Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
–Acts 4:32-35 (ESV)
Communal life was not new to the first century Jews. The Essenses lived in a communal fashion somewhat similar to Luke’s description of the Jerusalem community. The Essenses surrendered property and possessions to the common fund. The disciples’ economic model of common property, shared meals, and communal life might also be compared to the socialist, secular Kibbutz movement in the modern state of Israel.
Periodically, religion gets dragged into the political arena (and after all, this is an election year) or it is thrust into such an arena by some of its adherents. Christianity and Judaism are no exceptions, and particularly fundamental Christianity often makes its presence known, for better or for worse, in support or opposition to issues and candidates. On the other hand, there are Christians who use the example of the early Jewish disciples in the passage we see quoted above as an illustration of how we should “redistribute wealth” so that those who have should give to those who do not, creating a balance of sorts, where everyone possesses exactly the same material goods as the next person, with no one having more and no one having less.
I mentioned the concept of “Christian communism” in last week’s study on Acts and suggested that this particular scenario was never meant to be the eternal model of the Christian church. In fact, according to D. Thomas Lancaster’s study on this week’s portion of Acts, this particular type of community was responding to a very specific set of circumstances.
What factors gave rise to the communal economy of the Jerusalem believers? The apostles were all Galileans. None of them owned property in Jerusalem. With them came their families, wives, and children and several more Galilean followers of Yeshua (Jesus). The entire community intended on staying in Jerusalem where they could meet daily in the Temple. The Temple anchored the believing community in Jerusalem. It became their place of assembly and prayer and the central hub from which they proclaimed the gospel. In addition, pilgrims from all over the world, present at Jerusalem for Shavuot, had become disciples. Many elected to relocate to join the community. They were without property or career in Jerusalem. The establishment of the Jerusalem community required a corporate economy. Those relocating to Jerusalem sold their possessions and contributed to the upkeep of the community.
So, taking the specific context into consideration, we don’t particularly see a case where Peter or John cried out, “Hey everybody! Jesus told us sell all our stuff and give it to all the people who don’t have anything!” We also have to keep in mind that all of this giving was totally voluntary. No one was forced to give up all their personal possessions nor was it actually a condition of being part of the community. It was simply a practical consideration, especially for those Jews (and all of the people we’re talking about here are Jewish) who were making “aliyah,” if I can borrow the modern term, and returning to the Land.
But I know you’re thinking about Ananias and Sapphira.
But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.
After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.
–Acts 5:1-11 (ESV)
But what was their great crime and why did they die? Was it because they held back some of their wealth from the community? Peter seemed to think it was because they lied to the Holy Spirit. What if they had said, “we are selling our property but are giving only half the proceeds to the community, keeping the other half for ourselves?” Would they have died for being “greedy;” for desiring to keep some of what was rightfully theirs (and Peter acknowledges this)?
Probably not. But Ananias and Sapphira wanted to appear as if they were giving everything to the community when in fact, they kept back some if the profits. They wanted to “look good” and still secretly keep more for themselves. They wanted to have their cake and eat it too, as the saying goes. So it wasn’t greed as such that resulted in their deaths, but greed that lead to lying to God and to the community.
Perhaps the following will help to illustrate what happened and of what sort of economic model the early Jerusalem community was using.
There are four types of people. There’s the man who says, “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours.” This kind of man is neither good, nor bad, but some say this is the type of person that lived in Sodom. There is the man who says, “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine.” This kind of man is an ignoramus. There is the man who says, “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours.” This is a righteous man. Finally, there is the man that says, “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is mine.” This is a wicked man.
Applying this principle to the Jerusalem community, Lancaster says:
The third expression, “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is yours,” best expresses our Master’s ideal for His disciples and describes the type of economy practiced by the Jerusalem community. They sold their possessions and goods only to meet the needs of others as those needs arose.
Notice that the focus is not on everyone being compelled to give up everything for the sake of the community, but rather, while you understand the value of giving and hospitality to others, it is not contingent upon the other having the same values as you. You do not demand that the other consider his possessions as yours. You only accept upon yourself the value your possessions also belonging to the other as the other has need of them. (Notice too, that the one who believes that “What’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine” is considered an ignoramus.)
But again, we need to remember that we are reading here applies specifically to the Jerusalem Community and isn’t necessarily the universal model for what all Christian communities should be like in the world today. There are also other, related principles to keep in mind.
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.
–2 Thessalonians 3:6-12 (ESV)
But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
–1 Timothy 5:8 (ESV)
As far as Paul’s letters are concerned, we have to be careful to separate out what he intended to be universal principles of the faith vs. specific instructions to those individual churches with particular problems. However as far as the two above-quoted statements, it seems the ideal of being self-supporting and taking care of one’s family first is a good rule of thumb for any Christian. This certainly does not preclude charitable giving, and particularly providing care for the needy, and tzedakah is a long-established mitzvot among the Jews and was taught repeatedly by Jesus. However, none of that suggests we must give to charity before taking care of our families, nor that we should be compelled to give to what others consider a worthy cause at the cost of supporting our families.
But there’s another important example to consider, one presented to us by our own Master.
And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
–Mark 12:41-44 (ESV)
In Judaism, the principle of giving tzedakah does not require that you give yourself into the poorhouse, so to speak, or require that you starve your family for the sake of others, even if those others appear more needy than you. Yet Jesus praises this poor widow who gave all she had to live on to the offering box. I don’t know if this was meant to be taken literally or as a parable to teach a lesson. For instance, the rich gave out of their wealth and thus sacrificed nothing of their own livelihood, so should they be as praiseworthy, giving thousands of dollars (this is just an example) as compared to one who sacrificed all that she had to live on, even though it was only pennies? What it seems Jesus is teaching is not spending yourself into poverty by giving to the poor, but that it is more praiseworthy for the poor to give little and yet have it be a significant impact on their livelihood, than for the rich to give much and to affect them not at all.
It would be like very small child giving everything in her piggy bank to a charity that supports needy children in disadvantaged nations, vs. Bill Gates giving millions to the same charity (although the child, of course, can depend on her parents to provide for her needs).
So what do we see in all of this that applies to Christians today? Christ does not expect us to do without personal possessions or to do away with belongings of our own. It seems the Christian principle of earning your own way and taking care of your own family is an important and even vital one. We are expected to give and give generously to those who are in need (as opposed to those simply in want who can provide for themselves), but Christianity does not require that literally no one has more than another person.
Also, and this is very important, giving is not mandatory and cannot be forced. If you say you are going to give a certain amount or value, then give it and don’t lie, just to be seen as more holy or more like a good guy. On the other hand, if you sell property, for example, and say you will give half the value to charity and keep the other half for yourself, there’s nothing un-Christian about that. Whatever you give, you give out of willingness, not because you were forced or coerced into it, either by your church, or by your government, or by pressure from a “politically correct” social group.
OK, I’m being maybe a little political here, but I’m trying to illustrate a point. Giving and sharing, as far as the Bible is concerned, cannot be defined by a social group, or a cultural value, or a political party, or a government. Charity is between you, those you give to, and God. It cannot be manipulated by any party or entity outside of those involved.