And all the tithe of herds and flocks, every tenth animal of all that pass under the herdsman’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord.
Out of all the gifts to you, you shall present every offering due to the Lord, from all the best of them, giving the hallowed part from them.
In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering He had no regard. So Cain was very angry and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.
Genesis 4: 3-8
I want to begin this morning’s reflection with a request. Please add Kosta to your prayer list. He is a teenager with a serious illness. I don’t want to go into details, but suffice to say, Kosta is living a relatively normal teenage life despite several organs failing at the same time. There are nearly 4,000 people who read this message every day. If all of us could take a few minutes to pray for Kosta, it would be much appreciated.
Since we are talking about gifts in this set of reflections, as the countdown to Christmas picks up speed (only 17 shopping days left, yikes), as we try to find the perfect gift in a year when everything costs more, the women’s Bible study I lead at our church has been discussing the gift of letter writing. How about your children writing letters to their grandparents for this Christmas? Maybe presenting them with 12 letters each, to read on the first of each month. Or if there are four grandchildren in a family, maybe they write three letters each so that grandparents can look forward to a letter a month? What about writing letters to those who mean something to you. The things you express will last a lot longer than a pot for the kitchen or a pair of socks. What about the person who is hard to shop for or the person who has everything? The gift of encouragement in the form of a letter will be something they will always remember.
It’s hard to believe that the first murder in the history of the world was the result of a gift gone bad. Many of us have heard the story of Cain and Abel, from Genesis 4. Cain killed his younger brother Abel. Why? Because Cain was jealous of Abel, because Abel was generous in his offering to God and Cain was not. And God looked favorably on the gift of Abel, but not on the gift of Cain. Cain was jealous, and Cain killed Abel.
We read that both brothers brought offerings to the Lord. Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground. Abel brought “the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions.” In other words, Cain brought “some fruit” while Abel offered to God the best of what he had. Now God saw that Cain was angry, because Abel’s gift was accepted by God while Cain’s was not. The Lord, in His gentleness, told Cain the kind of gift that would be desirable to God, that if he “did well” in bringing of the best he had, he would be accepted. He warned Cain, however, that if he “does not do well, sin is crouching at the door.” In other words, jealousy and hatred were knocking at the door of Cain’s heart, because in addition to not being generous with his offering to the Lord, he was mad about his brother’s choice to be generous. God warned Cain that he needed to master his rage. Instead of thanking God for this advice, showing humility, and offering something more fitting to God, he took Abel out into the field and killed him. The first sibling rivalry resulted in death, and the cause of death was jealousy over generosity.
In the Old Testament book of Leviticus, we have a beautiful picture painted for us. Imagine that every person in the tribes of Israel, and the combined number of their herds and flocks walking together. And then they arrive and a large rock and on top of the rock is the head of the tribes, holding the shepherd’s staff. And as the people passed by with their herds and flocks, they sent ten percent of all that they owned to the shepherd, and in return received a blessing. (This is what a tithe is, ten percent of what one has offered to the Lord). What they were sending to the Lord was considered holy to the Lord, and what they received in return was a holy blessing from the Lord.
In Numbers 18:29, the ten percent gifts were qualified as being the BEST of what people had, the first fruits, not the leftover, not the things they weren’t going to use anyway, not the excess, but the best.
Giving, all giving, should ideally be done with joy. When we give gifts to others, we should do it with joy. When we give to others, we should give our best—that means if we are giving time, to give uninterrupted time, to offer time without distraction. If we are rendering help, we are to give it with our best possible effort. And when we give to the Lord, we should give the first of what we have. There are many people who say when it comes to giving treasure to the Lord, let’s first pay our bills, our taxes, ourselves (saving), for necessities, for luxuries, and for entertainment, and then we will give the Lord from whatever is left, which is usually not much. Does the Lord not deserve more than this? Similarly, when we give our time to the Lord—in prayer, worship, study of Scripture, and volunteer work—we put Him after work time, family time, leisure time, and personal time, and if there is any time left over, we might give that to Him. Rather than connecting with Him first thing in the morning, and offering the day to Him, we connect the last thing at night, when the prayer is often, as I heard one preacher say “Lord, You know I love You; I’m tired; I’ll talk to You tomorrow. Amen.”
In whatever we are giving, and to whomever we are giving it, whether it is the Lord, a friend, a co-worker, a family member, a stranger, the church, etc., we should seek to give the best of what we have, because this is the kind of offering that is pleasing to God.
Lord, our God, You created me and brought me into this life. You have shown me the way to salvation and have bestowed upon me the revelation of heavenly mysteries. Accept my offering of (whatever you are offering and whatever the context is) as an acceptable sacrifice and in return send down upon me the grace of Your Holy Spirit. Look down on me, O Lord, and accept my gift as You accepted the gifts of Abel and the tithes of the children of Israel. Accept also now, in Your goodness, O Lord, this gift from my hands, multiplying Your blessings as I place my trust in You. For You are the God of mercy, love and salvation and we glorify You, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages. Amen. (adapted from a prayer from the Liturgy of St. Basil)
Keep the beautiful image of Leviticus in mind, to pass under the mantle of the Lord, offering your best and receiving His blessing. What a beautiful metaphor for how we are to give to God and to others.
Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website!
Fr. Stavros has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0
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