Economics can be an important component of a church’s faithful witness
January 9, 2023
When we read about the first band of Christ followers selling their possessions and “distributing the proceeds to all, as they had need,” (Acts 2:45), we clap our hands, lauding such noble sacrifice, but snicker under our breath, whispering, “Now that’s a bit too much!” We eye their sudden dispossession as fanatical, what uncouth cults do: they sell everything and go up to the mountains because they are cocksure of Jesus’ return date and time. We have (and have had) many Christian-freaks/fringes who abandoned human society to welcome the end of the world, only to return poorer. Here we are, 2,000 years later, and the human society is still humming, and money still matters, so let’s live out our faith in “decency and order.”
The early church’s dispossession only makes sense, we reason, if they believed in the imminent end of the world because in the apocalypse, money is as valuable as toilet paper. The early church got a lot of things right, but dispossession is not an imitable plan of action. We are good with breaking bread and making sure no one is left out of the dinner invitation. But opting out of the economic system on a belief that Jesus is returning and going to blow up the whole global economic system doesn’t sound reasonable or Christian.
It is one way of dismissing their actions. But they weren’t motivated by the end of the world. They had a contemporary Jewish movement who prepared for the end by not just dispossession but by leaving it all. The Essenes left land and money and went to the mountains to wait for the great washing of the world. The early church, however, didn’t follow their lead and leave the “unrighteous” society. They embedded themselves even more. They sold their possessions, but they also assimilated and prayed at the temple.
The disciples weren’t waiting for the end of the world because they were already living in the end of the world, the end of the worldly reign. I have argued that the end of the days started with Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus’ return is the official coronation. Jesus was firmly ruling, and it was this reality that led this Jesus-community to create a different economic system aligning with Jesus’ new policy of equity. In those ancient Middle Eastern days, when a new ruler sat upon the throne, one of the kicks of being an emperor was you get to have your profile stamped on coins (having time count from your reign was also another benefit). As Emperor, not only did you change the tax code, but you also got to change the currency with which your subjects paid your tax. So, like other emperors, with Jesus’ rule, economics changed. The disciples were not dispossessing their lands out of fanaticism. They were taking the most reasonable actions to live by the new ruler of the Earth.
With Jesus as Lord, the old economic system based on hierarchy and oppression wasn’t tenable. The early church saw that possession isolated, ruined mutuality and distorted one’s view of self, others and moral responsibility. It created power dynamics that made attempts at mutuality a farce. With the proceeds of possession in one shared account that belonged to no single individual, they were wrestling with the root of hierarchy.
And when the proceeds were shared according to needs, the situation of need (or abundance) was no longer tagged to the value of a person. Receiving was no longer a matter of deserving. And to be in need wasn’t judged as a curse from God or individual deficiency, but temporary impact of the many shifting fates of life. Removing “deserving” out of the equation was another way to protect the value of a human person out of the whims of an economic system. The early church’s economic practice, much like the preaching, baptizing and breaking bread, are the regular practices of the people of resurrection.
I don’t think that today’s church works on economic equity the same way the early church did. But that commitment to economic equity must be equally strong because we still live in the same end of the days, the rule of the resurrected Jesus.
Rev. Samuel Son, Manager of Diversity and Reconciliation, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray
O God, in your eyes, all lives are of equal value and all human beings bear your image and receive your love. Drawing from the wellspring of your compassion, may we be servants of justice and agents of your reconciling peace. Amen.