The Economics of Radical Generosity (Acts 2:45; 4:34-35)
There is continuing debate about whether or not these community summaries advocate a certain economic system, with some commentators describing the practice of the community as “proto-communism” and others seeing a mandatory divestiture of goods. The text, however, does not suggest an attempt to change the structures beyond the Christian community. Indeed, it would be difficult to think of a small, marginalized, socially powerless group having designs on changing the imperial economic system. It is clear that the community did not fully opt out of the systems of economics within the empire. Likely, fishermen remained members of fishing cartels and artisans continued to do business in the market. Paul, after all, continued making tents to support his missionary travels (Acts 18:3).
Rather, the text suggests something far more demanding. In the earliest church, people of means and power liquidated their goods for the sake of the less powerful “from time to time” (Acts 4:34) as anyone “had need” (Acts 2:45; 4:35). This describes a kind of radical availability as the normal status of each person’s possessions. That is, the resources—material, political, social, or practical—of any member of the community were put at the constant disposal of the Christian community, even while individual members continued to oversee their particular resources. Rather than systematically prescribing the distribution of wealth in such a way as to ensure flat equality, the earliest church accepted the reality of economic disequilibrium, but practiced a radical generosity whereby goods properly existed for the benefit of the whole, not the individual. This form of generosity is, in many ways, more challenging than a rigid system of rules. It calls for ongoing responsiveness, mutual involvement in the lives of community members, and a continual willingness to hold possessions loosely, valuing the relationships within the community more than the (false) security of possessions.
It is highly likely that this system within a system was inspired by the economic ideals expressed in Israel’s law, climaxing with the practice of Jubilee—the once-in-fifty-years redistribution of land and wealth within Israel (Leviticus 25:1-55). Jubilee was designed by God to ensure that all people had access to the means of making a living, an ideal that appears never to have been widely practiced by God’s people. Jesus, however, introduces his ministry with a set of texts from Isaiah 61 and 58 that produce a great many Jubilee themes:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19)
Jubilee ethic is further alluded to in Acts 4:34, where Luke tells us “there were no needy persons among them.” This appears to be a direct echo of Deuteronomy 15:4, where the practice of the Sabbath year (a mini-Jubilee occurring once every seven years) is designed to ensure that “there should be no poor among you.”
It is fitting that the Christian community would see this as a model for their economic life. But whereas in ancient Israel, the Sabbath year and the Jubilee were to be practiced only every seven and fifty years, respectively, radical availability marked the resources of the early Christian community. We can imagine it in terms similar to the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard that it was said of old, ‘Give back your land to those who are landless once every fifty years,’ but I say to you, ‘Make your power and resources available any time you see the need.’” Radical generosity based on the needs of others becomes the basis of economic practice in the Christian community. We will explore this in depth through the incidents in the book of Acts.
The practices of the early churches challenge contemporary Christians to think imaginatively about models for radical generosity today. How could radical availability stand as a witness to the kingdom of God and form a plausible alternative way of structuring human life in a culture marked by the tenacious pursuit of personal wealth and security?
Philip A Harland, Associations, Synagogues, and Congregations: Creating a Place in Ancient Mediterranean Society, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003); John S. Kloppenborg, “Collegia and Thiasoi: Issues in Function, Taxonomy and Membership,” in Voluntary associations in the Graeco-Roman world, edited by John S. Kloppenborg and S.G. Wilson, 16-30, (London/New York: Routledge, 1996).
Christopher M. Hays, Luke’s Wealth Ethics, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2.275 (Tubingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2010) explores the ethics of wealth in Luke and Acts in depth.