Tuesday of Week 2 of Easter – First Reading

Commentary on Acts 4:32-37

A picture of the early Christian community.

We Christians are sometimes accused of being socialists. Perhaps it is not an accusation we should be altogether ashamed of. The socialist ideal is “To each according to their need; from each according to their ability”. If this is the essence of socialism, then it is hard to see how any follower of Christ could disagree with it.

What people often do is to confuse the ideals of socialism (and Communism) with the ways in which it was implemented, as well as the atheistic materialism which it proclaimed. As we saw so clearly during Communism at its height, justice without love does not work (and we Christians might also remember that there can be no true love without justice).

Today’s reading from the Acts is one of three portraits of the early Christian community. Probably it is more the expression of an ideal than a historic description but it is no less valid for all that. Today’s description emphasises the communal ownership and mutual responsibility of the community members for each other.

Four elements are mentioned in the first sentence:

  • The believers form a community
  • They are of one heart and mind, deeply united with each other
  • No one claimed anything as belonging to themselves; everything was held in common
  • They gave witness to the central element of their faith – the Risen Jesus – with great power, through signs and healings.

There were no rich or poor in this community. “Those who owned lands or houses sold them.” This was a voluntary sharing to provide for those who did not have enough for the essentials of living. Each one’s aim was to ensure that the needs (not necessarily the wants) of the others were met rather than each one looking only to their own needs.

It is important to note that this was possible because “the community of believers were of one heart and one mind”. Their material sharing was simply an expression of the care which they felt for each other at a much deeper level.

The passage concludes with a striking example. Joseph, also known as Barnabas (“son of encouragement”), sold property he had and put the proceeds at the feet of the apostles. He was a Levite from Cyprus. (Jews had been living there since the time of Maccabees.) Generally, Levites did not own inherited land in Palestine but the rule may not have applied in other areas. Or the property may have belonged to his wife. Barnabas, will later become a missionary partner with Paul.

Barnabas’ action will contrast with another couple, Ananias and Sapphira, who claimed to be doing the same but who in fact only gave part of their possessions and kept the rest for themselves. They were severely punished. One after the other, they both dropped dead. (Their story is told in the following chapter but is not part of our Easter readings.)

Do we find such sharing communities in our Church today? One obvious example are the many different communities of religious life whose misleadingly named “vow of poverty” is primarily not a vow of destitution but one of total sharing of resources coupled with a life of material simplicity. Clearly, some communities live this life more effectively than others.

There are also in our own time many other groups of lay people who try to implement this Christian vision, this version of Christian “socialism”. One thinks for example of the ‘L’Arche’ movement.

We have to admit, though, that many Christians – including religious – can be caught up in the individualism, hedonism, consumerism and materialism that dominates so many of our prosperous societies today.

Perhaps today we could reflect on our own attitudes to material goods: how we acquire them, how we use them, to what extent we share our material blessings with those in genuine need and not just out of our surplus. This is something we need to reflect on as individuals, as families, and in our parish community.

There should not be any people in real need in our parish communities; if there are, how can we speak of ourselves as a parish community?

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