32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mark 12:38-44
A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury.”
The Christian faithful are obligated by divine law, by natural law, and even by positive Ecclesiastical law to assist with the financial needs of the Church. While the “tithe” refers to the Biblical tradition of giving ten percent of one’s gross income, the Catholic faithful are not obliged to meet any specific amount but are rather encouraged to be generous in their support of the mission of the Church.
There are three ends toward which this financial aid is directed: divine worship (including maintaining the church buildings), works of the apostolate and of charity, and the support of the priests.
There is also a theological meaning behind the “tithe”, which reveals the spirituality of the Sunday collection plate.
The obligation to support the Church
Code of Canon Law, canon 222.1
“Christ’s faithful have the obligation to provide for the needs of the Church, so that the Church has available to it those things which are necessary for divine worship, for apostolic and charitable work and for the worthy support of its ministers.”
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2043
“The fifth precepts (‘You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church’) means that the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability.”
It is clear that current Church Law does not oblige the faithful to any particular set amount or percentage of giving. Rather, the Church implores the generosity of the people and allows each to judge for himself what is best.
However, all the faithful have the obligation to provide something – whether this be ten percent, or only one percent. Each of the faithful must support the mission of the Church.
On the other hand, the ministers of the Church are charged with the duty of using this money well – recalling that it is to be directed first for divine worship, and then for the apostolate. How sad it is to see rectories being remodeled, while the sacred vessels (patens and chalices) are old or of unworthy material. Likewise, which priest can dare approach the altar in a cheap or unworthy vestment, while he wears a leather jacket over his designer shirt?
The tithe in St. Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews
St. Paul invokes the tradition of the tithe and that particular tithe which Abraham made to the priest Melchisedech in Genesis 14 as a means to prove the excellence of Christ’s priesthood over that of the Old Law.
Even Levi who received tithes [i.e. the tithes of the Jewish people], paid tithes in Abraham: For he was yet in the loins of his father, when Melchisedech met him. (Hebrews 7:9-10)
The Apostle emphasizes that the Levitical priests were a means of sanctification for the people of Israel, bringing them closer to perfection, and thus it was fitting that they should have received the tithes of the people. However, even Levi himself paid a tithe to Melchisedech – showing the perfection of that priesthood over his own.
Indeed, Abraham did make a tithe to the priest Melchisedech, and Levi (who was not yet conceived) also made that tithe – since he was descended from Abraham and received his humanity from that Patriarch. Therefore, if Abraham needed to tithe to Melchisedech, how much more did Levi! And, if Abraham was perfected and blessed by Melchisedech, how much more did Levi require this blessing and perfection!
The tithe as a sign of our imperfection
The word “tithe” means “tenth”. It was to give one tenth of one’s possessions, while retaining the other nine tenths. There is great significance in these numbers.
Ten is a sign of perfection, while one short of ten signifies imperfection. Thus, giving one tenth to the priests in a tithe was the way in which God directed to people to attest to their own imperfection and to the need they have of divine grace which is given through God’s ministers.
This is why Abraham tithed to Melchisedech, he was burdened with original sin. However, Melchisedech is a sign and foreshadowing of Christ, who alone can free man from sin and death. Therefore, Abraham’s tithe, in which Levi and the whole Levitical priesthood also tithed, stands as a witness to the fact that the Levitical priesthood could not take original sin, but only that priesthood of which the order of Melchisedech was a sign and figure. Only Christ our High Priest can free us from original sin, and this is made manifest in the tithe of Abraham.
The widow’s mite
In this Sunday’s Gospel, our Savior praises the widow who gave only a small amount, which was all she had. Her donation meant more than the larger gifts of others, because she gave from her poverty.
For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.
In making this gift from her poverty, she attests to her poverty – that is, she confesses her spiritual poverty and her need for that grace which can only come from Christ our Priest.
Before God we are not rich in grace, but we are wretchedly poor. We invoke his mercy upon us when we give not merely from our surplus wealth but even make a real sacrifice, since this financial impoverishment calls to mind our great need of the riches of his grace.