What we see in Acts and the writings of Paul is that our material possessions are a barometer of our hearts:
“What we do or do not do with our material possessions is an indicator of the Spirit’s presence of absence”.
There is not a confiscation of private property. There is also not a command on how much everyone should give to the poor (there’s no commands to give 10% in the New Testament). But there is an understanding that those who have more will give more, and that “with a mindset of unity we will view our economic resources as available to meet others’ needs”.
Private possessions are not a problem. The problem is possessiveness.
“The key to evaluating any church or nation in terms of it’s material resources is how well it takes care of the poor and the powerless in its midst” ( Blomberg, pg84)
What we need is to redefine our view of wholeness. We need to develop an understanding of the world where wholeness for me means wholeness for all of us, and that we don’t need to possess things to enjoy them, but we can receive joy in sharing.
Paul writes two long letters to the church in Corinth, a church where there were very wealthy Hellenistic Greeks and Jews, as well as poor Jews and slaves. It was a church that cut completely across racial and economic lines. Imagine all those broken people in one place trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus. It was a mess.
One of the ways it was a mess was that when the believers gathered together to share meals and celebrate the Lord’s Supper (or “Communion” as we call it), the wealthier Christians were arriving earlier (probably because they didn’t have to work) and eating and feasting with each other, so by the time the poor Christians arrived to the party there was nothing left for them. Talk about extreme economic inequality- some are drunk while some don’t even have anything to drink. Paul says that the people who are doing that are “eating and drinking in an unworthy manner”. That verse had always been interpreted to me as “if you’re knowingly sinning and then come take communion, God’s going to get mad”. But I think a very straightforward reading is best- if you’re a rich Christian with so much excess you’re getting drunk while there are other people in the body of Christ who are hungry, God’s mad.
“Those who eat and drink without concern for the needs of the poorer members do not recognize the nature of the church- a refugee for refugees, in which all must care for one another’ 188.
When we come to the table together as believers and remember Christ’s death, what we’re remembering is that regardless of our income level, we’re all beggars at Christ’s feet, and he invites us in. And because he’s invited us in, we no longer regard our lives as our own, or our stuff as our own— the center shifts from ourselves to the others around us, especially the poor.
This affects everything about our lives. We no longer spend time building parallel universes that benefit only those in our little group— we look for things that will benefit the common good. We “seek the peace of the city in which we live”. What does that look like?
Here are some things I’ve been thinking about– it’s not an exhaustive list. You may have noticed, the Bible is not a how-to manual (even though that is some people’s favorite way to talk about it!) Rules are easier, because then we can check things off a list and feel like we’ve done our bit and can get on with our lives. But there are no rules. Just a complete re-orientation of the heart, which will result in changed behaviors and societies. But. Since that can feel abstract, here are a few things practical things I’ve been thinking about lately that we can do. Also, when it comes to “what can we do” we like to think about things individually. Which is good. But we also need to think corporately, and question unjust systems as well.
THINK ABOUT SYSTEMS
- Questioning our politics to see if they benefit only those in our own little group, or if they benefit everyone. If we live in a democracy, we have choices about how we vote, and the kind of policies we back. Make sure we’re supporting politics that are focused on reducing income inequality and providing viable ways for the poor to get out of poverty.
- Refusing to use our private wealth to create parallel systems in education, healthcare, etc. that only benefit others who are wealthy, but seeking to use our wealth to benefit the common good. This will also involve engaging with whole systems of inequality at more than an individual level. This may cause us some discomfort- but remember the rich young ruler and Zacchaeus. The rich man who was a very good person didn’t get into the kingdom because he didn’t want to give up his riches. Zacchaeus was corrupt, but when he met Jesus, he voluntarily gave up his wealth to follow him. And Jesus said salvation came to him that day.
- Advocate for family leave, living wages etc for the poor among us.
Biblical scholar Thompson (1994) says, “Appropriate response…will be a matter of individual conscience, but at the very least ought to involve a concern for fair world trade and political liberty. If that involves rich Christians in paying higher prices for some too the goods they consume, as well as higher taxes in order to help inter-governmental aid to become realistic, it is a fair price to pay. In the light of James’ words charity is not enough”.
- What about instead of building a new church property, we gave the money to improve the local school or community centre and met there instead?
- Pay your employees a living wage, and give them time off/family leave.
- Call on your church and community leaders to address income inequality and talk about the issues.
- The primary model for generosity we see in the early church is that people were part of economically diverse Christian communities, and they voluntarily gave to the poor in their midst through them. This is almost impossible to do today because our churches have become little microcosms of people just like us. Join a more economically diverse Christian community, or advocate for your church leaders to partner (truly partner) with churches in lower income levels.
- Churches and Christian organizations are often notoriously horrible work environments: family leave, adequate health care etc are seen as luxuries. There is also sometimes gender bias in who gets leave and for how long. Churches and Christian organizations should be leading the way in providing living wages and adequate leave.
- If you own a business, consider paying your interns rather than having them work for free– the “free internship” model is biased in favor of the wealthy who can afford to work for free. That means they end up getting more experience, which is needed to get a good job.
- Not being a slave to productivity and work, but enjoying the good gifts God has provided and trusting him to provide for the future.
- Being unafraid to share.
- Thinking about purchases as common good purchases– what if instead of buying a car we spent 2 hours a week organizing and advocating for bike lanes and better public transport? Or bought a car, but offered people rides and car-pooled? Or bought a used car and give the difference so the church can get a single mom a car? Or bought a car, but were willing to lend it out?
- What if we voluntarily taxed ourselves by buying fair trade, following the principle that those who have more should give more.
- What if we embraced modesty- rather than spending money on flashy appearances (like the costly bejeweled hair-styles of the women in 1 Peter)- what if we lived simply?
- Recognizing that just giving money isn’t the answer- Peter healed the beggar at the temple gate so he could live and work on his own rather than depending on charity. Our gifts should not be about assuaging just our guilty consciences so we can get on with life- they should be truly empowering to the recipients.
- Check ourselves for signs of hoarding- do we have surplus that is not useful to us that we can share? Do we have surplus that will sit around and get moth-eaten and rusty before it can be fully utilized? How can we share it in a beneficial way? How can we avoid accumulating stuff that quickly becomes moth-eaten and rusty in the first place?
- Don’t negate caring for your immediate family’s needs. It is not caring for the community at the expense of yourself, it’s just not caring for yourself at the expense of the community.
- Re-evaluate what you call “needs”.
“Yeah, okay,” you say. “But you didn’t answer my question. Can I buy a new laptop? Is it okay to go on holiday? Can I live in a house that’s bigger than my neighbour’s?”
The short answer is, there are no rules. But I think if we are living in diverse communities of faith, and allow those friends and neighbours to speak into our lives and decisions, AND if refuse to think of our resources as only for us, but rather for the community, we can probably do anything.
A big house can be a prime example of hoarding- there’s lots of space/stuff wasted on just a few people. Or, it can be a great enabler of hospitality. If you have a big house but don’t think of it as your house, but a house for your community, how would you change the way you’re using it?
Keep thinking- why are you able to buy that bigger house? Has history been biased in your favor by giving you more resources than your neighbour? Is buying a bigger house an example of “getting drunk while others are thirsty?” Or is it really going to benefit everyone in the diverse community of believers?
So, that was a lot! Tell me what you think!! Those of you who live in places with high levels of income inequality, how do you make decisions about your stuff?