Now the Whole Group of Those Who Believed...
“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
(Acts of the Apostles 4:32-35 NRSV)
In the gospels, we read this story of Jesus and the rich young man. He comes up to Jesus and asks how he can live a more spiritual life. Jesus tells him to follow God’s laws, and—after clarifying which laws Jesus is referring to—the man responds by saying that he already does. ‘What else am I lacking?’ the man asks. And Jesus responds by telling him, ‘If you want to be perfect, go and sell everything you own. Give the money to the poor, and then come follow me.’ The man goes away sad because, as Jesus tells his disciples, ‘It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.’
I love this story because today’s spiritual communities are full of rich young people just like this man. We’re all truly seekers of the kingdom of heaven. So much so that we’re the kind of folks who have to ask our new spiritual teachers to specify which metaphysical laws they’re asking us to observe because our journeys have already introduced us to so many that we follow. And yet, we lack something. We know we lack something. That’s why we keep seeking new teachers. When I read this story, in my mind, I picture the rich young man also coming to Jesus for absolution. Don’t get me wrong, I believe his search for a more spiritual life is earnest, but there are other motivations at work there too. Mainly, I think he’s looking for absolution from the guilt of his privilege. I think this because I can very easily place myself in that man’s shoes. Why do you ask your teacher to publicly list out the laws he thinks you should follow—when you know you already follow them—if you aren’t looking for social absolution from him and his followers?
In today’s world, there’s a lot more distance between the classes. But what does it mean to be a rich man in Biblical times? My hypothesis is that it means the people who are doing the hard labor you’re profiting from know who you are. Think of the outrage caused when Jesus dines with Zacchaeus, a tax collector—and that’s just the guy collecting money for the real rich people of the time. So I think when the rich young man comes to Jesus, he’s looking for a real lifeline. He can see the writing on the wall. He knows that the radical message Jesus is preaching is going to create lasting ramifications in this whole class system he’s benefiting from, and being a spiritual man, he sets out to make peace ahead of time with this teacher and community leader, before the masses decide to do something really revolutionary.
I think he’s asking Jesus for one of those quasi-metaphysical laws we reassure ourselves with still today. He wants Jesus to tell him ‘Ah, you are already the perfect example of a spiritual man, and your vast material wealth is evidence of it!’ He wants Jesus to calm the masses with a message like ‘Don’t turn your anger on the wealthy! Don’t you know “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism?” This guy has no choice but to be the one benefiting from your oppression!’ But Jesus does neither of those things. Instead Jesus tells him to sell everything he owns. And like the overwhelming majority of us implicated in a global economy of class exploitation and ecological destruction, hearing that is saddening. Contrary to a surface reading of why though, I don’t think it’s saddening for this man because he’s greedy or because he just loves his things. After all, this is a spiritual man who is following God’s laws and seeking answers to why he isn’t whole yet. I think it’s saddening because he realizes how tightly he is chained to his wealth. He’s not just being asked to give up things, but his social standing, his family’s approval, the security for his future and the future of his loved ones, his comfort and the lifestyle he is accustomed to.
The rich young man is all of us in the West when squaring the reality of our lifestyle to the people and ecosystems who must be exploited to provide for us. We’ve got this spiritual stuff down in the abstract. We understand the metaphysical laws that pin together the multiverse. We’ve got control of our thoughts. We’ve got control of our emotions. We’re mindful of what we say and how we treat one another. We’ve got love for all of our neighbors, and we’re out here identifying with and suffering for the cause of justice. But ask us to give up eating meat so that people can be fed from the food our food eats, and, well, that’s just asking too much, right? Same story with the plastic waste we dump on the rest of the world. Same story with our fossil fuel consumption and carbon emissions. Why is it such a big deal that the Amazon rain forest is being burned to the ground? The forgotten answer is that the developing world is carrying the developed world on its shoulders. We’ve already cleared our forests, blown apart our mountains, paved over our fields, and plundered our oceans. The rich young man in the gospels was just one person, but we’re whole countries, a style of civilization, living in a way we can’t easily give up.
