“‘Since the days of your ancestors, you have turned from my statutes; you have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,’ says the Lord of Armies. Yet you ask, ‘How can we return?’ ‘Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing me!’ ‘How do we rob you?’ you ask. By not making the payments of the tenth and the contributions.'” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Our boys fight all the time. They are brothers, so that is somewhat to be expected. It’s hard to say what the primary cause of their fights is, but if I was to offer one suggestion it would be that most of their fights come when one has taken something the other claims is his. It’s hard to be relationally right with someone you feel has taken something from you unjustly. That goes with three brothers and it goes with God too.
After warning of His coming in judgment with the small encouragement that His consistent character is keeping them from being destroyed outright for their sinfulness, God bemoans here the fact that as a people they have long been behaving in the same ways they are now. This really is just another mark of how patient our God is. It’s not like the people have suddenly turned to the folly they are embracing. They are simply doing what their ancestors did before them and their ancestors before them and on and on back it went.
This is not how God wants things to be. He is using them to accomplish bigger plans for the world, and He is big enough to accomplish those plans even without their willing cooperation, but He would much rather do it in the context of a right relationship with them. If they would just return to Him in repentance, He would take them back yet again and move forward with them into the grand future He has promised them over and over again.
Now, I’m not totally sure how to take their response. I can see it in one of two ways. First, to their shame, this idea seems to catch the people off guard. What do you mean we can return to you? We didn’t even know we were separated from you. How can we do that? Second, the people are reflective and repentant in heart and mind after what Malachi had just related to them and they genuinely want to know how they can fix the problem. How can we be right with you again?
And of all the things God could have picked to tell them how to get back on the right track, He opts for something they could actually get their minds around and, more importantly, hands on. You’ve quit making offerings and tithes. Give me what’s mine again, and we can get started.
I’ve got to be honest, put like that, this sounds like an odd request. Especially coming from God. Give me what’s mine and we’ll be back on track. Except, that’s not quite what’s going on here. And getting their money is not what God was after. He was after their hearts, but as Jesus would later make clear, the path to our hearts is most often through our wallets. When we approach our stuff with the right mindset, we will usually be approaching Him with the right heart-set.
I know the language here sounds very contractual, like if the people wanted to be right with Him, they were going to have to pay for it, but you have to understand a bit of the background of the “payments” here. These were specifically directed offerings in the law the people were to be making for the preservation of the Temple and the provision for the priests. In other words, this money allowed their worship to go on unhindered. One of the often-unspoken truths of religion of any kind is that ministry takes money. What we are really seeing here once again is the connection between what we would normally identify as the “practical” and the “spiritual.” Get one right, and the other will usually follow after it. Get one wrong, and the other will be in terrible shape as well.
For the people of Israel, these tithes and offerings were how God had directed them to place their trust in Him. In giving to the Temple what they otherwise understood as necessary to make their own ends meet, they were placing their trust in their God to continue providing for them in spite of the apparent lack. When they weren’t doing this, it wasn’t the stuff itself that mattered. It was the fact that they were not giving themselves to God which was the thing that mattered most to Him.
Now, we don’t have specific tithes or offerings we are directed to give today as followers of Jesus. And, this passage is not one that should be used to insist on Christians giving 10% of their income to the church. But God still wants our hearts just like He wanted theirs. And our finances are still the quickest way He has to get to that prize. Instead of a specific amount, though, followers of Jesus are called to the practice of sacrificial generosity. We are called to trust God with our stuff and remember that it is all His in the first place. When we do that, we will be more likely to trust Him with ourselves.
If you are holding onto God’s stuff like it is yours, it will be difficult to be right with Him. And it’s all God’s stuff. So then, how can you be more sacrificially generous with what He’s given you to manage? Begin down that path and enjoy the fruits that start coming to bear. In fact, as we’ll talk about after we get back from a little break next week, God would love nothing more than for you to test Him on this point. In the meantime, begin looking for ways to be more intentionally and sacrificially generous than you are being right now. You’ll be glad you did.