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New Life Ways 7: All Things in Common

It starts as soon as a child learns to talk. It happened in my home. It probably happened in yours. You and I most likely did not teach this to our children. But they learned the words and the accompanying attitudes.

The words? “My” and “Mine.” Alice Sterling Honig—professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University—said “Mine is often one of the first words toddlers learn…”[1] But you probably did not need a professor to tell you that.

And the attitudes? “What I have somehow defines my worth.” “If I have more it makes me better than you.” “I earned what I have.” Sure, before children work, the only earning came from thinking they were so good that Santa brought them more than the neighbor kid or somehow another year and another birthday merited the gifts.

Often those words and attitudes follow us to adulthood. We start to work and we believe what we have is “mine.” I have what I have because I “earned” it. I worked harder, longer, and smarter than the person who has less.

It comes with our culture. We live in America—the wealthiest nation on earth—and yet our country has the highest wealth inequality. The Global Wealth Report of 2015 listed the U.S. as having 41.6% of the of total global personal wealth.[2] We’ve got a lot of wealth.

But we also have a lot of inequality, especially in the United States. A measure of inequality was calculated for each country. Here’s how the scoring worked: A “0” mark would indicate perfect equality of wealth. A “100” would indicate perfect inequality or one person owning all the wealth. The U.S. earned a score of 80.56 which showed the “most concentration of overall wealth in the hands of the proportionately fewest people.”[3]

The wealth is not owned by one person. But it is owned by just a few.

That picture is not too distant from the one we find in the first century. One scholar describes the inequality in the Roman Empire as follows:[4]

  • imperial elites consisted of 0.04% of the population
  • regional or provincial elites made up 1%
  • municipal elites comprised 1.76%

So far, that means the elite of the society made up only 2.8% of the population. From there he says:

  • there were those with moderate surplus resources (7% estimated): some merchants, some traders, some freedpersons, some artisans (especially those who employ others) and military veterans
  • others were stable near subsistence level with reasonable hope of remaining above the minimum lever to sustain life (22% estimated)
  • even more lived at subsistence level and often below minimum level to sustain life (40%)
  • below subsistence level (28%): some farm families, unattached widows, orphans, beggars, disabled, unskilled day labourers and prisoners.

In summation, one writer says: “Those who had no problems with sustenance were altogether at most 10%, whereas in continuous problems of sustenance were living some 90% of the population, more than two thirds of them in severe or extreme poverty.”[5]

It was a harsh world. And from what we know, it was equally harsh in Galilee. First-century Galilee was mostly an agricultural society with some fishing industry. The population was, as in the Roman Empire, strongly dependent on the wealthy elite.

The elite lived off of the deprivation of the rural Galilean population. They had agents who would collect taxes from the poor. Archeology has revealed there are almost no remains found of storage buildings for grain or other products and no shops at all. This tells us that the Galileans apparently consumed all that they produced. By the time they paid rents, taxes, loan and interests there was nothing left for them to trade with.[6]

Jesus lived in this world. All the archaeological evidence from the Roman period points to a simple peasant existence at Nazareth.[7] Mark 6:3 tells us Jesus was a tekton. Often we understand this to mean he was a carpenter, but the word means a craftsman and included those who worked in stone. Wood was scarce in the area around Nazareth, so most likely Jesus was a stonemason. There is high probability he worked in the Roman construction of the city of Sepphoris, which would have only added to the offense the people from Nazareth had towards him. Jesus was most likely in the group that lived at sustenance level or just below.

Why is the economic setting of Jesus’ world and that of the church important? Look at the early teaching Jesus gave at a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Jesus specifically chose that passage to read to his hometown crowd, a crowd of simple people like himself who were barely getting by. Simple people who worked hard but had little by way of material things to show for it.

Why did Jesus choose this passage from Isaiah 61? He had a passion for the poor. The down and out. The captives. The blind and oppressed. Jesus’ mission was to see the shalom of God present, even in his hometown.

Bishop Curry helped us imagine shalom at the Royal Wedding:

Think and imagine, well, think and imagine a world where love is the way. Imagine our homes and families when love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine business and commerce when love is the way. Imagine this tired old world when love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial redemptive. When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again.[8]

Jesus referred to the “year of the Lord’s favor.” Jubilee. Every fifty years the fields would be allowed to rest. Slaves would be freed. All property was returned to its original owners. (Imagine hearing this in a day the Romans had taken all the land.)

