In an earlier post I wondered about the sort of community Luke describes at the end of Acts 4. It is critically important to understand here that the selling of property in Acts 2 and 4 is completely voluntary and in response to the need the early community has to care for growing numbers of people staying in Jerusalem. Luke uses verbs to describe this giving as on-going in the early community. People often sold property and gave it to the apostles to distribute.
Craig Keener provides a wealth of material on sharing wealth in the ancient world (Acts, 1:1012-28). He cites Pythagoras famous saying, “friends share everything in common” as a possible motivation for the common life of the Jerusalem community, but concludes that this Hellenistic ideal is not enough to explain what is going on in Acts. There is nothing here that suggests any reciprocal arrangement. No one was expecting anything in return for their provision for the needy in the community.
Nor does Keener find the descriptions of the Essenes in Philo to be adequate to explain the Jerusalem’s communal living. While the Qumran group practiced a kind of voluntary poverty and simplicity of life, the fact that the Apostolic community was based in an urban environment and Qumran was a separate, almost monastic community makes the two practices rather distinct. As Keener points out, Christians voluntarily sold property to respond to community needs, Qumran required the sale of all property when a convert joins the group (Acts, 1:1021).
The motivation for this giving is sometimes explained as an indication that the apostolic community thought that Jesus was returning very soon and there was no need for personal property in the coming kingdom. Better to sell what you have now and give it to the poor! While it is certain they believed the Lord was returning soon, this is not given as the motivation in Acts.
The chief motivation was to care for the needy, in response to the command of Jesus to care for the “least of these brothers of mine.” A Jewish person in the first century would have found nothing particularly radical about Jesus teaching that the righteous man ought to care for the poor – alms giving was a critically important part of the religion of the first century.
Jesus does say and do several things which are a bit more radical than most of contemporary Judaism. First, he commanded at least one man to give up all his possessions (the rich young ruler), and second, he and his disciples lived out a life of poverty. While Jesus and the disciples were not all that much different than most common people in Galilee, there is model of “common living” even in the ministry of Jesus. On the other hand, Jesus did appear to have had wealthy followers who helped him at key times in his life (the owner of the Garden of Gethsemane and Joseph of Arimethea, for example).
Jesus also teaches that when you care for the poor (“the least of these brothers of mine”), you are in fact caring for the Lord Jesus himself. Acts of righteousness such as alms are now interpreted as acts of worship of Jesus himself. While this does not demand that the whole community live in a state of poverty, their ought to be no poverty among the followers of Jesus.
Returning to the question of present church practice, how should we use these descriptions of the earliest community? Does Luke intend us to read these descriptions as models for “how to do church” in other contexts? If that is not the case (and most churches I know do not practice this lifestyle), what was the point of living communally?