As Jesus said: ‘It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.’
We lack faith, I think. We conceptually understand God’s abundance and prosperity offered to us, but we interpret it materially and ignore the realities of where that material wealth comes from. We struggle to re-interpret abundance and prosperity as concepts which can exist for all without exploitation. Capitalism and its precursors have inherited to us a mindset where faith in abundance and prosperity for all is displaced by often barbaric actions to seize abundance and prosperity for the few. Think of it this way: God creates the entire universe and populates it with living beings who eat and live freely across the world. It is mankind who invents rent and currency, who creates prisons and slavery, who puts a price tag on food and medicine. We have invented scarcity, literally. We talk about world hunger as if we don’t operate a food market system that throws out almost half of the food available to sell, as if we don’t already grow enough food to feed all of humanity five times over. We talk about homelessness as if housing is unavailable. The obstruction here, the obstacle preventing us from overcoming these world ills, is our determination to make it a matter of money, and by extension, a matter of worth that we judge in others. We are unsatisfied with the abundance God provides. We demand meat and SUVs, and shiny, perfect vegetables only. We demand our fair share of payment, compensation for ownership of things we have that others need. We have no faith in the world Jesus offers to us. And so we walk away sad rather than extracting ourselves from being caught up in this consumer-owner lifestyle.
The apostles in Acts offer us a glimpse of that world that is possible though when we do have faith, when we do choose to give up material obsessions for the kingdom of heaven. Luke tells us that this is a world where one heart and soul are shared by all participating in it. No one asserts private ownership in this world, rather goods are shared and held in common, and all needs are met as a result. There’s a redistribution that makes this possible, where those afforded more wealth by human economies give their resources to the apostles to ration out to those in need so that everyone has enough. This is the kind of abundance that echoes Jesus’ miracle of feeding the five thousand, and the kind of created abundance that realigns us to the world God creates for all living beings in Genesis. This is the kind of abundance and lifestyle that many, particularly in the West, hold deep aversions to.
On this topic, Brazilian Archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara shared: ‘When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.’ Is Jesus asking us to become communists? The term is a modern invention, so not precisely. But there’s undeniably a specter haunting the whole of the Christian world—the Holy Specter of Christianity itself, whose presence is felt in the lifestyles, the society, and the economy created by the apostles in Jesus’ absence. We live in an unparalleled era of human history with tremendous possibilities for healthcare and medical treatment, technologies that can adapt our food systems to the changing climate, and people of faith in places with the power to shift global economies, direct national interests, launch wars, and broker peace. In such a world, what is holding us back? What prevents God’s abundance from flowing to us all? What causes neediness to persist?
Where it is our own lifestyles creating the obstruction, do we have the courage to live like the apostles? The faith to renounce private ownership? Do we have the charity of mind and dedication to Christian spirit to redistribute our wealth according to need? The grace to live in this shared, God-created abundance? I am not a perfect spiritual person by any means. Unlike the rich young man Jesus challenged, I am not even an adequate follower of any set of laws. When Jesus says ‘it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven,’ I feel that truth echo in my own privilege and class loyalties. I’m not sure I have what it takes to join the apostles rather than to walk away sad again.
Perhaps like the rich young man though, my encounter with the teachings of Jesus attunes me to a new perception of this society. All around us are a million Towers of Babel, the artifacts of a society we have tried to develop and industrialize into our version of the kingdom of heaven. Our civilization is at times beautiful, but in its beauty also ferments so many injustices and cruelties. We are collectively missing something. More specifically, we are clinging so dearly to this image we have created that we are closing ourselves off to what God has already made good and to that which Spirit is guiding us to realign our way of living to. Jesus tells us the way forward. Scripture gives us the blueprint for what it will look like.
All that remains to be determined is what we will do with that wisdom that is shared with us.
Enjoyed this post? You can buy me a coffee here.
Pat Mosley (LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage therapist and life coach in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His work is especially focused on creating permaculture in his community, which sometimes looks like providing bodywork, and other times looks like writing or designing gardens for people and bees.
Get connected with him via email to firstname.lastname@example.org