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Sharing Everything in Common
April 11, 2021
Israel ben Eliezer was a rabbi in Poland who died in 1760. He is much better known as Baal Shem Tov, which can be translated as the “Master with a good reputation.” He was also the founder of Hasidic Judaism. He once told a story that has some connections with today’s Church History lesson.
It seems that there were two young boys who became fast friends, even closer than some brothers. They tried to spend every waking moment together and arrived at the point where they vowed, “Whatever success comes to one of us will belong to both. Whatever pain comes to one of us will be felt by both.”
They grew up together, were bar mitzvahed together, and even got married on the same day. However, one of them married a young woman from a distant village, and went to live with her family. So, the two friends tearfully parted.
Many years later, the friend who had stayed behind received a letter from the other. It said, “I have lost my family and all my wealth. I have nothing.” Immediately, he penned a reply: “My coachman will leave tomorrow, to bring you back here as my guest. I will take care of everything.”
Two weeks later, the coach returned. He escorted his oldest friend into his house, filled with finest carved woods, silver and gold. “All success and suffering belongs to us both,” he said. “Therefore, I will sell half of my possessions, and give the proceeds to you. That way, you will be able to start your business life again.”
A few years later, this generous soul experienced a series of financial setbacks of his own. Within a year, he had lost everything except a few gold coins. He wrote to his blood brother in the distant city, to whom he had given half his wealth, saying, “I have lost my family and all my wealth. I have nothing.” Then he waited, confidently, expecting a coach to arrive within the week.
After two weeks, he wrote again. “A week from now, I am beginning a journey to visit you. I will be traveling on foot.” Another week passed with no reply. At last he wrote, “I leave today, carrying my last gold coin.”
By the time he reached the distant city, he was haggard and weak. Arriving at his blood brother’s house, he saw a high brick wall surrounding a tall tower. The tower was dark, except for a single lit window near the top.
He knocked at the heavy wooden door. No one answered. He knocked again. At last, a tiny window in the door opened. He said to the servant, “Tell your master that his blood brother has arrived.”
When the owner of the tower heard the message, he thought to himself, “If I see him, I will be overcome by my love for him. I will do what he did — I will give him half of my wealth. But then the same thing may happen to me that happened to him — I will lose everything and become poor again. I cannot bear the pain of that poverty! Not again!” And so, turning away, he said to the servant, “Tell him to leave.”
Writing about that story, Clare Oatney say, “[…] for me, the astonishing stuff [isn’t] that first brother, who shared so much with his beloved friend when he was in need. Generosity I understand. What amazes me in this story is that when that same brother falls on hard times, he writes to his friend to tell him of his need. And when he doesn’t hear back, he writes again. And then again. He lays his need out before his brother, even in the face of seeming rejection.
“Can you imagine? It’s that vulnerability, that openness and that trust. That, to me, is the amazing part of this story, and of the vision of community set out in Acts. […] And as that second brother realizes: to see and hear those needs is to risk having our heart broken, to be overcome by love and respond in ways that feel frightening and out of control.”
Perhaps, to some degree, that’s why I discovered this week that in the 32 years I’ve been preaching and the roughly 28 years my Dad preached, neither of us had ever preached on this particular passage from the book of Acts before.
More than that, biblical commentaries that are effusive about almost every other passage, proved unable to squeeze out more than one or two pages of analysis about these four verses in Acts. Maybe that’s because this community of ultimate sharing feels so foreign to us.
The one thing all the commentaries agree on is that the selling of property and the sharing of all things by the community was entirely voluntary. It was a sign of gratitude to God for the grace they had been given. That is, no one was coerced into participating in this cooperative venture. And that is shown by the odd story that immediately follows today’s lesson.
In the fifth chapter of Acts, a couple named Ananias and Sapphira decide to sell a piece of their property and then donate some — but not all — of the proceeds to the church. However, Peter knew immediately that they had kept something for themselves.
