Pentecost 8, July 25, 2004 / 7. Sonntag nach Trinitatis, 25.7.2004
Luke's account of the community of goods of the earliest community in Jerusalem is clearly idealised with popular philosophical catchphrases. However, instances of formal community of property were a feature of Palestinian Jewish culture, and had persisted for approaching two centuries amongst the sect of the Essenes. Some scholars have argued that they are prior to the events which Luke purports to describe. Features of Luke's account suggest linguistic usages and organisational forms employed in the legislation for Essene community of goods revealed in the Rule of the Community discovered in Qumran cave 1. Other elements of Luke's account are illuminated by the practicalities of Essene property-sharing arrangements revealed in the accounts of the Essenes given by Philo and Josephus. These clues point to the probable Palestinian origins of the tradition and suggest that a group within the earliest Jerusalem Church practised formal property-sharing. But the history of the Essene community is much more complex which can be examined by regarding the whole material from Qumran.
There is no convincing evidence for direct relationship between the original parish [Urgemeinde] in Jerusalem and the sect of the Essenes(1).
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GNT Acts 2:41 oi` me.n ou=n avpodexa,menoi to.n lo,gon auvtou/ evbapti,sqhsan kai. prosete,qhsan evn th/| h`me,ra| evkei,nh| yucai. w`sei. trisci,liaiÅ 42 h=san de. proskarterou/ntej th/| didach/| tw/n avposto,lwn kai. th/| koinwni,a|( th/| kla,sei tou/ a;rtou kai. tai/j proseucai/jÅ 43 VEgi,neto de. pa,sh| yuch/| fo,boj( polla, te te,rata kai. shmei/a dia. tw/n avposto,lwn evgi,netoÅ 44 pa,ntej de. oi` pisteu,ontej h=san evpi. to. auvto. kai. ei=con a[panta koina, 45 kai. ta. kth,mata kai. ta.j u`pa,rxeij evpi,praskon kai. dieme,rizon auvta. pa/sin kaqo,ti a;n tij crei,an ei=cen\ 46 kaqV h`me,ran te proskarterou/ntej o`moqumado.n evn tw/| i`erw/|( klw/nte,j te katV oi=kon a;rton( metela,mbanon trofh/j evn avgallia,sei kai. avfelo,thti kardi,aj( 47 aivnou/ntej to.n qeo.n kai. e;contej ca,rin pro.j o[lon to.n lao,nÅ o` de. ku,rioj proseti,qei tou.j sw|zome,nouj kaqV h`me,ran evpi. to. auvto,Å
RWB(2) 41 Those who accepted his message were baptised (and about three thousand were added to their number that day) . – [This number should not be understood literally;Th.B.]
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
The interpretation of this summary about “the earliest community of goods” highly depends on the presuppositions of the reader, especially the opinion of the scholar. As the famous Swiss representative of so-called religious socialism Leonhard Ragaz (1868–1945)(3) points out, the critics of this outstanding “historical fact” of “that communism of the original Christian assembly [Urgemeinde]” were too much involved in their own Western economic system based on capitalistic society.(4)
Indeed the vast majority of “Christian” thinking towards economics, including life style and personal attitudes, are far more influenced by some Calvinistic traditions – as being proved by certain theories of Max Weber (1864–1920)(5) – than by the conflicting development of the succession of the Jesus movement, mostly beginning with single fighters like Francisco), some branches of monasticism, and some modern revolutionary idealists like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi (and others) on the one hand. On the other hand there is the history of the church – the institutional, political, and economical growth of the official religion, starting from Rome and the Mediterranean area – and from there being spread all over the world. The contradictions between the proclamation of the gospel and the politics of the Roman catholic church, i.e. Vatican state and Catholicism as a crafty system of mental suppression and psychological manipulation – by profiting from many people’s ignorance, naivete, magic view of rituals, and lack of theological knowledge are obvious.
Life and organisation of the official churches are mostly far beyond any “communism of love”, not only because caring and welfare have been institutionalized, but primarily because the criteria or the measures had changed. For that reason there is a serious lack of credibility concerning the possible function of model, and there is even more lack of plausibility towards the role of the churches in society offering living examples for valid values and abiding reasonable hope for individual and social improvements.
