Tuesday of Week 2 of Easter – First Reading

Commentary on Acts 4:32-37

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

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

However, what people often do is to confuse this stated ideal of socialism (and communism) with the way in which it was implemented, as well as the atheistic materialism which it proclaimed. As we saw so clearly during communism and Marxism at their height, an attempt to achieve justice without love does not work. We Christians must also remember that there cannot be true love without justice.

Four elements are mentioned in the first sentence of today’s passage:

  • The believers form a community, a “group of believers”;
  • They are of “one heart and soul”, deeply united with each other;
  • “No one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common”;
  • They gave “testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” with great power, through signs and healings “and great grace was upon them all”.
  • There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.

    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 whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul…

    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:

    There was a Levite from Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

    It is known that Jews had been living in Cyprus 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 of Acts, 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. Additionally, we have to admit 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 that 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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