“And all who believed were together and had all things in Common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people and the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:44-47).
There it is; the best expression of what I call Christian communism that I find in the Bible. Of course, it is easy to take one or two verses of Scripture and build a theology around it. I remember well that several years ago the ‘Prayer of Jabez’ was very popular with a set of Christian folk. That prayer took place in ancient times, whether in Judah or Israel, during the unified kingdom or even before the kingdom founded by Saul I don’t know. Suffice it to say that Jabez lived a long time ago. Jabez is famous for the following prayer: “Jabez called upon the Lord of Israel, saying ‘Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!’ And God granted what he asked.” (I Chron. 4:10). “Name it and claim it” became a big player in Christian circles when that verse was found and, in my opinion, sold as a magical incantation used for the purpose of manipulating God into playing the role of celestial sugar daddy. It is with that episode in mind that I venture into this topic with caution, stating up front that my thoughts are incomplete and I am open to considerable input from people better versed in the Bible than I am.
Acts 2 is a lot closer to Jesus than is I Chronicles, but regardless of that, Christians will by and large agree that the whole story told in both the Old Testament and the New point to Jesus as the apex and culmination of God’s plan to straighten out the unholy mess that humankind, God’s peak of creation, has made of things. The people leading that band of early Christians (they weren’t called that yet) were eleven of the twelve who had spent three continuous years with Jesus, learning day and night by word and deed what Jesus was about, and while they still didn’t get all of it right, they certainly had more insight into the mind of God than I do, and they report the utopian situation in Acts 2 and the effect that it had on the greater community
OK, so Jabez was a long time before Jesus and Acts was after Jesus’ death and ascension into heaven. What then did Jesus Himself have to say about this, if anything? There are two things that stand out to me in the Gospels that address this topic; one is found in Luke 3:10-14, and the other is in three of the four gospels. I will look at those two sources as they appear in the Gospel of Luke, one of which is actually a quote of John the Baptist, whom Jesus referred to as the greatest of all the prophets, and the other a teaching of Jesus Himself, and explore what these might mean to me.
In Luke 3:10-14 a bunch of the One Percenters in Jerusalem came to John, whom they distrusted in the first place, and asked him what they should do to live in accordance with God’s will. I’ll let John answer in his own words. “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him “Teacher, what shall we do? And he said to them ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’” “Soldiers also asked him ‘And we, what shall we do?’ And he said to them ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusations, and be content with your wages.”
Now tax collectors made their living by collecting taxes for the Roman occupiers, and they grew fat by using the might of Rome to scare citizens into paying whatever they demanded and keeping whatever was above the Roman requirement for themselves. Most Jews in Palestine had no idea what the real tax for them was because they would rather be dead than caught speaking with a gentile; especially a Roman. John told the tax collectors to do their job, be fair, and live on what they rightfully earned.
Soldiers were a different breed of cat. Temple police were allowed to exist by the occupying force but the only real soldiers allowed in the Empire were Roman soldiers and Judah, like it or not, was in the Empire. It is therefore interesting that soldiers were speaking to a Jewish prophet at all, and especially one wearing coarse clothes and eating grasshoppers in the desert. Nevertheless, there they were, and they asked John what they should do. John, with a truly Christian concern for all humanity, replied to these unclean, uncircumcised gentiles who had shields and Roman short swords and said “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusations, and be content with your wages.”
The threat part is easy to figure out. Roman soldiers had spread the borders of the Empire from the Atlantic to east of Mesopotamia and from the border with Pictland (Scotland) to the Sahara Desert. These guys could threaten, and then carry out their threats! God, through John, said “Stop it!” “Do what is right and be content with your wage” is how I read it.
