Feb 022013

How much should a Christian tip? That might seem like kind of a wacky question, though I’ve been asked it before. If you read much theology, you’ll cover topics like Incarnation and Ineffability and Predestination and Hypostasis. Lessons in Tipping don’t come up often except, well, in the real world.

The question is on everyone’s minds again lately because of a viral story of someone who also needed a lesson in tipping. A waitress at Applebee’s posted a picture of a receipt that, instead of the customary tip, offered the following message:


“I give God 10%, why do you get 18?”

Why indeed? As pretty much everyone on the Internet has pointed out, this isn’t an actual question so much as a self-righteous condescending attempt at invoking the Holy and Ineffable Name of the Almighty to justify stiffing someone out of their money. From a pastor. (I won’t add “of course,” but it probably does go to show something.) The story only gets more headache-inducing from there; you can read more about it elsewhere.

This mostly deserves a facepalm, and maybe a post on Passive-Aggressive Notes or Not Always Right. As anyone who has ever worked in customer service can attest, this kind of behavior is all too common, even (some might say especially) from people who make a big show of being religious. Some people even tell stories of receiving “tips” that turned out to be Bible tracts made to look like $10 bills. “Disappointed? You won’t be if you accept Jesus!” I’ll wait while you smack your head on the table.

But, since the question was asked, if only rhetorically, how about we answer it? Does the Bible really have anything to say on the subject of tipping?

We have to be careful. If we’re looking for the kind of rules so beloved by legalists — “Thou shalt tip thy server 15 percent, 22 if the service wast really good, or thou wilt go to hell” — then the Bible isn’t going to give much help. That’s because the Bible is not a rulebook. It’s a book that’s intended not to give us strict principles for a works-based religion but to teach us one very important message: “Love God with all your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself.” (See Matthew 22:36-40.)

The second part of that, though, is where tipping might come in. By Jesus’ definition, the server who brings you a meal is your neighbor. Just like, well, everybody else you meet. At least in some places, it’s customary to give your servers a tip. So, what does the Bible say that might show us how “love your neighbor” applies to “give your neighbor a tip”?

Or, in other words, if you give God 10%, why should you give your waitress 18%?

Here are four possible answers.


1. Because God wants you to give 100%. Only 72 to go.

That might sound a bit glib, but face it: When you call yourself a follower of Someone who once told a rich guy to sell everything he owned and donate it to the poor, it’s a bit petty to quibble over 18%.

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22)

A better question might be why you think it makes you so righteous to keep 90%.


2. Because it’s the right thing to do.


Yes, but you can’t use it to pay the rent.

When somebody does a paying job for you, and you have money for it, you pay them. Seriously, c’mon. Do we even need the Bible to tell us that? I really hope it’s not a revolutionary concept for anyone (though, if Clients From Hell is anything to go by, it might be).

Bear in mind that, at least here in the U.S., servers are allowed to be given a paltry base wage in the expectation that they’ll make the balance of the minimum wage through tips. In this case, tipping is not a bonus; it’s their paycheck. And don’t even get me started on freelancers, who often don’t get a base wage at all.

In fact, the Bible does say flat out that it’s a sin to withhold someone’s wages:

Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin. (Deuteronomy 24:14-15)

Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his countrymen work for nothing, not paying them for their labor. (Jeremiah 22:13)

For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:18)

3. Because you’re not supposed to love money so much anyway.

If you can’t bear the thought of parting with your hard-earned money — well, for one thing, maybe you shouldn’t go to a restaurant where you’re expected to pay. But, for another thing, when you think more highly of money than you do of people, you’re missing that whole “love your neighbor” bit.

People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:9-10).

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

You might even be missing the whole “Love God” bit, too. Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and Money” (Luke 16:13, Matthew 6:24).


4. Because money is for giving, not for keeping.

The Bible doesn’t say it’s a sin to have money. It does say that, if you’re rich, you have that many more chances to experience the joy of giving. To God, your “net worth” doesn’t come from how much is in your portfolio but from how much you love others. One good way to show love to people is to give them things.

Tell [the rich] to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others. (1 Timothy 6:18)

Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:42)

Freely you have received, freely give. (Matthew 10:8b)

tipjarThat’s mostly the negative side: reasons why failing to tip your neighbors might show you’re failing to love your neighbors. And again, these are simply applications of the idea, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” To make it a matter of “I must do this and this to be a good Christian” is to miss the point of Christianity. Self-righteous tipping is just as wrong as self-righteous stinginess. If you love your neighbors, though, the rest will probably take care of itself. Doing certain actions doesn’t make you loving, but love does result in doing certain actions.

So what about the positive side: If we love our neighbors, then when the occasion arises, how much should we tip them? Here again, we don’t get detailed rules but the simple reminder: “Love thy neighbor. Seriously, why thinkest thou that this be so complicated?”

But I think we can apply at least three things Jesus said about love to the situation:


1. Tip unto others as you would have them tip unto you. (Matthew 7:12)

If you were working a thankless, tiring, stressful, low-paying job on the late shift, up on your feet for eight hours straight, scrambling to serve a rush of impatient customers, maybe trying to save to go to college or feed your kids or pay the bills — how big of a tip would you really like to get?

Well then, give your server that much.


2. In as much as you have tipped the least of these, you have tipped Jesus. (Matthew 25:40)

“Hi,” says your server with a grin, “my name is Jesus of Nazareth and I’ll be your waiter tonight. Can I start you off with some water, or shall I change it to wine?”

That’s not irreverent to imagine; after all, the Incarnation means that God Himself became an everyday man who worked an everyday job. “I am among you as one who serves,” said Jesus (Luke 22:27). If Jesus was your waiter, assuming you love Him a lot, how big a tip would He get? Maybe even more than 10%?

Well then, give your server that much.

And if you still think that illustration is too fanciful — well, Jesus said it’s not an illustration but a reality. “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40). The last time you tipped someone, that really is how much you would tip Jesus.


3. Tip good to those who spitefully use you. (Matthew 5:44)

If the service was just plain awful, if your server was rude and mean and lazy, if the food was bland and the seats were hard, if the cashier insulted you and maybe even tried to cheat you….

…Then give them a really, really big tip.

But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. (Luke 6:35)

Someone objected to this idea when I mentioned it online the other day. They said that, when people do bad work, they don’t deserve to get good tips; the whole idea of tipping is a reward to motivate people to do good work, so it doesn’t make sense to tip well if they’ve done bad work.

I totally agreed. “Yes,” I said. “That’s why we call it ‘unmerited favor.’”

The message of the Gospel, after all, is that God gives us an incredible gift when we don’t deserve it — because we don’t deserve it. If God gave us what we deserved for our works, we’d be in real trouble:

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

Sin offers us wages; we get what we earn. God offers us a gift; we get what He gives.

And God’s gift is a whole lot more than 18%.