Opening The Old Testament
Holding All Things in Common: Reflections on Acts 4:32-35
Then come the words made most famous in our own time by the German philosopher and founder of modern Communism, Karl Marx. Marx wrote in his huge manifesto, Das Kapital, the only economic system that can function for the betterment of all is one that attends to the needs of all. Hence, he stated, "From each according to his ability, and to each according to his need." Such a claim is rooted squarely in this text from Acts. However, I think it is fair to say in 2012 that such a supposed "system" has not been successful on the vast scale of nation-states. Indeed, the seventy-year Soviet command economy has failed, and the last two remaining centralized economies, North Korea and Cuba, always seem to be on the verge of collapse. By contrast the community of the early Christians was small and sharply focused on equalization of goods as the community saw fit.
Still, the Bible is quite full of ideas and claims and commands that in our complex world offer less a practical way of living than a high bar on which we are called to set our sight. The commandment may say, "You must not kill!" but we go about our killing willy-nilly in any case, over the three millennia since the ancient Hebrews received that commandment from YHWH. But does that mean that the ancient command has no force for us? I think not. God is author of life and death, and we humans have no independent right to kill as we see fit. When we kill, we must know that we do so at our peril, claiming by that action that we are in fact God. We are not, as the Bible makes abundantly clear.
So it is with this astonishing idea that the early church held all things in common, so as to be certain that there were no needy in their midst. Does that mean that socialism is a better economic system than capitalism? Not by definition. However, this little passage from Acts again holds up a high bar for us. There must not be needy among us; that is a sign that God's favor will not be forthcoming, because our system has worked in such a way as to allow needy people; that will plainly not do. So we work in whatever systems we employ so as to minimize the existence of those who have little or nothing. By so acting, says Luke, we are bearing witness to the resurrection of the Lord. We could then say that one of the very first results of Easter day is that God is shown to be especially concerned about the needy, and equally concerned about those of us who have no such concern. Communism, socialism, capitalism are not finally the problem; are there needy among you? That is the problem. Remember what happens to Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. Withholding what is needed so as to impoverish others is the road to death. It must not be so among those of us who claim the name of Christian.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.