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 4:32–35
The description of the early Christian community in Acts 4:32–35 is an enduring reproach to the modern American church—perhaps especially the white American church. The early Christ followers hold everything in common. Whenever someone has need, the wealthy sell off their houses or fields to provide for them. There is no fanfare over this arrangement, and little record of dispute. The apostles debate other topics—for the inclusion of Gentiles, they call a whole council (Acts 15)—but they do not debate this.
Acts 4 is part of a two-volume series: the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. There’s a pattern between these two books. In Luke, Jesus preaches; in Acts, his followers carry that preaching out. In Luke, Jesus signals that his ministry will go to the Gentiles (Luke 4:25–27); in Acts, the mission spreads across Asia Minor, Crete, Greece, and Rome. In Luke, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49); in Acts, that same Spirit guides the apostles’ steps (Acts 16:6–10), emboldens them to preach their message (4:31), and occasionally whisks them across the countryside to evangelize new regions (8:39–40).
The same pattern holds for the church in Acts 4. In Luke, Jesus mocks the foolishness of a man who builds bigger barns to hoard his wealth: clinging to earthly financial security, he fails to realize that wealth cannot stave off death (Luke 12:16–21). Likewise Jesus warns that a rich man who enjoys comfort and luxury in this life will endure torments in the life hereafter (16:25). While Matthew’s Jesus blesses the spiritually virtuous—the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the poor in spirit (Matt 5:2–12)—Luke’s Jesus promises a reversal of earthly status: the poor will inherit while the rich receive nothing, the hungry will be filled while the well-fed go without (Luke 6:20–23).
We catch a glimpse of how Jesus’ teaching on wealth might have been received by his audience in the famous story of the rich ruler. The ruler, claiming to have kept every commandment from his youth, asks what else must he do to obtain eternal life. Jesus responds with a simple instruction: “sell all you possess and distribute it to the poor” (Luke 18:22). This, it seems, is one step too much. While Luke skims over the rich man’s decision, Mark makes it clear: “Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful” (Mark 10:22).
In Acts, however, Jesus’ followers are not cowed by the uncompromising nature of Jesus’ commandments. Through their simple community and acts of radical charity, the apostles make Jesus’ teaching concrete.
In actual practice—from the imperialism of Christian nations to the accumulation of wealth by individual Christians—both Jesus’ commands and the apostles’ actions have been vastly ignored. Apart from the ongoing witness of religious orders who do indeed share all things in common, most Christians have neither followed the apostles’ example nor believed they even needed to.
This softening of Jesus’ teaching traces back to the early centuries of Christian interpretation. In the second century, Clement of Alexandria made an exegetical move that is still replicated in twenty-first-century congregations: Jesus’ teaching was never meant to be taken literally.
Addressing Jesus’ command to “sell all you own and distribute the money to the poor” (Luke 18:22), Clement argues that Jesus “does not (as some imagine) bid the young man to throw away all his possessions or abandon his wealth.” Rather, Jesus bids him “banish from his soul his notions about wealth”: the thrill of possessing wealth, the hunger for obtaining it, the drive to hoard it, the anxiety that he will lose it. This, Clement argues, is a far more “godlike” and “perfect” act—not to sell one’s possessions and provide for others, but to strip passions from the soul. Clement sees little problem with possessing wealth. It only becomes a problem when one clings to it.
Clement employs the exact opposite approach as Acts does. The community in Acts 4 made Jesus’ teaching concrete through their actions. Clement makes that same teaching a metaphor.
Yet this refashioning of Jesus’ teaching is more sympathetic than it first appears. Clement is trying to interpret his way out of a particular pastoral dilemma: his wealthy audience has heard the stark commandments of the gospel and despaired. Taken literally, after all, Jesus’ statement that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Luke 18:25) leaves little room for hope for the well-to-do. So Clement’s wealthy congregants assume that they, like the rich men of Jesus’ parables, are condemned to torment. Instead of repentance, they “cling to their present life as if that alone is all they get” and abandon Christian teaching altogether. Clement, accordingly, finds them an alternative interpretation.
In other words, Clement is not simply trying to make the gospel easier for the wealthy; he is trying to keep them in the church. His sermon reveals a stark and uncomfortable truth about human nature: faced with the choice between keeping our wealth and following Jesus, most of us would sidle uneasily away from the preacher from Galilee. Such is the predicament of Clement of Alexandria, watching his congregants despair of their salvation and stray “even further” because the alternative is surrendering their wealth.
Very different from Clement’s sermon is the preaching of Basil of Caesarea, a bishop from the fourth century. Basil is far more uncompromising than the earlier theologian: owning more than you need, while others go without, is robbery.
“Did you not come naked from the womb? Will you not return naked to the earth? Where is your present property even from? … If you admit that you have it from God… well, tell us the reason you were given it!”
Basil’s logic is simple. Everything comes from God—food, clothing, shelter, wealth—and God has already given instructions on its use. Feed the hungry; clothe the naked; provide for the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the foreigner. If a person who steals the clothes off a man’s back is a thief, Basil reasons, then surely a person who has the means to clothe the naked—but fails to follow God’s commands and actually do it—is just as guilty of theft as the former.
Seventeen centuries later, Basil’s claim that wealth is theft seems startlingly prescient. Vast fortunes are built on the exploitation of workers. The average Black household has a fraction of the wealth of a white household, a disparity created by stolen labor and calcified by centuries of discriminatory practices. The land on which our homes and churches are built was coerced out of Native hands, deprived of its natural resources, and stripped of its biological diversity.
Excessive wealth is theft in theological terms: all that exists belongs ultimately to God, and hoarding wealth is counter to God’s explicit instructions. Frequently, however, excessive wealth is also theft in historical terms. Much of modern wealth disparity stems from a history of conquest, slavery, systemic racism, colonialism, and appropriation and exploitation of indigenous lands. The early Christians of Acts simply and amicably put practices in place to cut down these disparities and to ensure that no person in their community went without. We still struggle to follow their example.
Back in the fourth century, Basil brings his sermon to its natural and logical conclusion. “That bread which you keep belongs to the hungry; those clothes stashed in your closet, to the naked; those shoes moldering in your possession, to the shoeless; that money you have stowed away, to those who need it.” We might add that those vacant apartments belong to the homeless; that food excess, to the hungry; that medical care, to the sick; that land, to the indigenous; that generational wealth, to descendants of the enslaved. Thus, Basil concludes, “as often as you had the opportunity to provide for others”—yet neglected to do so—“so often did you wrong them.”