Jesus the Christ and Quaker Economic Testimony — The Fulfillment

February 22, 2011 § 10 Comments

How does a covenantal community focused on debt relief and ministry to the poor work?

I said in the earlier posts in this series that, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God by declaring a Jubilee, a general redemption of debt and of debt slaves. How did he plan to make good on his claim to be fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy? Jesus himself raises this question in the course of the story, but he doesn’t answer it. Luke shows us how the first disciples implemented the economics of redemption in the common-wealth of God in Acts, chapters two and four. Presumably they did so according to Jesus’ teachings. There are hints elsewhere in the gospels, notably in the story of Zacchaeus and of Mary and Martha, that Jesus had already begun to organize his household churches along the lines described in detail in Acts. In Acts four and five, Luke actually gives us two case studies of how this was supposed to work, one positive and one negative. In the positive case, Barnabas “sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostle’s feet” (Acts 4:37).

The negative case study (Acts 5:1-12) is an astounding story much overlooked by everybody, I suspect because it’s so bizarre. Ananias and his wife Sapphira, like Barnabas, sell a piece of property, but instead of bringing all the proceeds to the apostles, they agree to secretly withhold half the proceeds. They naturally, I think, fear that they’ve joined a cult whose future looks pretty shaky—their leader has already been executed, their present leaders have already spent time in jail, the secret police are hunting them down. We can speculate that Ananias and Sapphira are hedging their bets, leaving themselves an exit strategy.

Peter knows what’s going on and challenges Ananias. Ananias denies the fraud, and then Peter says he’s lied to God and the man drops dead. Young men wrap him up, carry him out and bury him. Later, Sapphira shows up and Peter challenges her to own up to the subterfuge, but she lies too, and she drops dead. She’s buried next to her husband.

What’s happening here? What’s their crime? Was the punishment really death? Did Peter utter a death-curse? Did God really strike them dead? And what is Luke trying to tell us with this incredible story?

I believe this story encodes the first excommunication in Jesus’ community, defining both the rationale for taking action and the process for expulsion. We know the Essenes excommunicated members by performing a burial ceremony, and even today, some very conservative Jews will say that relatives who have married Gentiles are “dead to me”. This rests on the passage in Deuteronomy that famously says, “choose life”—a theology of life in the covenant and death outside the covenant (Deuteronomy 30:11-20). The first few chapters of both of Luke’s books are full of Essene influence; especially relevant in this context is the mass conversion on Pentecost recounted in Acts 2, which was also the holy day used by the Essenes to admit new members and expel unwanted members.  Especially suspicious as a detail in the story is the note that the young men wrapped up Ananias’s body and then carried him out for burial—did they really prepare the body for the grave right there in the midst of the day’s ritualized distribution of money to the poor? Or was this part of the ritualized ceremony for expulsion, which would have been a public event?

So why were Ananias and Sapphira excommunicated? For filing false financial statements. More specifically, for “putting the Spirit of the Lord to the test” (Acts 5:9) by undermining the community’s commitment to care for the poor. That is, for defying the Spirit of the Lord that had anointed Jesus as the Christ, whom the Father had sent to bring good news to the poor.

So, to answer our question about how our meetings would function if we tried to follow Jesus’ intention with the good news, we would first seek to find out who among us suffers under a crushing burden of debt and who among us possesses surplus wealth that could be used to relieve this suffering. This would probably mean that financial disclosure would be an obligation of membership, for this would be the most transparent way to know who has need and who has resources. And we would set up a system for distributing the welfare.

Several of Paul’s “gifts of the spirit” (ministry, giving, leading, and showing compassion—Romans 12:6-8) seem to represent various offices in the welfare distribution system that he had set up in his churches, each one inspired by the same Spirit that Ananias and Sapphira had defied. These offices are only hinted at in the gospels and Acts, specifically, Acts 2:42: “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers,” all of which took place, if I’m not mistaken, at the time of the day’s main meal. “Fellowship” here is the Greek word koine, which means sharing, the sharing of food and money as well as each other’s presence.

Can you imagine organizing your meeting around these principles?

