Back Issues

Volume 14, Issue 2: Liturgia

Do Not Forget the Levite

Peter Leithart

The Offertory has long been a crucial part of Christian worship, but it hasn't always been a monetary offering. Placed at the beginning of the liturgy of the sacrament, the offertory in early liturgies was the offering of the eucharistic elements themselves. According to Gregory Dix's classic The Shape of the Liturgy, "In the West the laity made their offerings for themselves at the chancel rail at the beginning of the Eucharist proper. Each man and woman came forward to lay their own offerings of bread in a linen cloth or a silver dish. . . held by a deacon, and to pour their own flasks of wine into a great twohandled silver cup . . . held by another deacon. When the laity made their offerings, each man for himself, the deacons bore them up and placed them on the altar."

Other gifts sometimes accompanied the bread and wine. Joseph Jungmann writes that "from various churches we gain the information that other foodstuffs and other articles were also offered, especially those that might be of use for the divine service, like oil, wax, candles, church implements; and a part of these gifts was used for charity."
By the fourth century, however, there was growing discomfort with the presentation of alms during worship. As a result, Jungmann continues, "regulations were issued that in future bread and wine and other things necessary for worship be brought to the altar as heretofore, but that all other gifts be handed in elsewhere. It was understood that through the gifts of bread and wine, all the other things which the faithful wanted to give were symbolically represented and conjointly offered up." The offertory was thus limited to the offering of bread and wine.
Offering alms in worship never completely disappeared, but at the Reformation, offering money became more widespread. Thomas Cranmer, following Lutheran liturgies, included a monetary offering before the Supper in both the 1549 and 1552 editions of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Behind these liturgical shifts was Cranmer's desire to undercut any notion that the offering of the eucharistic elements was a sacrifice, an idea that had found support in the traditional offertory. Rather than dispense with the offertory entirely, Cranmer decided it was better to turn it into a monetary gift. Given this historical background, it's not surprising that contemporary church practice is all over the map. Some biblical reflections will help cut through the haze.
In the Old Testament, offerings for the ministry and ministers of the sanctuary were integral to every act of worship. "Tribute" offerings (what most Bibles call "grain offerings") accompanied the daily offerings (Num. 28:1_8) and also the individual sacrifices and burnt offerings of the people (Num. 15:1_10). Of the grain presented by the worshiper in the tribute offering, only a handful (a "memorial" portion) was burned on the altar, while the rest was given to the priests (Lev. 2:2; 6:14_18).
Though all offerings represented the worshiper's labor to some degree (sacrificial animals had to be fed and cared for), the tribute offering is more closely connected with labor than the animal offerings. In the animal offerings, the worshiper brought the animal in its natural state; he did not butcher or roast the animal. Tribute offerings, however, were never presented in a raw state. The grain was always at least roasted, and was normally ground to flour and baked into a cake of some sort (Lev. 2). When an Israelite brought a tribute offering, he was symbolically offering his labor to Yahweh, and also to the priests of Yahweh.
Animal offerings followed a similar pattern. Apart from the "ascension" offering (what most Bibles call a "burnt offering"), a portion of sacrificial meat was nearly always given to the priest (Lev. 5:11_13; 6:24_30; 7:7_8; 7:11_18). Deuteronomy reiterates that Israelites were to provide for the Levites at the annual feasts (12:12; 16:11, 14). Every act of worship in Israel involved bringing gifts to be handed over to the priests and Levites.
Paying the preacher, in short, was integral to the sacrificial ritual. The command, "Don't come empty-handed" (Deut. 16:16) means "Bring something to offer to Yahweh." It also means "Bring something for the priest." And, since we continue to offer a "sacrifice" of praise, we should continue the biblical practice of presenting gifts.
Including an offertory also has the important practical benefit of manifesting the proper connection between work and worship, between money-making and meeting with God. Since the tribute offering was specifically associated with the ascension offering, the offering of the fruits of our labor should be in the "ascension" portion of the service, which begins after the confession and absolution, and continues until the beginning of the Eucharist. We complete our ascension by offering ourselves and our labor to God in response to the preached word.
When we have offered our labor to God in the offertory, He offers a portion of the earth back to us in the bread and wine. Thus there is a connection between the offertory and the Eucharist. The Eucharist sets the pattern for the church's use of all its wealth: As the bread and wine are gathered only to be distributed for the nourishment of the whole people, so the financial gifts are gathered only to be distributed for the common good and common ministry of the church.
Tying the offertory to the Eucharist does not cheapen the Eucharist; instead it puts our economic lives in eucharistic perspective. It shows us that Christian economics is eucharistic economics, that all our economic pursuits should be infused with thanksgiving and generosity, that all our wealthcreation is to be an act of worship.

Back to top
Back to Table of Contents

Copyright © 2012 Credenda/Agenda. All rights reserved.