Pastor Clay Schmit
Was Jesus a Socialist?
The short answer is NO. But, he often gets connected with communism because of the reading from Acts this week. In Acts 4:32-35, it states that the followers of Jesus lived communally. They shared all their possessions, food, and wealth. “There was not a needy person among them,” the story reads, “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.”
Every time this reading comes up, we contend with the idea that we are supposed to live in a similar manner. Should all members of our church pool our resources, sell our homes and lands, and give all to the church to be equally divided among the members? While you occasionally hear of Christians living in this communal way, this is not an expectation or a teaching of any church—with the exception of monastic communities.
Why, then, would the followers of Jesus have taken on such a radical arrangement? I can think of two reasons. The first is that the early followers of Jesus expected that his return was imminent. There are some places in the gospels where he hints that he will return while some of his listeners are still alive. Clearly, that prediction did not pan out. We still await his return in glory, all these years later. But, if they thought he were soon to return, the need for possessions or passing any land or wealth along to your children would have been moot. It was an easier decision for them to make than it would be for us, given their beliefs and expectations. Such a decision would be impossible for nearly anyone today.
Here is a second reason why the followers of Jesus may have lived as they did. There is no direct proof of this in the gospels, but it is clearly implied: this is how Jesus and his disciples would have lived while on the journey together. They seemed to go from town to town without any concern for where to lodge or what to eat. The presumption is that if there was any food available, it was shared equally among them. If they needed clothing, that, too, was likely shared. They seem to have subsisted on the generosity of friends and strangers.
For this reason, perhaps, those who followed Jesus in the earliest days after his departure simply kept up the habit of simple living and sharing everything with the small band of believers. We can imagine that as the church began to grow, this practice would soon have fallen out of use. Churches were established in a great many towns and the new believers continued to live, work, and survive within their communities. In all of Paul’s writings, he does not urge people to live in a commune together.
As further indication that we are not to emulate the early believers in this practice, Jesus makes it clear that our obligation is to love our neighbors as ourselves.This suggests generosity toward others, but does not demand that we dispose of all our possessions. One could hardly be generous if one had no possessions or means of making a living.
It is always tempting to look to the scriptures for literal examples for how we should live our lives today. Have you heard the old story of a man who opened the Bible one day to see what God was calling him to do? He randomly settled on this verse: “Judas went out and hanged himself.” Concerned that he had not gotten it right, he opened the Bible to another random verse: “Go thou, and do likewise.” Still searching for a way out, he tried a third time and came up with this random selection: “What you must do, do quickly.” Clearly, we cannot use everything in the Bible as literal description for living faithfully today.
May the joy of this Easter season fill you with hope and generosity.