“All things in common”
(Act 2:44-45 ESV) 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
According to Robert Wall, in the New Interpreters Bible Commentary, “all things in common” is a common phrase, borrowed from Greek philosophy, for a close friendship. They didn’t merely attend church together, they were such good friends that they shared everything.
Thus, the description in verse 45 isn’t communistic but simply the fact that those in need were well cared for, even at the cost of substantial sacrifice by those who had the ability to help. Luke isn’t advocating a new economic system so much as the realization of the ideals found in the Torah itself —
(Lev 19:10 ESV) 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the LORD your God.
(Lev 25:35-37 ESV) 35 “If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you. 36 Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. 37 You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit.”
In fact, the Torah commands that land be restored to its original owner every 50 years, the year of Jubilee, making it impossible for a family to become landless. In effect, this was a requirement that land only be leased and never really sold, with the lease term never to go past the next Jubilee.
Moreover, every seventh (Sabbath) year, all debts were forgiven.
(Deu 15:1-2 ESV) “At the end of every seven years you shall grant a release. 2 And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the LORD’s release has been proclaimed.”
The best analogy would be modern-day bankruptcy law. For an Israelite, his debts were automatically forgiven every seventh year, to prevent anyone from being forced into poverty — even slavery — by debt.
Thus, the deeper ideal found in the Torah is that the poor should be cared for, not taken advantage of, and not allowed to become permanently destitute.
The Prophets spoke of the Kingdom as a time when —
(Isa 25:4-5 ESV) 4 For you have been a stronghold to the poor, a stronghold to the needy in his distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat; for the breath of the ruthless is like a storm against a wall, 5 like heat in a dry place. You subdue the noise of the foreigners; as heat by the shade of a cloud, so the song of the ruthless is put down.
(Isa 29:18-19 ESV) 18 In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. 19 The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.
(Isa 58:6-8 ESV) 6 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? 8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.”
(Isa 61:1-3 ESV) The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; 2 to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion– to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.
(It’s just amazing that the phrase “Lord’s favor” or “acceptable to the Lord” also appears in Leviticus 23:11, describing the festival of first fruits, that is, Pentecost!)
In short, the Kingdom is supposed to bring in an age in which the poor are cared for by those with the means to do so. There are many passages in Luke in which Jesus picks up the same theme —
(Luk 6:20-21a ESV) 20 And he lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.”
(Luk 16:20 ESV) 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores …
(Luk 18:22-23 ESV) 22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.”
(Luk 19:8-9 ESV) 8 And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” 9 And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.”
The passages could be greatly multiplied. The Kingdom is, among other things, a place where the poor are well cared for.
Now, this hardly indicates a welfare state in the modern sense. After all, the Torah requires the poor to glean the fields, that is, harvest the leftover fruit and grain. They received the harvest for free, but they had to work for their food. The wealthy were told to lend to the poor, understanding that they may not be paid back — but it was not a total gift. If they money could be repaid before the seventh year, it was to be repaid.
Just so, Paul commands that those who won’t work aren’t to eat. The poor that the text is concerned with aren’t the lazy. Sloth is repeatedly condemned by God.
(Pro 12:24 ESV) 24 The hand of the diligent will rule, while the slothful will be put to forced labor.
(Pro 12:27 ESV) 27 Whoever is slothful will not roast his game, but the diligent man will get precious wealth.
(Pro 19:15 ESV) 15 Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger.
(Mat 25:26 ESV) 6 “But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?”
But, obviously enough, not all who are poor are poor because of laziness. Indeed, to stereotype the poor as lazy is just looking for an excuse not to share. No, in the real world, there are plenty of truly poor people — and the duties of those within the Kingdom are plainly laid out.
And Luke records that those ideals were immediately realized! The true Kingdom was marked by honoring the ideals behind the Torah’s and the prophets’ commands. After all, if the poor had not been cared for, it wouldn’t be the Kingdom as promised by the authors of the Old Testament.
* Is the modern church bound by these same principles? Must we have all things in common? Must we care for our poor?
* Does it bother you that the Torah commands that debts be forgiven every seven years? Does that change your view of the morality of bankruptcy?
* Should we follow the Torah’s command to lend to the poor?
* How do we keep charity to the poor from becoming an entitlement that encourages sloth?
* If the church were to honor the principles of this passage today, how would that change the reputation of the church?
* Would it encourage the poor to place membership just to get the charity? Would that be a problem?
* How could the church prudently manage finite resources to be sure that those truly in need are cared for?
* Should we give money to known frauds? What if we’re not sure? How can we know?
* Implicit in modern giving discussions is the assumption that we don’t really know the people we’re helping. What does that say about us?
* The church in Acts served its own members first. They didn’t have all things in common with the entire populace of Jerusalem. Does it bother us to prefer the poor who’ve been saved? Why do you suppose they took this approach?
* Should we do the same?
* Consider —
(Eph 4:28 ESV) Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.
Compare this teaching to the modern notion of self-sufficiency. What the difference between Paul’s worldview and ours?
* How can we work with the poor so that they are no longer poor? Or is poverty incurable?