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. (Acts 2:44-45)
In the second chapter of the Book of Acts, directly after the day of Pentecost, we are given a glimpse of the first days of the early Church, and how the first fledgling congregation “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). We also hear of how they loved and cared for one another in faith, by sharing what they had and providing for those who were in need.
Scripture says, “All who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44). Some interpreters have suggested that this verse is evidence our Lord had taught his disciples to practice and enforce an economic system that requires the equal distribution of wealth. Some argue that this kind of system is necessary in our world for us to have a true and just society. Others argue that since all we have belongs to God, there should not even be such things as individual ownership or property, and that all resources must be made free and available to everyone. Creating such a fair and equitable system, they imagine, would usher in the very kingdom of God on earth.
Yet, the truth is, there have always been differences among people, in wealth, in resources, in riches – and in less tangible things as well like personal skills, talents, and natural abilities. This is the case among those outside the Church as well as among believers. We see this reality illustrated in the Parable of the Talents, where Jesus describes a Master who entrusts differing amounts to each of his servants. “To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one — to each according to his ability” (Matthew 15:15). Even in the comparable Parable of the Minas, in Luke 19, where the Master gave each servant the same amount, the resulting return on the Master’s investment was different in every case.
Nowhere in these stories does the Master tell the servants, “Since all the resources belong to me, the return is irrelevant.” Nor does the Master allow one steward to lay claim to the resources he entrusted to another, as if a servant had the right to steal from their fellow servants or were entitled to an equal share. No, the Master held each of his servants accountable for their own individual stewardship, and responsible for the way they used the resources of the Master to engage in his business.
But are we not called as disciples – commanded even – to care for our neighbors in love? Is not generosity and concern for the well-being of others part of what it means to be a steward of God? Indeed it is. As Jesus once asked his disciples:
“Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes” (Luke 12:41-43).
Being a follower of Jesus means we trust in God enough to be generous and merciful. We have the promise from our Lord, himself, who said:
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:32-34)
As disciples, we are called to be faithful and wise stewards of all that God has given us. But our individual stewardship is not measured according to what has been entrusted to others, it is according to what we have been given that each of us are accountable.
Imagine several cashiers working in the same store, side-by-side, in a row of registers. At the end of a shift, each cashier knows that they are responsible for the cash in their drawer, any checks written or coupons they have redeemed for their customers, in addition to the record of transactions that were made electronically. During the shift, if one cashier were to secretly remove $100 from a co-worker’s register and put it in her own drawer, could she make the argument that this is not stealing? None of the money belongs to the cashiers anyway; it all belongs to the store. However, she would know full well that other cashier will come up short at the end of the night, and that other cashier will be accountable for the missing money.
The Commandment, “Thou shall not steal” is not made irrelevant by the fact that all things belong to God. Nor can the biblical example of the early Church caring for each other’s needs be used as a pretext for stealing from one steward to benefit another – whether it be by force, by deceit, or by political-economic systems.
Jesus did not come into the world to set up a new societal system for the distribution of goods and services. He did not come to create a system of economic equity or any other kind of “kingdom of this world.” He came into the world to give his life for us, that our hearts would be grasped by his love, so that in faith we would show that same love to others.
Christ has called us as his disciples, and has given us many and varied gifts — not for the sake of making us equal, but for the sake of doing his work in the world. We are each entrusted with different amounts the Master’s resources, not to make things “fair”for us, but engage in the Master’s business of showing mercy, grace, and love in his name — for his sake.
In the Gospel of John, when Jesus came to the family home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, in thanks for all the Lord had done for them, Mary of Bethany came forward to anoint Jesus with a jar of expensive perfumed oil, and wipe his feet with her hair. Judas spoke out against what he considered to be an act of economic injustice, saying,“Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:5). Scripture tells us, “He said this, not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief…” (12:6).
Jesus responded to the accusation of Judas by saying, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me” (John 12:8). Jesus lets us know that in our lives we will have unending opportunities to show love to those who are poor, just as the early Church showed love to one another by “selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). This, indeed, is what it means to love our neighbor.
But we do it, not for the sake of equity — for we know that in this world things will never be equal, and the poor we will always have with us. We do it, not for the sake of some abstract ideal or system of economic justice; we do it for the sake of Christ himself. We demonstrate his love to the least of his brothers and sisters, because in caring and serving and loving our neighbors, we are doing it for Him.
– Pastor Steven E. King