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Again, the Jesus of the synoptic gospels called his listeners and followers back to a practice of mutual dependence. He called them to let go of their hoarded resources, and to be the ones God sends to help those who don’t have enough for today. He invited them to trust that if a crisis should arise in future for us, we should not trust in our once-hoarded resources, but in those we have fostered community alongside. We should trust that they will be there for us. We don’t gain the ability to sleep at night because we have hoarded enough wealth. We gain the ability to sleep at night because no matter what the future holds, we are not facing it alone. As a community, we have each other.
Many years ago, I remember a very wealthy person asked a question at a seminar I was conducting: “Does that mean we should all just sell our retirement accounts and give it all away?”
That’s a great question. My response was no. As long as we are living in a society that so highly prioritizes independence and isolated individualism even for the elderly, retirement accounts are vital. But what can we do? We can take steps to foster community, rejecting the kool-aid of individualism, and work toward shaping a society where our dependence is recognized and celebrated, a community that makes retirement accounts obsolete. At that point, people will no longer need such large retirement accounts because we will all take care of the aged among us. Social security, done correctly, is a good thing, and we should be seeking to create a society where our elderly can thrive, not just barely survive.
In Paul’s ministry, a different principle enters the early church:
“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living? . . . If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 9:1-6, 12)
Here we see a move away from the dependence value in what may have been the original teachings of Jesus. Mark’s gospel was written after Paul, but most scholars believe it preserves the early ethic of dependence.
Luke’s gospel shows the tension growing between Paul’s independence and the early Jesus community’s dependence. By the time of Luke, followers are now permitted to take a staff, and what is shared is now labelled as “wages.”
“Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road. When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house. When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (Luke 10:4-9, emphasis added.)
In the Didache we also see parameters being made in response to possible abuses of the original dependence ethic:
“Let every apostle who comes to you be received as the Lord. But he shall not remain more than one day; or two days, if there’s a need. But if he remains three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle goes away, let him take nothing but bread until he lodges. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet.” (Didache: The Lord’s Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations, Chapter 11)
This is more than an interesting discussion among Jesus scholars though. We have to ask ourselves today: what do we as Jesus followers in the 21st Century find most life-giving—Paul’s independence or Jesus’ interdependence?
In Jesus’ vision for human community in the synoptic gospels and the book of Acts, we take responsibility for taking care of one another, not to establish dependency, but because we already are dependent on one another. Jesus’ community chose to practice mutual aid, resource sharing, and wealth redistribution.
We also have that choice before us. Could it be that societies that survive are not societies that practice the survival of the individual fittest, where the strong eat the weak, but societies that define “fittest” as one where we all take care of one another, including those who may be weak.
Our choice today is the same as in the Jesus story: individualism, independence, and competition or community, cooperation, and connectedness; dependency or interdependency.
We are connected whether we realize it or not. We are also dependent on one another whether we cherish that idea or not.
Life is born when we share.