In the long run, the official Western churches – the protestant included – have to go back to the roots, reminding themselves of the wisdom of Jesus: “ Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions” [Luke 12, 15].(6)
What Luke describes in his summaries about the social and spiritual fellowship of the early assemblies sounds reliable not only because we find important parallels in the ranks of some of the Pauline assemblies. Far more, the practical solidarity and charity concerning the questions of private property, the rules in the community towards social welfare for the poor, the needy, the widows and the orphans, – all that highly coincides with the life and preaching of the original movement beginning with Jesus of Nazareth.
Luke recommends these principals for he is sure that his audience, his readership is still familiar with the corresponding narratives in his “big story”, i.e. his Gospel which justly has been called “the gospel of the poor”.(7) It is reasonable to emphasize the difference between “living on something” and “depending on something”. Obviously, everyone needs work, and the labourer is worth his wages. And it is evident that people have to care for their families; for that reason they will gather some goods. We can take that for granted.
The real question is: Do we remain free, whenever the gospel proclaims true liberty? Whenever the Living God – ADONAI, the Creator and Redeemer – sets everyone free who trusts in Him and tries to believe in the principals of the invisible but nevertheless dynamic force of His kingdom. The roots of His order are compassion, mercy and love with all consequences: charity, social engagement – “caring and sharing”. Private property was not denied or forbidden, but the general right for titles was not interpreted in the absolute sense of the civilian laws of the Roman empire. To gain and to hold private property included – voluntarily – the possible sharing with the needy, which was already known among ancient philosophers [like Plato, Aristotle, Seneca and others].(8)
Luke does not draft an idealistic picture of the Urgemeinde, he reports some historical facts about the original conditions in Jerusalem. On the other hand, this image serves as an example towards the assembly he has to face – where the life of the community already deteriorated. Thus Luke realistically reflects on these outrages while measuring Christian fellowship by reminding his [Hellenistic] readers to the original model of the parish in Jerusalem.(9)
Christian pilgrimage culminates in “seeking of the kingdom of God [and His righteousness] …” (Luke 12, 31; [Mt 6, 33]). The believers should not worry about their daily needs; the Creator, the Father in Heaven will care for His people: “… and (all) these things shall be added to you.”(10) In that respect the Gospel tradition leans on the tradition of wisdom. And Luke was also familiar with the vocabulary or the language of ancient socially utopia [Sozialutopie](11), when he refers to the community having “all things in common” or “being of one heart and of one soul”, and that they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, “as every man had need”.
But what about nowadays? Is it anachronistic trying to realize these measures again – within the ranks of our modern assemblies? Yes, it might even be interpreted as “being not up to date” or “being old fashioned”, if not being called “entirely crazy”! We have the choice: Either we try to relate on the spiritual and social criteria of the Jesus movement and the “Urgemeinde“ again – gaining true liberty and “richness in God”. Or we stick on our more or less comfortable, secure civilian daily life – without any real challenge, which can be deadly boring.
While most people living in Western industrial countries pretend to be the masters of their lives being proud of their life style and maintaining their relatively high standards, it could be striking if we open our minds to what the philosopher and worker Günther Anders (alias Stern, 1902–1992) had written in his two volumes of critical analyses of the developments in the “century of the second industrial revolution” and “about the destruction of life in the century of the third industrial revolution”.(12)
In unrelenting manner Günther Anders revealed that modern man became the slave of his own products, market rules, economic processions, and technical development which leads into strong alienation.
We could be happy if this analysis (which we cannot discuss here) or similar critical ideas were just an exaggeration. But I am afraid that we have to admit that at least the essence of any critical observation of modern Western societies are realistic. Why do we have so many people suffering on psychosomatic diseases; why do so many young and aged people commit suicide?
Our political system is too often called the best among all existing forms of state, government and civil society; that might be true – but we should not neglect things which have to be improved. And we should not close our eyes where we failed.
It can be helpful to join Luke in his reflection on the measures of “the earliest community of goods” and – last not least – even the image of “communism of love”. If we are doing so we will certainly discover that there is no alternative for us, if we were facing idolatry, fetishism, “mammonism”, and greed as the effects of pseudo-religion in all its various appearances.
