Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Share the Wealth: The Early Disciples Had More in Common Than Their Faith in Jesus. So What Does That Mean for Today's Believers?

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Share the Wealth: The Early Disciples Had More in Common Than Their Faith in Jesus. So What Does That Mean for Today's Believers?

Article excerpt


WAS THE EARLY CHURCH A COMMUNE? If so, did that make the apostles communists? Curious capitalists would like to know.

Biblically such ideals would be a departure from tradition. Jewish society was always a mixed bag of rich and poor. In a way, these inequities were understood to conform to God's will.

Early "blessing theology" interpreted prosperity as the divine thumbs-up. Abraham with his many flocks, the prophet Elisha with his multiple residences, King David in his fortified city, and Judith in her fine home and splendid privacy all enjoyed the material returns on their fidelity to God.

Such stories are offset by others featuring nasty folk who amassed great wealth: Jacob's uncle Laban, who deceives his nephew on the wedding night by switching bride-daughters Rachel for Leah; King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, idolaters and prophet hunters who seem no worse for the sport; landowner Nabal, husband of smart and attractive Abigail in 1 Samuel 25, who possesses 4,000 sheep and goats, parties like there's no tomorrow, and shows no pity on David's hungry soldiers.

But in each of these cases, the nasty rich don't get to keep their resources. Laban loses the bulk of his flocks to Jacob's later trickery. Jezebel's blood is lapped up by dogs. Nabal's clever wife joins David's household, but not before Nabal dies of shock upon learning that Abigail used his riches to feed the very soldiers he spurned.

In the Bible, blessing theology is also challenged by the presence of the virtuous poor. Widows Naomi and Ruth turn up in Bethlehem without protection or means despite their allegiance to the God of Israel. A prophet like Elijah has to depend on ravens and the occasional angel to provide his lunch. Destitute mothers rely on both Elijah and Elisha to save their families from perishing. In these stories as well, we're aware of the reversals: the virtuous poor are rescued by what might be described as saving acts of God.

BLESSING THEOLOGY--ALSO KNOWN AS THE "PROSPERITY gospel" among Christian fundamentalists and some evangelicals today--is obviously contradicted within the Bible that supports it. It would be hard to argue that wealthy people must be righteous because they are blessed, and needy folk immoral because they are so evidently cursed. The reversal of fortune, always a possibility, denies what seemed a clear-cut measure of "God's will." The best we might say, then, is that material prosperity is a neutral value in the Bible, neither virtuous nor wicked.

However--and this is a big caveat--what we do with the wealth we assume is another thing entirely. If the Hebrew tradition has anything to say about mammon, it's that we'd better be good stewards of it and take care of each other. The law of the gleaners is evidence of that: Mosaic law expected the landowner to harvest his fields only once, leaving the remainder for those who are needy.

Offering shelter to the stranger or foreigner in your town is another example: Lot unknowingly takes an angel home with him from the city gates of Sodom, and Abraham provides hospitality to three divine strangers who come to his tent in the desert.

The living have an obligation to properly bury the dead, one of the chief corporal works of mercy in scripture. No disparity of resources is more blatant than that between the living and the dead, and so one must provide for the other.

Hebrew prophecy is full of accusations toward those who fail to take care of the needy in their midst. The Lord hears the cry of the poor--even if you and I don't. …

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