Finally, in Luke 18:18-30, a good Jewish boy who happened to be very rich came to Jesus and asked what he must do to be saved. Jesus told him to obey all sorts of laws and the guy said “Yeah, I’ve done all of that,” or words to that effect. Then Jesus dropped the hammer on him. “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
Shazzam! That ain’t gonna happen. The rich Jew couldn’t pull the trigger on that deal and even Jesus’ disciples were blown away by His statement. Jesus was making a point – and again this is in my own opinion – that if you are tied more tightly to your ‘stuff’, your material things, than you are to God, you are not fully getting the picture. And that leads me into the body of my thoughts on all of this.
Jesus does not seem to be very impressed with people’s stuff. People in general He cares about; you know, dying for us and all of that. But our stuff? Not so much. Jesus had no home (today this is called being homeless). He gave most of what He had to the poor (that, today, is called being stupid). His early followers did the same, selling off their possessions and giving the funds to “all that had need. Jesus did not seem to be opposed to working and earning a living. To tax collectors John said “Collect”, and to soldiers John said “Soldier”, and Jesus seemed to agree, since He went to John for his own baptism.
So what does all of this mean to me in the twenty-first century? Well, I don’t really know. That is why I am writing this and asking for input from any who read it and feel moved to share their opinions. The upshot to me, however, is that Jesus would rather than I live in a small house, take short, local vacations, eat humble meals, wear clothes until they wear out rather than go out of style, and in general ‘live simply so that others might simply live.’
Let me state up front that this model does not describe me very well. I have enjoyed two vacations in Europe and three in Hawaii. My house is nearly 1,400 square feet, I love to eat out and do so often, and if I want a book, a bottle of wine, a new garden tool or a cup of coffee at the coffee shop where I sit at the moment of this writing I indulge myself, so I am a far cry from the Christian communist that I am speaking of in this essay. At least my clothes are old! I am therefore not throwing out judgements that do not equally apply to me. In fact, I am not throwing out judgements at all. I am asking questions.
Simply put, I am asking whether or not the role of a Christ follower in the twenty-first century is to radically share his or her money, or stuff, with those who have need, to the Church first and then to the world. Instead of clawing to get and keep our share of the pie and then voting for somebody who promises to keep our nation a Christian country, if we Christians poured ourselves into the needs of the community, feeding all who are hungry and clothing all who are cold regardless of how they came to be in their condition, I believe that the surrounding culture would look at us first as if we’ve lost our minds, but in time as people who believe what they say and say something worth believing. Soon, I suspect, the Lord would be adding to our number daily those who believe, and that is what I call a ‘church growth plan.’
In my community our local public utility runs what they call “Operation Warm Heart.” This charity provides funds to keep on the water and electricity when a resident is not able to pay for it. Imagine if the Church in my community lived simply and gave its surplus to the charity. Put simply, no poor senior citizen would ever have to decide whether to be able to flush their toilet or keep their medications cold in the refrigerator.
At a high school nearby, where something like 60% or more of the student body is receiving free or reduced lunches, there is a Family Resource Center where food and clothing and bus passes and so forth are dispensed as such items are donated, and one paid staff member and volunteers will sit and talk with the kids and, more important, listen to them. Imagine a frugal Church pouring material resources and, more important, their time and their lives into the lives of these kids! What would this say about the Church and the God Whom we say that we worship? Probably more than planning my next trip to Hawaii while I say “Go in peace, be warmed and filled” does.
Examples abound but I believe that I’ve made my point as well as I can. The resources which have been given by God to His Church in my community are enough to make a tremendous dent in the mountain of pain and want that afflicts many people here, each one of them loved by God and created in His image no matter what they have done or how they have repaid God for His love. A giving, serving Church would soon shed the negative image that it has earned in the minds of many and create an environment where the Church, as a messenger of God’s love and desire to reconcile heaven and earth, might once again be listened to and believed.
As I wrote earlier I am not a theologian, and do not know if the Bible supports this interpretation. I certainly do know that the American economic structure and what our society calls “common sense” do not, and I confess that I am as attached to my stuff as is the next person. It just seems to me that the Bible speaks of a greater concern with people than with things, and this essay is my poor and imperfect expression of that view.