So he accused the couple of lying to the Holy Spirit and reminded them that there was no point in doing that since they weren’t required to sell their property in the first place. Then that story ends in a shockingly tragic way when first Ananias and then Sapphira die on the spot from apparent heart attacks after being confronted with their attempt at deception.
Clearly the discomfort modern Americans have with the idea of pooling private resources with an entire community is nothing new. Far too many of us are closer to being heirs of Ananias and Sapphira than being heirs of the early apostolic community.
I suspect that’s just human nature since we’re well aware of how hard we’ve worked for the things we have and may be suspicious that the same is not true of the needy, even though in most cases people below the poverty line work longer hours and for less pay than those who are in a position to offer them assistance.
An old story featuring another rabbi makes that point memorably. One day a wealthy miser visited that rabbi. The rabbi took him to a window and asked him what he saw. The rich man relied, “I see men, women and children.”
Then the rabbi took him to a mirror. “What do you see now?” he asked. “I see myself,” the man answered. Then the rabbi pointed out “There is glass is both the window and in the mirror. But the glass of the mirror is coated with silver, and no sooner is silver added than you cease to see others and see only yourself.”
At some point, it appears that the early Christian community’s commitment to sharing their pains and blessings like those two idealistic boys in Rabbi Baal Shem Tov’s story was shipwrecked on the shoals of human sinfulness, although those early Christians continued to experience many great acts of generosity throughout its history.
In fact, generosity of spirit was such a hallmark of the Christian church that it helped to attract significant numbers of new members, helping the church spread throughout the known world. And not all of that generosity was focused on finances.
For example, whenever there was an epidemic or pandemic in the ancient world, the typical person would try to flee from the source of the outbreak. Christians, however, were known to travel into an area of sickness so they could help nurse the infected, even if that act of generosity sometimes cost them their lives.
Other people saw that and were drawn to learn more about the faith that would cause rational people to give of themselves in such a dangerous way. It was a radically different attitude toward life than the prevailing ethic of every person for themselves.
Anthony de Mello tells a fable that makes a similar point about a change in attitude. He says that a man was walking through the forest when he saw a fox that had lost its legs and wondered how it was able to live. Then he saw a tiger come by with game in its mouth. The tiger had his fill and left the rest for the fox.
The next day God sent the tiger to feed the fox once again. The man began to wonder at God’s greatness and thought, “Maybe this is a test of my faith. I will also lie down in a corner and trust God to give me all I need.”
He did that for a solid month, but no one ever came to feed him. When he was almost at death’s door, he began to pray to God, asking why he was being neglected. Then he heard a voice that said, “You have totally misread the situation. Open your eyes to the Truth! I am calling on you to imitate the tiger, not the fox.”
That’s why Bruce Rockwell writes, “I used to give because I thought the church needed my money. I gave because I thought […] I should give. Once I learned all I had was a gift from God, and that I am created in the image of God, I learned that stewardship was about my own need to give, not about the church’s need to receive. I also heard the stories of other stewards who offered me the gift of their stories…that proportionate giving, leading to tithing...giving joyfully, thankfully, and sacrificially to God was an essential step in their spiritual development, in their growing relationship with God the creator and with Jesus Christ, their Savior.
“I used to believe in the old adage that one should (there’s that word again) give until it hurts. The problem was that I, for over twenty years a banker, had a very low pain threshold when it came to giving my money. Now I believe in giving until it feels good. For me, giving is my ongoing opportunity to grow more and more into the image of God.
“So, we encourage Christians to give because they are created by God to be givers. We encourage Christians to give out of love and thanksgiving to God who has created them, made them in God’s own image. How can one respond to that good news but with great thanksgiving? And when we give as God created us to give, we will experience the joy that God promises to us.”
Or as the famous fourth century preacher, John Chrysostom once said, “Wealth is meant to go out from you like a light that dispels darkness.”
So let’s learn from the early church that we may brighten our world with our generosity and enrich our faith. Amen.
by Jim McCrea
Rev. Jim McCrea
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