Formations 10.09.2016: The Discipline of Giving

Exodus 23:15-19a; Malachi 1:6-8

Food as offering (India, 1963). Members of the church who don’t have money to give offer a handful of rice, wheat, or corn. Here, Evangelist Manohar Khakha and a lay member are weighing the grain. The grain will be sold and the money put into the church fund. Source: Mennonite Church USA Archives

Food as offering (India, 1963). Members of the church who don’t have money to give offer a handful of rice, wheat, or corn. Here, Evangelist Manohar Khakha and a lay member are weighing the grain. The grain will be sold and the money put into the church fund. Source: Mennonite Church USA Archives

What are some things you’ve been taught to do in order to deepen your relationship with God? I’ll bet things like prayer, reading the Bible, and gathering for worship with other believers quickly spring to mind. Those sorts of things are so ingrained in our religious culture that they’re practically instinctual. Even if we don’t do these things as well as we’d like, we know that they are spiritual disciplines. They’re the sorts of things maturing Christians do.

Our October unit invites us to think about giving as another spiritual discipline. Maybe this one isn’t so obvious. Depending on your upbringing, you might have been taught that giving, especially giving to the church, was more in the category of a religious duty. It’s something you’re supposed to do, but it’s not something that will bring you closer to God. Or maybe you’ve been taught that giving is something that just isn’t discussed in polite Christian company, either because it’s such a personal matter or because unchurched people get nervous when the preacher starts talking about money.

If giving is going to transform us the same way Bible reading or prayer does, we’re going to have to do it right. Today’s texts unveil one important aspect of proper giving: we must give our best. In Exodus 23, God tells the Israelites to bring an offering of firstfruits—and even the best of the firstfruits (v. 19)—to the temple. Malachi reinforces this concern that God receive the best by condemning the half-hearted worship of his time. Human fathers and masters wouldn’t tolerate substandard offerings, so why should God?

Admittedly, giving God “the best” is easier to understand when the offerings come in the form of crops or livestock where different levels of quality are apparent. But what about believers today whose “bounty” generally comes in the form of a paycheck? In our kind of world, how can Christians give God the best?

Discussion

• When have you experienced giving as an act of worship?
• What practices or attitudes can turn giving from an obligation to a spiritual discipline?
• How can we know that we’re giving God our best?
• How does the theme of giving the best apply to other aspects of life? How can we give God the best of our time, our talents, or other things with which we’ve been blessed?

Reference Shelf

The Prophets and Sacrifice

The practice of sacrifice proved to be very popular in Israel (cf. Ps 43:4), but was often the target of criticism by the prophets (Isa 1:11-17; Jer 7:21-22; Hos 6:6; Amos 5:21-27; Mic 6:6-8; Mal 1:6-14), who stressed God’s preference for obedience rather than ritual. Though some of these fiery oracles suggest that God never sanctioned sacrifice (Jer 7:22; Amos 5:25), it is the shallow understanding, syncretistic corruption, or improper ritual that is condemned, not the practice itself.

Tony W. Cartledge, “Sacrifice,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 784.

The Accusation

The accusation begins with an aphorism about honor, essentially anticipating the accusations of the larger unit: the priests’ behavior does not show YHWH proper respect. The content that follows in the rest of the unit confronts the priests for conducting sacrifices improperly, and the logic makes sense as a confrontation of priests whose lax practices, in the mind of the writer, make a mockery of cultic requirements. Beginning with an opening statement about the need to show proper respect to one’s superiors, the rhetorical logic develops from a series of nine rhetorical questions (though only eight appear in the NRSV). Sometimes one question is answered by another question; sometimes a question’s answer is merely implied; and sometimes the question is answered directly. The goal of the questions in this unit is to challenge the behavior of the priests who, according to the speaker, are accepting animals for sacrifice that do not meet the criteria for acceptable offerings because the animals are sick or deformed. Thus, the prophet challenges the priests, not the givers, because it is the priests’ responsibility to determine whether or not the animals are suitable. In pragmatic terms, in tough economic times one can readily understand how people would be tempted to slide by, to bring animals that they could not sell or use for meat themselves, or they could have been convinced that priests were allowing the participants latitude though they were indeed capable of providing better quality sacrifices. Also, since the priests relied on portions of the meat offered for sacrifice, one could understand how some priests felt obligated to accept sacrificial offerings that did not meet cultic standards; they themselves needed food to eat. Malachi 1:6-10, however, challenges this kind of thinking on theological grounds. To the author, giving less than the best to YHWH is an affront to YHWH’s dignity and shows a lack of respect.

Reference to the altar in 1:7 presupposes that the temple is once again functioning. A few have suggested that the term could refer to the outdoor altar that was purportedly rebuilt shortly after the first wave of exiles returned following the decree of Cyrus in 538 BCE, before the temple was reconstructed (see Ezra 3:1-7). These arguments, however, have not won many supporters. The impression given in most of Malachi is that the problems lay with how the offerings were given. It is doubtful that this line of reasoning would have been used if there were no temple to support the priests and the cult when the core material of Malachi was composed….

Reference in 1:8 to those offering animals that are blind, lame, or sick does have a material parallel in Leviticus 22:17-25. That passage in Leviticus lays out a series of examples of unacceptable sacrifices, including those that are blind, maimed, or having a dis- charge (Lev 22:22). However, even here Malachi 1:8 differs in how it describes the maladies. First, Malachi uses the adjective “blind,” while Leviticus 22:22 uses the noun “blindness.” As well, Malachi’s use of “lame” and “sick” summarizes the more concrete descriptions in Leviticus 22:22, though the order is essentially the same. Specifically, Leviticus 22:22 uses two terms (“injured or maimed”) instead of the broad term “lame” in Malachi 1:8, implying any physical imperfection due to injury. Moreover, while Malachi 1:8 mentions animals that are “sick,” Leviticus 22:22 describes the signs of the sickness more graphically (having a discharge or an itch or scabs). The term used for “lame” (pisseah) appears in the Deuteronomic Code (Deut 15:21) in reference to animals unacceptable for sacrifice, while in the Levitical Code it is used of persons unfit to serve in the cult. None of the law codes use the term “sick” (halah), which appears in Malachi 1:8, 13. In short, while these terms reflect traditional cultic expectations, they do not clearly indicate one specific code for their formulation.

James Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Micah–Malachi, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2011), 1018–20.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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