Jana Riess: As for LDS tithing, what would Jesus pay and to whom?

Tithing can’t be reduced to checking a box that says you support an insanely wealthy institution with yet more wealth and are suddenly right with the Lord because of it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess pays her tithes to various charities rather than The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has billions in real estate and other investments.

There’s a story in the Gospel of Luke about a farmer who unexpectedly found himself with the good fortune of having harvested more grain than he had room to store. What to do?

He had an answer, one that strikes me as shrewd and forward-thinking in those first-century days of subsistence farming and hand-to-mouth living: He would build bigger storage sheds. So wise. Then he could enjoy a future free from anxiety, no matter what ill winds might blow.

Except that God was having none of it. Rather than applauding the guy’s ability to save or upholding him as an example of what Latter-day Saints would call “provident living,” the story has God rebuking him as a fool. That very night, God said, the man’s life would be required of him, so it was wrong to be storing up treasures for himself.

It’s a story that makes me acutely uncomfortable. And maybe it did the other Gospel writers, too, since Luke is the only one of the four to recount it.

I mean, my husband and I contribute every month to a retirement plan. We have life insurance policies. And one glorious day a few years from now we will have paid off our mortgage. Heck, even our contingency plans have contingency plans.

I wanted to open this column with that admission: that I’m not living up to what Jesus taught me to do with my money. I’m not planning to sell everything I have and give all the money to the poor. I’m writing this while sitting in a comfortable living room, surrounded by beloved books and an ornament-laden Christmas tree. I like the comforts of my life.

I do know this makes me a hypocrite. The word hypocrite means I’m acting below (hupo) the part I should be playing (krinesthai). We’re hypocrites when we believe one thing while doing another.

But my church has acted hypocritically, too, when it comes to money, by which I mean it’s not living up to its standards.

It’s been nearly three years since I made the decision to stop paying tithes to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and two years since I first wrote about it. As I explained at the time, I was shaken, even devastated, by the news that my church was hoarding more than $100 billion in an investment fund with no immediate plans to use the money to help people. That stash is in addition to the church’s extensive real estate holdings and other assets. According to the original report about it in The Washington Post, the only times any assets had been withdrawn from that investment fund were to shore up two of the church’s for-profit ventures, including a life insurance company and the City Creek Center shopping mall in Salt Lake City.

It was a polarizing act to write about my decision to stop paying tithes. And even though I followed up with a column about where I’ve redirected the money — I’ve continued tithing but primarily to organizations like the Bountiful Children’s Foundation and Compassion International that directly feed hungry children — a good deal of the pushback from readers accused me of “robbing the Lord of tithes and offerings.”

That reference to the Old Testament prophet Malachi is an interesting one. It cherry-picks one element of tithing — the idea of robbing the Lord — and ignores the larger context of Malachi 3, which is about what God expects of us. Some of that is wrapped up in concerns about economic justice. According to verse 5, for example, part of “robbing” the Lord is not paying workers a full wage, not taking care of widows and orphans, and not opening our hearts to strangers.

Tithing, in other words, can’t be reduced to checking a box that says you support an insanely wealthy institution with yet more wealth and are suddenly right with the Lord because of it. It’s not just the act of financial sacrifice that makes tithing holy, although sacrifice is part of it. It’s how that money helps God’s children, many of whom are in great need.

I’m not saying the church does not engage in any charitable activities. It absolutely does. Just last week I received an email news release about the church giving $10 million to fight polio and maternal and neonatal tetanus around the world.

Such efforts are beautiful and important — and not nearly enough. The contribution is a fair amount of money but not in comparison to the billions that the church takes in each year (estimated to be around $7 billion, which more than covers its annual expenses with enough left over to continue investing).

The “parable of the rich fool,” which is what Luke 12 is called, always comes to mind when I think about the church sitting on billions in investments (and then some). I know that many members have defended its vast reserves as simply wise planning for the future. Perhaps that stockpile will come in handy in the apocalypse, they say, when the whole world will be in a state of chaos. Or, closer to hand, perhaps it will help to fuel the church when the composition of its membership someday shifts from wealthy nations in North America and Europe to the Global South.

Except that Jesus didn’t talk about saving for the future. You can find that in the Book of Proverbs, so it’s not like saving isn’t present anywhere in the Bible as a positive value. But it wasn’t of value to Jesus, apparently, and he’s the one we’re supposed to emulate. Again and again in the Gospels, we see him meeting people’s immediate needs on an immediate basis. He doesn’t teach that we need to save our money now so that we can be generous in some unspecified way in a far-distant, nebulous future.

I love The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It has taught me morality in so many foundational ways: the importance of honesty, for example, and of not shielding any one aspect of my life from the example of Christ. It has taught me to search the scriptures to find Christ in all things, and to pattern my life after him based on what I read there.

So it is particularly demoralizing to learn that the church does not appear to be following that pattern. Is money the exception to the rule about following Jesus — we’re to do so except when it threatens wealth and acquisition?

It’s an annual tradition in the church to have a “tithing settlement,” even though the language has recently changed to “tithing declaration.” (It is perhaps a sign of the depth of the church’s swollen bureaucracy that the wording change from “settlement” to “declaration” merited a news release.)

So here is my decidedly unsettled declaration: I am a full-tithe payer. And I feel unsettled not because I’m no longer paying it to the church, but because 10% simply isn’t enough when it comes to helping the poor.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)