As far as we know, the year of Jubilee was never really practiced. But Jesus taught it, showing us the heart of God. God loves a “0” inequality mark—everyone has enough.

Apparently his disciples got the message.  “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:42-45). Later, in Acts 6, we read of a “daily distribution” of food. The church took care of its own.

Some get nervous when we read these passages. Some hear “socialism” and start fidgeting. But that is not what is at work here in the early church. The imperfect tenses used in the passage indicate an action that happened from time to time, as need arose. In fact, the NIV translation of Acts 4:34b-35 says, “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.”[9] “From time to time” indicates the people responded when there was a need.

What the disciples did was voluntary. Their love for each other moved them to, at times, sell possessions and even property so that others would have food and clothing.

What the disciples did was not a response to a universal command to sell property and possessions. We don’t find this practice everywhere in the New Testament. The response is to the universal command to love. At times, love means letting go of some of what we have to give to someone who has little or nothing.

Years ago I was teaching a class at another church. The text was the rich young ruler. He’s the one, you might remember, that told Jesus he had kept all the commandments. So Jesus told him: “You still lack one thing: Sell all you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. After he heard this, he became extremely sad, because he was very rich” (Luke 18:22-23).

One of the class participants asked me afterwards, “Does this mean we all need to go sell everything we have and give it to a poor person?” He was sincere in his question. And he was well off financially. So I said, “Yes, I think you need to sell everything you have and give the money to me.”

No, that’s not what I said. I said, “Well, I think Jesus said that to that particular man because it is something that stood in the way of his relationship to Jesus. He loved his money more than following Jesus. If we all followed this particular command to this particular person, we’d all be poor and then we could not follow this command. I think what Jesus wants us to do is to be in conversation with him about how much we love our money. And if we start loving it more than we love him, then maybe this is for us too.”

I think I’d say the same today. The early church had all kinds of people in it: rich, poor, master, slave, men, women, Jew, and Greek. They would not reflect the heart of God if the rich allowed the poor to go hungry.

The Apostle Paul spoke to that very issue in 1 Corinthians 11 where the wealthier ate at their meetings while the poor went hungry. Suffice it to say Paul was pretty terse with them about their actions, especially as it pertained to the Lord’s Supper.

The church was to be different. It was to be salt and light in the world. And the world they lived in was one where the Romans had taken everything and left most with little or nothing. There was no welfare. No health care plans. No social security. The Roman government cared little for its own. And in that setting the church looked after not only their own, but those outside their community as well.

And it grew. People were curious about these people who would at times sell their possessions and help the poor, and they wanted to find out what caused that change. Even the Roman government eventually noticed. Rodney Stark states that Julian complained in a letter to the high priest of Galatia in 362: “The impious Galileans support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.”[10] Stark says Julian recognized that his charities and that of organized paganism paled in comparison with Christian efforts that had created “a miniature welfare state in an empire which for the most part lacked social services.”[11]

The Resurrection resurrected love for each other in the church. And when there was a need, they took care of their own first. And then they took care of others.

Professor Honig said that “Mine is often one of the first words toddlers learn.” She also continued: “…and an intellectual milestone; once a child understands the feeling of ownership, he is on his way to learning to share… Identifying ownership isn’t a sign of selfishness—it’s a sign of knowledge. It demonstrates a desire to understand the world.”[12]

Sure, some people are poor because they don’t want to work. But some are poor, as Bono once said, because they are “an accident of latitude.” They were simply born in a different place than we were. And some were born into different systems than we were. Systems similar to the one Jesus and the first church knew.

In a world where inequality existed, Tertullian noted “that it was the Christian communities’ response to the poor people among them that inspired outsiders to comment, ‘Look, how they love each other.’”[13]

God knows what might happen if we attack the inequality number now like they did then.

 

[1] http://www.toddlerapproved.com/2015/06/tips-for-toddler-mine-stage.html

[2] http://fortune.com/2015/09/30/america-wealth-inequality/

[3] Ibid.

[4] See the research Poverty in the first-century Galilee by Sakari Häkkinen at   http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0259-94222016000400046

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/19/style/bishop-michael-curry-royal-wedding.html

[9] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/does-the-book-of-acts-command-socialism/

[10] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 83-84.

[11] Ibid. and Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity. New York: Atheneum, 1976: 75

[12] http://www.toddlerapproved.com/2015/06/tips-for-toddler-mine-stage.html

[13] Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2016), 115.