…making an offering is a duty of every believer performs freely and happily without coercion. Jesus as well encourages this as an act of faith; emphasising in addition that a labourer deserves his wages. In other words, ministers of religion have a legitimate claim over offerings from the people in so far as they devote their lives to the work of God since their own lives and subsistence depend on these offerings.
In the wake of the rising objection among people against the materialistic inclination of religious ministers, side by side the poverty of church congregation, the question of whether we should give to God and to which extent we should do this deserves closer attention. In Catholic circles, where the readings for this Sunday revolve on the theme of giving, it is an opportune time to reflect on the limits of reasonableness in the act of giving.
The two principal passages today are those of Elijah in which he requests food from the poor widow of Zarapheth and the story told by Mark about the poor widow who gives all that she has for which she gained the commendation of Jesus. In both cases those who give are very poor yet their gifts are accepted and praised. In fact throughout the Bible, making offering is always seen as an act of faith. This tradition has survived today not only in Christianity but also in most of other world religions.
The context of these offerings is always one of religion; in which people make an offering in thanksgiving to God for favours. Within the Jewish tradition offering is not just a free act, but an obligation of members. Moses had instructed the Jews to make regular offerings to God which is then used for the maintenance of the Levites who were appointed as priests of God. The Levites on their part did not do any other work more than offering back to God in sacrifice the gifts of the people. They devoted themselves entirely to the work of God and the service of His people.
Interpreted in this light, making an offering is a duty of every believer performs freely and happily without coercion. Jesus as well encourages this as an act of faith; emphasising in addition that a labourer deserves his wages. In other words, ministers of religion have a legitimate claim over offerings from the people in so far as they devote their lives to the work of God since their own lives and subsistence depend on these offerings.
In the instances given so far, their true message comes out clearer in the helplessness of their givers vis-a-vis the size or value of their givers. Obviously this is to achieve the effect of emphasising the providence of God. Both persons were widows, indicating that they were people without means. In the case of Elijah the widow was getting ready to have her last meal with her son before ‘they can now die’. When Jesus praises the widow in his own story he emphasises that although having nothing, she gave ‘all’.
In other words whether people give all they have to God, it does not amount to exploitation since such giving can only be properly interpreted within the context of faith in the benevolent all powerful God. Abraham was willing to offer his only son Isaac after waiting ages to get this son and till date is known as the father of faith. The Bible contain scary images of curses and condemnations for those who refuse to make really impressive offerings, which in religious context, amounts to deceit.
Cain, the brother of Abel is a good example of this, for he was cursed because he offered rotten and unworthy sacrifice to God. Prophet Malachy and Apostle Paul are handy allies in this, dishing out the terms of the curses for stingy believers while proclaiming blessing for those who give abundantly. In their terms whether one gives, what is given and if one does not give at all, all have implications. Within the limits of its valid application, the true meanings of the Bible passages are not ambiguous and clearly demands of Christians that they should give freely and willingly. It is not also ambiguous that the clergy who are the ministers of God should live on these offerings.
Manipulation and coercion on the other hand include all means, whether of fear and intimidation, by means of which ministers take it upon themselves, for their own advantage, to remind Christians and pressurise them to keep this obligation. Obviously this crosses the line of decency and degenerates to avarice. Unfortunately many religious ministers today are guilty of this. They have perfected these tactics to achieve this end and the members of their churches are simply seen in instrumental terms. They hurl abuses on Christians and proclaim not blessings but Armageddon on those who do not make the expected offerings.
But in the passages under consideration the Bible remains silent about two crucial points about offerings without which their true interpretation is difficult if not impossible to arrive at. The first point is whether the believers should give freely or by compulsion. The second is to what use the offerings are put. Even in the Nigerian context, the now notorious practice of giving to God whether as offerings, tithes, sowing of seed, donations, can only be properly understood if viewed in the context of these two points.
To give freely is to give of one’s own accord without promptings or manipulation. Based on one’s own belief and personal experience of God, giving may assume the proportion of an obligation which the believers are willing to observe with or without the promptings of the clergy. A mature Christian reaches down into himself and exercises his right to free decision. Not only that he gives freely but he also gives as he so wishes.
Manipulation and coercion on the other hand include all means, whether of fear and intimidation, by means of which ministers take it upon themselves, for their own advantage, to remind Christians and pressurise them to keep this obligation. Obviously this crosses the line of decency and degenerates to avarice. Unfortunately many religious ministers today are guilty of this. They have perfected these tactics to achieve this end and the members of their churches are simply seen in instrumental terms. They hurl abuses on Christians and proclaim not blessings but Armageddon on those who do not make the expected offerings. To get other people to obey you entirely for your own benefit is domination and oppression. It is wrong. It is an offence against God.
But more worrisome is not just that money comes through forceful means but that the money is used to serve the foibles and fancy of the minister. Now, Gods stated intention is for the maintenance of the servants of God and for the progress of the ministry of Gods work. In Catholic circles all extra revenues generated from the church, are subject to the decisions of the bishop or the pope. Revenue is extra when the basic needs of a full-time minister have been provided. A private jet evidently is not a basic need, flashy cars, mansions, nor all possessions bothering on ostentation.
But now, the ministers themselves also having allowed themselves to be lured by the vanities of this world, and wishing in fact to show that they are shoulders higher than the very people to whom they are sent to serve, degenerate to materialism of the highest order. But the worst is that to be able to afford such luxury they must tell lies; they must cheat; they must steal and fool the members of their church. Many ministers are adept at this. I do not know how else to explain that these are despicable actions before God and man.
Therefore the means of getting the people to give continuously to a point that it pains and using the resources so fraudulently generated for even more fraudulent lifestyle is the highest point of degeneration. It is up to Christians to see whether these two conditions are present in their churches. If they are, then, it is at such point that giving in the name of God becomes unreasonable.
Ikechukwu Odigbo is a clergy of the Catholic Diocese of Enugu.