Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Times They Are A-Changin', Part 5: The Early Christian Community of Goods in Jerusalem

Raphael, The Death of Ananias (1515), Victoria and Albert Museum, London

[For previous installments in this series, see here, here, here, and here.]

Luke, more so than any of the other Evangelists, develops the primitive Christian tradition that the eschatological era inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus would bring with it a radical societal transposition, wherein the rich and powerful would be brought low as the poor, marginalized, and powerless would be exalted. Jesus, as we have seen, programmatically defined his mission in terms of fulfilling the Isaianic promise of proclaiming "good news to the poor" (Luke 4:16-21), introduced his "Sermon on the Plain" by pronouncing blessing on the poor and woe on the rich (Luke 6:20-26), and drove his point home with the powerful parable of "Dives" and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).

But what difference do Jesus' counterintuitive pronouncements make concretely for the life of his followers? Are they, as I was implicitly taught in my youth, merely to be "spiritualized" and/or relegated to some future instantiation of the kingdom on earth (i.e., the "Millennium"?), thus allowing disciples to go on living in the present as if Jesus had never uttered these logia? My hunch is that most American Christians, if they have even bothered to consider these texts seriously at all, would tacitly agree with such a proposal, even if they might experience a passing twinge of guilt in the process. To do so, however, would be a mistake. And the places to look for a better alternative are two oft-(willfully) misunderstood texts in Luke's sequel to his Gospel. I am speaking of the two passages in which Luke describes the practices of the early Christian community in Jerusalem, in both of which he speaks of the believers' practice of a community of goods. The texts read as follows:
Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:41-47, NIV)
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:32-37, NIV)
These two texts fit somewhat awkwardly with the presumed worldview of most Western, especially American, Christians, for whom the church's practice smacks of an unseemly, if not ungodly, "communism." [As an aside, Christian views of socialism, at least in theory, were not always so uniformly negative as might be imagined today. Witness the nuanced discussion of the great Cambridge New Testament scholar and Bishop of Durham, Brooke Foss Westcott, here.] Thus in my undergraduate days at a very conservative Bible College I was explicitly taught that the earliest community's practice was not only not normative for the church's practice today, it was demonstrably an empirical failure. Indeed, my teachers considered this "mistake" on the part of the apostles to be the reason the Jerusalem church was "poor" and in need of famine relief 13 or so years later in 46 CE (Acts 11:27-30) and the Apostle Paul's famous "collection" for them, which he delivered a decade or so after that. Indeed, the presumed "loss of capital" incurred by this practice is blamed as the most probable cause for the Jerusalem church's subsequent poverty by no less an exegete and historian than I. Howard Marshall (Luke: Historian and Theologian [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970] 208).

A little reflection, however, should cause one to realize that such a notion undercuts the transparent purpose of Luke's accounts. Luke, after all, wrote his work long after the Jerusalem church's poverty had become entrenched and Paul, his hero, had delivered the collection from his mostly-Gentile church plants throughout the Empire. Yet he still presents the primitive community's practice in a positive light. Indeed, the early chapters of Acts read like an episodic history, with summarizing paragraphs like those found in Acts 2:41-47 and 4:32-37 serving as "strings" connecting the "pearls" of the individual episodes in which the acts and words of the early apostles that dominate the narrative are recounted. Theologically, these "strings" serve the purpose of demonstrating the consequences of the apostles' words and deeds: God was bringing into existence a community of "believers," his new "saved" people, through the irresistible power of the apostolic message. Not only this, but the "community" aspect of this new people is defined under the rubric of four elements that characterized their life together: devotion to the apostles' teaching, "fellowship" (koinōnia), the "breaking of bread," and "the prayers" (2:42). 

Over the years I have heard countless sermons on this text in which these four elements are stressed as marks of healthy ecclesial praxis. In none of them, however, have I heard the preacher encourage emulation of the community of goods described by Luke in verses 44-45—and this despite the fact that Luke explicitly portrays this community of goods as an expression of the "fellowship" to which the church committed itself in its earliest days. He does this linguistically by means of the adjective koina in verse 44: "And all who believed were together (epi to auto) and would have (eichon [imperfect tense]) all things in common (koina). Here Luke not only describes the earliest church as a society rather than as a group of saved individuals (cf. C. K. Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, vol. 1: Acts I-XIV [ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1994] 168), but presents the community of goods as the concrete manifestation of that communitarian perspective in the believers' daily life.

Luke's positive perspective on this primitive practice is, if anything, even more pronounced in the second of his summarizing paragraphs. In verse 33 Luke comments that "great grace was upon them all." At this point the ESV—to cite but one so-called "literal" translation that here doesn't live up to its stated aims—places a full stop and has verse 34 ("There was not a needy person among them") begin a new thought. But such a reading ignores the conjunction gar ("for") which provides the syntactical link between the two clauses. Luke would have us understand that a causal relationship exists between God's favor resting on them and their practice of a community of goods. Indeed, the latter practice provides the warrant for such a claim, and signals God's grace as the impetus for their practice of economic sharing

The ultimate theological significance of this passage, however, may be found in the Old Testament background to the seemingly innocuous introductory words to verse 34. "There was not a needy person among them" (oude … endeēs tis ēn en autois). For this text unmistakenly echoes Deuteronomy 15:4-5, 7-11:

However, there need be no poor people among you (LXX: hoti ouk estai en soi endeēs), for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the Lord your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today. ... If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. Be careful not to harbor this wicked thought: “The seventh year, the year for canceling debts, is near,” so that you do not show ill will toward the needy among your fellow Israelites and give them nothing. They may then appeal to the Lord against you, and you will be found guilty of sin. Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to. There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.
The point is a clear one. The early church behaved (the preponderance of imperfect tense verbs in these paragraphs indicate that this practice was a habitual or iterative one that took place over a good length of time) in accordance with a theological understanding of their identity as the eschatological covenant people of God. In other words, the earliest community, as beneficiaries of Jesus' gospel for the poor (Luke 4), saw fit to implement the radical economic costs of discipleship articulated by Jesus during his ministry and thereby embody their claim to be the true people of God.

Of course, as all American preachers and teachers are quick to point out, in contrast to secular socialistic schemes—not to mention similar schemes in Jesus' day, such as that of the Essene sectarians whose literary deposit was discovered at Qumran in 1948 (cf., e.g., 1QS 6:19-22)—the earliest community's practice was entirely voluntary. Barnabas is singled out as an example of the type of relinquishing of property and consequent economic redistribution undertaken by the church (Acts 4:36-37). Ananias and Sapphira, on the other hand, are judged not so much because they didn't give everything, but instead because they lied about the scale of their divestment (Acts 5:1-11). Some Christians, like Mark's mother Mary, retained ownership of her house while using her domicile for the benefit of the community (Acts 12:12-17). And so it has always remained.

To make this observation, however, does not undercut the paradigmatic quality of the earliest community's actions. Nor does it excuse the contemporary American church of its economic obligations toward the poor in its own communities. New Testament scholars have long bemoaned the persistence of crassly individualistic notions of being the people of God in the American church. Some worldviews indeed are very hard to eradicate or even modify. But we as the people of God must never forget who we are—the eschatological people of God, the foretaste of that full ingathering that will populate the promised new earth—and what that means for how we are to implement the social transposition announced by our Lord. For some of us that will entail looking at the poor with a new set of glasses, Christian rather than American in focus. For others, most of us I suspect, that will involve a renewed appreciation for the economic implications of following the One who pronounced blessing on the poor. May the Spirit work to effect this transformation of how we understand ourselves and the times in which we live. Soli Deo Gloria!


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