This morning, in my devotional time, I’ve been reading from a very familiar passage (Malachi 1:10f). This passage, in the NIV reads:
“’Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and I will accept no offering from your hands. My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations,’ says the Lord Almighty.”
This passage is heard repeatedly throughout the Christian Church as a call to give to God the best that we have, rather than trying to cheat by giving less than our best. However, while reading it this morning I was struck with a very different perspective. The problem with the usual application is that the passage is not speaking to the one bringing the offering to the temple. It speaks to the ones whose job is to offer the sacrifice on behalf of the giver—the priests. In 1:6d we read: “It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name.” Then, after the passage we are looking at, the Lord continues, “And now this admonition is for you, O priests.”
The priests were receiving crippled and diseased offerings from the people. Rather than inspecting them properly and refusing these offerings they are receiving them. Doing this, of course, encourages others to do likewise. So, this makes me wonder why the priests would do this. Why would the priests accept what is not acceptable?
You have to understand that there were several offerings given through the ritual calendar year. However, most of these offerings either went to the upkeep of the priesthood—the food and money to support them and their families—or were shared as a meal between the priest and the giver. A portion of most offerings went to the priests themselves. Like most human behavior we can best understand it by understanding the self-interest of the people involved. How would this work for the self-interest of the priests? Tied to this self-interest is the old adage of “follow the money.”
When a person looked through their herd to find an offering, they knew it was going to cost them. The cost would be relative to the animal selected. For example, offering a heifer with many more years of potential breeding would cost far more than offering the old tired bred-out cow which would likely never have another healthy calf—if she did breed again the chances are high she and the calf may both be lost at calving. One costs years of future wealth and the other only costs one cow at the end of a lifetime of returns. If a herdsman had two calves, one with a twisted leg, more likely to be taken by predators, and the other healthy, giving the healthy one costs more and leaves the herdsman with a chance of more loss after giving—which requires a greater deal of faith.
This adds an interesting dynamic. When giving costs more we tend to give less—staying much closer to what is the minimum requirement. When it costs less, we can give more of a lesser value which encourages giving more. If herdsmen can meet their religious duty and look good in the community while still clearing their herds of the unwanted and unprofitable stock, they are likely to give more. This is where the self-interest of the priests comes in, and inspires the Lord’s rebuke. If the priests just look the other way, they get more. If they permit a lesser quality offering they get more. Meat is meat. If the herdsman can give three cows when he otherwise would have given only two, the priest is enriched. All that would matter to the priest is that the meat would still be good after the animal is sacrificed. This is a much lower standard. The priest is looking at the sacrifices according to their benefit to themselves rather than their honor to the Lord.
Now, let’s apply this today. We no longer offer animal sacrifices. Christ’s sacrifice was the final offering of this kind. Our sacrifices today are good deeds done in the flesh and this includes offerings given to the Lord’s service and the expansion of his kingdom. What is in the self-interest of today’s “temple staff”? I am speaking of the vocational minister—the modern professional pastor. Larger offerings provide larger salaries. I am not decrying salaries or vocational ministry. However, we can all be tempted to do what is necessary to bring in those larger offerings, not because it benefits the kingdom, but because it benefits us. When this happens the kingdom is despised, while the pastor profits.
Larger offerings are easier with larger crowds. In this way each may give less value, but more is received and the pastor’s ‘market value’ and salary grows. Malachi’s charges are lived out in the modern church by the pastor who waters down the Word; who accepts less holiness from his people; who makes discipleship as soft as possible; who would rather pat his people on the back than call them to repentance. Such churches pack in the people. Such churches gather in large offerings and pay huge salaries. But is it possible Christ would rephrase the words of Malachi 1:10a as, “Oh, that one of you would shut the church doors…”?
I don’t want to go too far with the pastor/priest comparison. The priests of the New Testament are all the people of God (1 Peter 2:5). But should this make the words of Malachi 2:7 apply any less to today’s pastor?
“For the lips of the [pastor]ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction—because he is the messenger of the Lord almighty.”
We must never accept lesser from ourselves than what God demands.