catholics are not required to tithe, though they are asked to give generously. Today, we talk about stewardship more than about tithing. The focus is not on what “must we do,” but on asking ourselves what are we called to do.
As the Second Vatican Council noted: “God has poured out his love in our hearts through the Holy Spirit… therefore the first and most necessary gift is charity, by which we love God above all things and our neighbor because of him” (Lumen Gentium, n. 42).
And, just as in the teachings of Islam and Judaism, justice must be part of our giving — whether we tithe or not. As St. John Paul II said in 1987, “Private property, in fact, is under a ‘social mortgage,’ which means that it has an intrinsically social function, based upon and justified precisely by the principle of the universal destination of goods” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, n. 42).
How much should you give? Ten percent? Or, like the widow in Sunday’s Gospel who gave “all she had,” do we give far more?
The U.S. bishops explain it this way: “We don’t have to give anything. ‘How much do we want to give?’ is the question that stewardship asks.”
When you ponder stewardship, think about the Wampanoag Indians back in 1670. If they had not shared what they had with the Pilgrims that first winter — the Mayflower landed at Cape Cod on Nov. 11 and there was no time to plant crops — there might not have been a harvest in 1671, much less a Thanksgiving celebration. If people of generous hearts, like the widow in Sunday’s Gospel, weren’t donating to food pantries and homeless shelters, many people would never know the love of God revealed through the tithes (or more) of others.
Sources: “Reading the Old Testament, An Introduction”; “The New Jerome Biblical Commentary”; “The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary”; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “Modern Catholic Dictionary”; “The New Combined Bible Dictionary and Concordance”; jewfaq.org; “Lumen Gentium”; Muslim Students of Oregon State University at uoregon.edu; aish.com; justtzedakah.org; jewish.com; “Sollicitudo Rei Socialis”; archstl.org/stewardship; “Stewardship: A Disciple’s Response” at usccb.org.