Luke’s (in his footsteps: Leonhard Ragaz, e.g.)(13) warning against greed and against “the love of money” which is the root of all evil!
Fortunately, there are still many honest attempts even within the ranks of our churches to practice charity and fellowship – if not with true joy, at least because some believers feel to be obliged to the sources of Jewish and Christian (biblical) tradition.
We close with another recommendation of Jesus which we also find in the Gospel of Luke16, 9. It is necessary to compare two different translations (New American Standard Bible, 1995; New Revised Standard Version, 1989):(14)
And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of unrighteousness, so that when it fails, they will receive you into the eternal dwellings.
And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.(15)
(1) Cf. Friedrich Wilhelm Horn: Die Gütergemeinschaft der Urgemeinde,EvTh 58 (1998), 370–383: 375–378. Horn widerlegt die seit Mitte der 1990er Jahre wieder unterstellten Bezüge zwischen der Jerusalemer Urgemeinde und der Gemeinde der Essener; auf Grund der Quellenlage in Qumran müsse vielmehr innerhalb der Geschichte der Essener sehr differenziert werden, weshalb der „Versuch, eine historische Nähe beider Größen zu erstellen“, scheitern muss.
(4) Cf. Leonhard Ragaz: Die Bibel. Eine Deutung, Neuauflage der siebenbändigen Originalausgabe in vier Bänden. Vierter Band: Die Apostel. Johannes, hg. unter dem Patronat von Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich, Markus Mattmüller und Johann Baptist Metz in Verbindung mit dem Leonhard-Ragaz-Insitut, Darmstadt, Fribourg/ Brig 1990, 14–21: 14ff.
(5) Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–1906) is a study of the relationship between the ethics of ascetic Protestantism and the emergence of the spirit of modern capitalism. Weber argues that the religious ideas of groups such as the Calvinists played a role in creating the capitalistic spirit. Weber first observes a correlation between being Protestant and being involved in business, and declares his intent to explore religion as a potential cause of the modern economic conditions. He argues that the modern spirit of capitalism sees profit as an end in itself, and pursuing profit as virtuous. Weber's goal is to understand the source of this spirit. He turns to Protestantism for a potential explanation. Protestantism offers a concept of the worldly "calling," and gives worldly activity a religious character. While important, this alone cannot explain the need to pursue profit. One branch of Protestantism, Calvinism, does provide this explanation. Calvinists believe in predestination – that God has already determined who is saved and damned. As Calvinism developed, a deep psychological need for clues about whether one was actually saved arose, and Calvinists looked to their success in worldly activity for those clues. Thus, they came to value profit and material success as signs of God's favour. Other religious groups, such as the Pietists, Methodists, and the Baptist sects had similar attitudes to a lesser degree. Weber argues that this new attitude broke down the traditional economic system, paving the way for modern capitalism. However, once capitalism emerged, the Protestant values were no longer necessary, and their ethic took on a life of its own. We are now locked into the spirit of capitalism because it is so useful for modern economic activity. – Cf. Hans G. Ulrich, Art. Kapitalismus , TRE 17 (1988), 604–619: 607ff.
(11) Horn (1998), 380ff. In der antiken Literatur sind „Freundschaftsethik“ und der Topos „alles gemeinsam“ sehr verbreitet; der gemeinsame Besitz unter Freunden ist geradezu sprichwörtlich; cf. Horn (1998), 380f: Anm. 44.
(12) Günther Anders: Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen. Erster Band: Über die Seele im Zeitalter der zweiten industriellen Revolution (1956), München 71985; op. cit. Zweiter Band: Über die Zerstörung des Lebens im Zeitalter der dritten industriellen Revolution (1980), München 41986.
(14) Kai. evgw. u`mi/n le,gw( e`autoi/j poih,sate fi,louj evk tou/ mamwna/ th/j avdiki,aj( i[na o[tan evkli,ph| de,xwntai u`ma/j eivj ta.j aivwni,ouj skhna,jÅ – All references from BibleWorks TM for Windows.
Thomas Bautz/ Käthi Turkadse