There was no one alive in all of Israel who could tell just how the practice of corban had begun. It dated back, in one form or another, to the days of Moses. Even the pale old scribes, hunched over from a lifetime of painstaking preservation of Biblical history, could not document when the first pledges of this sort were recorded. Corban — literally “a sacrificial offering” — was a time-tested tradition for dedicating resources to Yahweh as well as a fiscally responsible method for endowing the Temple. Corban was an act of worship, a solemn pledge to God. Or so it was intended. A devout believer whose spirit overflowed with gratitude for the abundance of his blessings could dedicate to God in irrevocable trust a portion of his land, flocks or future harvest yields. These consecrated assets would remain in the donor’s possession until at some future date the actual transfer to the Temple treasury was executed.
Corban was a serious vow made publicly in the presence of witnesses while standing before the altar. Such deferred offerings were of great benefit to the Temple. A flock dedicated in the early spring included unborn lambs that would be nicely maturing by fall when the gift was delivered to the temple. The donor retained responsibility for the stewardship of the dedicated property, while the priests could plan the Temple operating budget based on these pledged assets.
A “sacrificial” offering, it was called, an act of faith. More than a tithe paid on the percentage of a season’s actual yield, corban committed the corpus. And in an agrarian economy such a commitment could represent considerable risk, if not sacrifice. There were uncertain, low cash-flow valleys between the productive peaks of spring lambing season and fall harvest. A sizable pledge of so many head of cattle or bushels of wheat or barrels of oil could indeed prove to be “sacrificial” if the rains were sparse or disease struck one’s herds.
It is not difficult to understand why the Temple establishment favored such a system. Corban endowments provided stability for the priests during the unpredictable cycles of abundance and drought. It ensured continuity of services and permitted more accurate budgeting for staff and facility maintenance. It was a highly useful tool of the annual stewardship campaign.
Corban had its incentives for the donor as well. One could retain his pledged assets in his personal portfolio for years, use them as equity for conducting business, and exempt them from the tithe tax. And, of course, making a visible display of philanthropy certainly did not hurt one’s public image. A clause in policy even made provision for the redemption of dedicated land — for a price — should the donor wish to reclaim it. Corban was a good deal for everyone.
Why then was the bothersome young Teacher from Galilee taking a public shot at the church leaders who employed the practice? If he wanted to pronounce judgment on someone, he could have gone after those unscrupulous donors who were happy enough to accept public accolades for their large pledges, then reneged (or deferred payment indefinitely) when it came time to make the transfer. These were the defrauders. They deserved public censure. But why criticize the clergy for encouraging generous giving to the Temple?
“It’s a self-serving human tradition,” the Teacher accused. “You use it to sidestep the direct commands of God.” The confrontation had arisen over criticism leveled at him by a delegation of Jerusalem religious leaders for not washing his hands before he ate. Indeed, there was on the books a law about how and when to wash ones hands, a ceremonial purification doctrine that the Teacher had taken liberties with. But if this band intended to catch the Teacher in heresy, they underestimated him. He turned the debate from non-essentials to hidden motives of the heart.
“You cleverly ignore the direct commands of God so you can support your own religious system,” the Teacher retorted. Like excusing generous donors from caring for their aging parents by encouraging them to tie up their wealth as corban, thus making it inaccessible for family support. “You do all sorts of things like this,” He said.
It was not a comfortable position for respected religious leaders to be caught in. What defense is there when a religious institution perpetuates self-serving traditions, especially when those very traditions encourage people to ignore foundational commands of Yahweh? Like honoring parents, providing for widows and orphans, caring for the poor. Such a defense the leaders were not prepared to mount.
He was a troublesome one, this Teacher from Galilee. He was not part of the religious establishment, not in any official way, and seemed to have little reverence for many of the things the clergy held sacred. He had much more patience with those who struggled with their sinfulness than with those who were confident in their righteousness. Who is the greater offender, He would ask: the weak soul tempted by selfishness who evades his personal responsibilities or those “enlightened” teachers who create the theological systems which justify his evasion?
It was his attacks on the institutional church, though, that really got Him into trouble, not just corban. He spoke out publicly against the corrupt monetary exchange system of the Temple, the systematic shunning of “undesirables,” the burdensome Sabbath and purification rules — all honored traditions of orthodoxy. Little wonder that an irreverent such as this would have to be silenced. For the sake of the church.
It is probably just as well that the Teacher from Galilee made His appearance 2000 years ago rather than in our day. I shudder to imagine what He might say about some of our contemporary religious traditions that are perpetuated in his name. Like the modern re-invention of storehouse tithing that encourages us to give almost exclusively to the church while leading us to believe that the pittance allocated for benevolence is fulfilling our biblical mandate to care for those in need. Or the construction of impressive sanctuaries that appeal to our own worship tastes where “undesirables” have no place. Or the $300+ billion in church endowments amassed in permanently restricted reservoirs never to be invested in Kingdom work. Yes, it’s probably a good thing He is not personally engaging with us today.