The concept of first fruits in the Judeo-Christian tradition has its roots in practices that existed long before references appeared in the Hebrew Scriptures. The faithful were expected to bring the first tenth (tithe) of their harvest to the temple and offer it to God. “Put the first of the fruit which you harvest into a basket, and set the basket down before the Lord your God, and rejoice in all the good which the Lord has given to you” (Deuteronomy 26:1-15).
Then, as now, people raised questions about what was to be included in this first fruits offering. For example, today it is not uncommon to hear someone ask, “Is the tithe to be calculated before or after taxes?” The Temple authorities were not hesitant about providing specific answers to questions like that. For example, agricultural product from non-Jews were not to be included in their offering. It had to be from their own crops; not from fund-raising! And, the portion of the crop at the corners of the fields and whatever was dropped in the fields was not to be included in the first fruits offering; that was charity for the poor and foreigners passing through. So, this offering did not satisfy the requirements of charity and hospitality.
In the Christian Testament, St. Paul uses this harvest language to describe the Risen Christ. “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (I Cor. 15:20-23).
St. Paul also draws upon the first fruits principle when writing about the salvation of the Gentiles, “If the part of the dough offered as first fruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; and if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy” (Romans 11:16). Jesus Christ, according to Paul’s gospel, is God’s own first fruits offering on behalf of humanity and creation itself. The original first fruits were the first, the best, the ripest, and the most valuable of the fruits of the earth. For Christians, Christ is the first to rise from death. As the first fruits sanctified the rest of the harvest, represented the whole, permitted and ensured the harvest, so Christ arose from the earth to new life and sanctified this new life for his followers. Our lives in Christ are the rest of the harvest. Jesus Christ, the first fruits, has sanctified us and the life we share with him.
So, what does this have to do with us and our self-examination as we consider our vocation as faithful stewards of God’s bounty? The principle of first fruits is at the heart of how we think and act as followers of Christ. When we learn to put Christ first and to offer the first of everything we have to him, that offering spills over into the rest of our lives.
The Episcopal Church teaches that the tithe (10%) is the minimum biblical standard for Christian stewardship. Far be it from me to object to the canons of the Church! However, my reading of the Bible, especially the New Testament, tells me that the minimum standard is 100%. The tithe, the first tenth offered to God for God’s purposes, represents a spiritual discipline that sanctifies everything else in our lives. It helps us make conscious and faithful decisions about what we do with the remaining 90%. Whatever we have - 100% - whether spent, saved, or given away, is a sacred trust from God. The first fruits, the tithe, forms our perspective in ways that help us remember that everything belongs to God and we have the privilege of being stewards of it. That is a vocation given to no other creature. It is what makes us truly human and is a necessary aspect of civility. We are called to be the givers.
This week, as I have been reflecting upon this theme, I came across the words of a very wise person, Ohiyesa, (Dr. Charles Alexander Eastman) a Wahpeton Santee Sioux. He said, “It was our belief that the love of possessions is a weakness to be overcome. Its appeal is to the material part, and if allowed its way, it will in time disturb one's spiritual balance. Therefore, children must early learn the beauty of generosity. They are taught to give what they prize most, that they may taste the happiness of giving.” He also said, “As a child I understood how to give; I have forgotten this grace since I became civilized.”
When we look at civilization as we know it today, we’d have to agree with Ohiyesa that many have forgotten how to give. That is a fundamental reason for war, economic woes, crime, violence, the breakdown of families and communities, and a host of other ills that plague us. We, as a civilization, have not done a very good job of teaching our children and one another the necessary discipline of generosity. Like Ohiyesa, many of us have forgotten.
Christians still have an opportunity to change that. And, in order to do so, we must encourage one another in ways that will result in the change, starting with the first fruits. If we will remind one another of this ancient principle and teach it to our children, God will use us to transform the world in ways we cannot begin to imagine. If you are concerned that the remaining 90% won’t be enough, I invite you to remember these words of encouragement from St. Paul, “God will make you rich enough so that you can always be generous” (2 Corinthians 9:11).
Let’s give it a try.
I'll see you in Church!
The Very Reverend Ronald D. Pogue
St. Andrew’s Cathedral