We Are to Change Our Personal Lifestyles
Developing right attitudes to provision and wealth will inevitably lead to adjustment in the way we live.
One of the more frequent words translated as “community” or “fellowship” in the New Testament is koinonia. This was a well-used word in the Greek world. In ordinary usage, it referred to having something in common with someone. However, the Bible’s use of koinonia emphasizes active participation—owning a share in something, rather than just being associated with it. When Paul, in particular, uses koinonia, it carries this strong sense of partnership, including the call to financial partnership. A prime example of this is Paul’s commendation of the Corinthians for the “generosity of your sharing [koinonias],” (2 Corinthians 9:13) referring to the money they donated for the relief of poor Christians in Jerusalem. Another example is the distribution of resources among the first “fellowship” (koinonia, Acts 2:42) of Christians. This fellowship was both spiritual and financial, with the result that “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:32-35). God provided for the needs of the individuals, through the resources of community. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44–45).
Although there is little indication that communal holding of wealth occurred outside this brief period in the New Testament church, it is clear the community in Jerusalem tried to realize God’s vision that provision and wealth are communal, not individual, matters. Of course, how this might be expressed in our various twenty-first century contexts will depend on a variety of factors. History has shown that collective ownership generally works out poorly. Yet some still practice full economic sharing within a highly-trusted community. Other faith communities might seek to pool donations from the wealthy to distribute to the poor. Still others might choose to give individually to specific people or to charitable organizations that provide for needy people. The Bible prescribes not the method, but the attitude. God provides for his people in the plural, even though the resources may be entrusted to individuals as stewards.
In fact, N.T. Wright notes that, “…in Paul’s world it was the normal word for a business partnership, in which all those involved would share in doing the work on the one hand and in the financial responsibilities on the other.” N.T. Wright, Paul For Everyone: The Prison Letters (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 85.
The temptation of those who have much to become isolated from those who have little is very real. High-fenced houses, air-conditioned cars, a circle of friends limited to our own socio-economic group, and a church similarly restricted—all these conspire to keep the well-to-do trapped in their own wealthy enclaves. Those who have little are effectively banished from their world.
This means wealthy people often have minimal or no relationship with those who struggle financially—either at home or abroad. Their understanding of the circumstances of those who lack basic provision is severely limited by the geographic and social distance.
As noted earlier, the people of Israel were specifically commanded to care for widows, orphans (fatherless) and foreigners. In an agrarian society these groups were particularly vulnerable because they had no access to land or means of income. These same factors made them prone to isolation. To care for them, the people of Israel would first have to engage with them personally. God himself is described by the Psalms as relating personally to them as the “father of orphans and protector of widows” (Psalm 68:5).
This same hospitality—the welcoming of “strangers”—is fundamental to following Jesus. Two key gospel passages—Luke 14:12-14 (inviting the poor to your banquet) and Matthew 25:31-46 (God’s judgment of the peoples)—shape the distinction between conventional and Christian hospitality. Conventional hospitality is shown to friends and family. Christian hospitality extends to the poor and “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40), the people who “cannot repay you” (Luke 14:14) or “invite you in return” (Luke 14:12). Jesus emphasizes the dimension of personal relationship in this case, when he states, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Though the context indicates that Jesus is referring primarily to his disciples (“members of my family”) there is no reason to suggest that disciples should not also take the same attitude to those who are not Christians. After all, Christ died for us “while we were still sinners” and before we ourselves were members of his family.
When those who have much get to know those who have little, perspectives can change. Hearing their stories, seeing their struggles first-hand, realizing that there is much to learn from them and also that we all have much in common—these all reshape our minds and hearts. God himself took on human flesh to draw close to us personally as a human (Philippians 2:6-8), and because of this he is able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). If God thinks it worthwhile to encounter we who are poor and weak compared to him, should we not follow his example and encounter those who are poor and weak compared to us? The poor are no longer just faceless numbers. They become real people with real needs and real lives.
It is important for Christians to think generously about how such hospitality is given. While giving and investing money are essential means of expressing hospitality, more personal and closer-to-home expressions are also important. Within every community there are many types of strangers, as we have seen. The problem is that for many people in well-paying jobs, living in well-to-do neighbourhoods, mixing in affluent friendship groups, and worshipping in prosperous church congregations, connecting with the poor is not likely to be a part of everyday life. Building personal relationships will require intentionally moving out of accustomed circles and into uncomfortable situations. It may even require geographic travel or relocation. And if it is to be genuine Christian hospitality, as such it will need to avoid paternalism (which disempowers others by doing for them what they can do for themselves) and seek to minimize power imbalances. This may particularly be a challenge for those who experience financial success, and for whom status and success are the predominant currencies of self-worth. It is hard to shed the prestige and privileges of power when our instinct is to fix problems from afar rather than to encounter people in the midst of their struggles.
One of the biblical characters who models this kind of personal engagement with the poor is Job. Job’s life intersected with the poor of his district on a regular basis. He was not isolated from them but lived in close proximity to his servants, widows, the fatherless and the stranger/foreigner.
The stranger has not lodged in the street; I have opened my doors to the traveler. (Job 31:32)
I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper…I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy…I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger. (Job 29:12-13, 15-16)
Job knew his poor neighbors, treated them as equals, felt a deep compassion for them and cared for them using his political and financial resources.
See for example, Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 10:18; 24:17-22; Zechariah 7:9-10; Jeremiah 7:5-7.
Learning to trust God for our provision is an ongoing challenge, particularly if we are prone to compulsive work habits. Gordon MacDonald, a U.S. pastor, observes of his culture:
The more we want, the more revenue we must produce to get it. The more revenue we must produce, the longer and harder we have to work. So we build larger homes, buy more cars, take on added financial burdens and then find ourselves having to work harder to pay for it all. More work, less rest.
But compulsive work habits are not limited to those who struggle with affluent culture. They are also the temptation of those who struggle to simply provide the basic necessities for themselves and their families.
Either way, the biblical practice of Sabbath is important for maintaining a Godly perspective on provision and wealth. For the people of Israel, the weekly Sabbath (ceasing from work) was part of their covenantal responsibility—a day to re-centre on God, and to celebrate his love for them. It was a gift from God to keep his people liberated from the grinding toil described in Genesis 3. It was a kindness, an example of God’s care.
The Sabbath rest is a regular repudiation of the covetousness for more. It is a statement to ourselves that there are other things in life besides producing and consuming. And that there is more to our identity than what we do or what we produce. We are not the sum total of our bank accounts, nor of the work or responsibilities we carry.
The Sabbath rest comes down to an act of trust. To observe it, we must dare to trust God to provide for our needs, rather than working all-out to provide for them ourselves. This is a hard lesson to learn, and it usually takes trial and error for us to really get it, as Israel discovered when depending on God’s provision of manna in the desert (Exodus 16:1-36). And it is a reminder that ultimately life depends not on our hard graft, but on God’s provision and grace. This is a challenge—both for those who struggle with the prospect of not having enough and for those who struggle with the peril of not recognizing what is enough.
See our article Balancing Rhythms of Rest and Work: Overview for an in-depth discussion of this topic.
Gordon MacDonald, “Rest Stops” in [email protected] Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4.