Mishpatim & Shekalim
For the week of February 18, 2012 / 25 Shevat 5772
Torah: Shemot / Exodus 21:1 - 24:18; 30:11-16
Haftarah: 2 Melachim / 2 Kings 12:1-17


Obligation Is Not Negative

You shall take the atonement money from the people of Israel and shall give it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may bring the people of Israel to remembrance before the LORD, so as to make atonement for your lives. (Shemot / Exodus 30:16; ESV)

There is a special, additional Torah reading this week that commemorates the annual half-shekel temple tax that was due at this time of year. This is what is referred to in the story of Yeshua, Peter and the miraculous find of a shekel coin in the mouth of a fish (see Matthew 17:24-27). The collection of this tax is associated with the numbering of all Israelites twenty years of age and over. The proceeds of this tax were for the service of the mishkan (English: tabernacle) and later the temple.

Money and religion is a topic that makes a lot of people uneasy. Some have the impression that the mention of money by religious leaders is always a bad thing as if the subject in and of itself is always associated with greed and the taking advantage of the naive masses. While this might be the case in some instances, it's not the only misconception regarding this topic.

In some circles, the giving of money comes with an expectation of getting a kick back like when a sales person offers a discount on a product to a client, who then sends a personal gift to the salesperson in return. This is both underhanded and in many cases illegal. Yet some people relate to religious causes this same way. Instead of an act of devotion and generosity, giving becomes selfishly motivated. Religious principles are perverted into manipulative tactics (when the return benefits are overt, such as merchandise) and superstition (when the return benefits are offered as "rewards from heaven").

Another common misconception about religion and money is how giving charity makes someone more spiritual or a better person. While giving to religious causes and to the needy is encouraged in the Bible, Yeshua's teaching on not making a public spectacle of one's generosity (see Matthew 6:2-4) and how generosity is based on not how much you give but the proportion of giving in relation to what you have (Luke 21:1-4), confronts this kind of thinking.

There is so much that one could say on this subject, but I want to address one area that I believe would help keep the issue of religion and money in proper perspective and discourage wrong, unhealthy approaches to giving.

In many of the religious circles I have walked in there is one aspect of this issue that is almost completely neglected, and that is obligation. I have the impression that the concept of obligation and duty are dirty words among many people today.

For some New Covenant believers this is fueled by the misnomer that the New Covenant is devoid of "have to's". This is a bigger subject, but with regard to giving, it would be difficult to establish a "whatever" kind of attitude based on the New Covenant writings. Besides the references I have already mentioned, Yeshua upheld the Old Covenant tithing obligations while questioning the priorities of the religious leaders (see Matthew 23:23). While this in and of itself does not establish a precedent for New Covenant communities, he certainly is not uncomfortable with the concept of obligation. Another time he confronts legalistic manipulation of religious tradition in order to withhold support of parents (see Mark 7:9-13). The obligation to care for one's family's material needs as a necessary expression of true godliness is confirmed by Paul (see 1 Timothy 5:8) as is our duty to provide for our religious leaders (see 1 Timothy 5:17, 18), harkening back to the obligatory temple tax from our Torah portion. An important aspect of Paul's bringing the good news of Messiah's coming to non-Jews was that they would help provide for the material needs of the poor Jewish believers in the land of Israel (see Galatians 2:10). The way Paul explains it, giving was to be voluntary, but based on an understanding of how God distributes wealth and the obligation for those who have been materially prospered to help those who lack (see 2 Corinthians 8:13-15).

Obligations are a privilege. Whatever true obligations we have are due to the responsibilities given to us by God. This in no way justifies greed or manipulative tactics geared to extract funds from us. If you are in a situation where you don't want to or should not give, you might need to question your membership in that community or it's time you examined your heart. It is common in many cultures today to take family, organizations, and government for granted, thinking that they have some sort of magical supply of goods and that we exist to be the deserving recipients of their benevolence. Instead we need to understand that these God-ordained institutions are only as good as we make them. To withhold our support, be it financial or otherwise, is to undermine them.

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