Such a radical covenant of governance, in which discipleship meant this kind of disclosure and discipline, would need to stand on a sure and clear foundation of authority. For Jesus himself and his followers—and for the early Friends—that authority was the Holy Spirit and the teachings of the Christ. Where would today’s liberal, mostly post-Christian meetings turn to for a foundation of authority that could carry such a weight? More importantly, perhaps, why would liberal meetings organize themselves this way, having mostly abandoned the teachings of Jesus as authoritative? Without the authority of the gospel, without the example of the first disciples, a meeting would realign itself toward the poor in this way only if deeply moved by the Holy Spirit—as, indeed, the first Christians were. But this is no less true for mostly Christian meetings. Would they be willing to recover the economic heart of the Christ’s teachings? Would they be any more willing to reorganize their meetings around the good news for the poor?

I propose that the gospel message of Jesus the Christ does, in fact, offer us a powerful place to start in experiencing, articulating and proclaiming a revitalized testimony on economics. But would such a testimony languish at the doorstep of action?

Here the traditional faith and practice of the Quaker testimonies comes into play. The testimonies are not, properly speaking, social action positions to which we are encouraged to subscribe as Friends. They are in theory the natural and even inevitable expressions of movements of the Spirit within and among us. The ‘written testimonies’ are the shadow and not the substance of a testimonial life, empty forms without power, until and unless the spirit of God anoints us. Once we are in-spired with compassion for the poor, the actual words of the testimony and the concrete actions of the testimonial life will follow. Without the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the good news for the poor is just a notion, an intriguing radical ideology, a matter for study and discussion.

When it comes to the poor, I myself hold only a shadow in my hands. I am the rich young man who walked away (Luke 18). I could not live in such a meeting, for a bunch of reasons. I have not surrendered authority over my life to Jesus the Christ (though he hasn’t yet come to claim it).

We believe—I believe, having experienced it myself—that each of us is called to direct inspiration by God, and that the meeting as a community is also so called, and that God is always trying to reveal to us new truth and lead us into renewed life (and by ‘God’ here I mean the Mystery Reality behind our experience of being inspired and led, however that experience manifests). This much I can do: try to open myself to God’s inspiration and revelation and guidance. Try to be faithful to the call when I hear it.

I have answered several calls; I have tried to remain faithful to them. One of them has led me to spend decades studying Jesus’ economic teachings, to write a book about them, to become something of an authority on them. Yet I’ve never let them overwhelm my own desires. I have never truly sought the fellowship of the Spirit in the sharing of wealth and the ministry to the poor. I am Ananias. I guess I am running from the shadow of the cross.

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§ 10 Responses to Jesus the Christ and Quaker Economic Testimony — The Fulfillment

  • Rosemary says:

    Michael,
    I don’t personally know any Quakers who have done this, but I do know 4 people who have as participants in the Catholic Worker movement. They work only part-time so that their income never rises high enough to force them to pay taxes, which they consider war taxes. They provide hospitality in their homes to people who would otherwise be homeless. They grow their own food. They live with an income below the poverty line. They’re all people from privileged backgrounds who could have been well off with good jobs. I think they are truly faithful.
    Rosemary

  • nemo says:

    A question occurs to me: if Ananias and Sapphira had NOT denied the fraud, would the community have accepted them?

    • Great question. Jesus himself seems to have had a penchant for demanding the extreme. He says no to the man who wants to go bury his father—pretty extreme. He tells the rich young man to sell everything and come follow him. My sense is that his expectation of the immanent inbreaking of the kingdom called for ultimate commitment.

      By the time Luke writes Acts, the community seems a little more flexible. Paul essentially buys his right to a Gentile mission with the funds he raises among his churches for relief of the “saints in Jerusalem,” even though there is obviously some bad blood there. So the Jerusalem church was apparently willing to take what it could get and deal with some ideological uncertainty as a consequence. If I read the tensions and pressures right, then maybe Peter would have begrudgingly accepted Ananias and Sapphira’s money and left them alone. One could imagine him planning to tap them for the rest, if further need arose. Which it would have. Who knows what they would have done then.

      Meanwhile, there’s another aspect to this story that I want to pursue in another post. The name Ananias appears three times in Christian scripture and once again in a little know apocryphal and pseudepigraphical tract of the later first century called The Ascension of Isaiah. In Christian scripture, Ananias is also the name of the man who baptized Paul and taught him in Damascus after Paul’s conversion visions (Acts 9:10-19 and 22:12-16). And Ananias is the name of the high priest presiding over Paul’s appearance before the Sanhedrin in Acts 23.

      If Ananias had been excommunicated, he would be the perfect person for Paul to go visit in “Damascus” on his witch hunt as an officer of the temple’s secret police. Who better to get information from on those Christians than somebody who knows them all very well and whom they’ve thrown out? Meanwhile, just because Ananias has been excommunicated doesn’t mean that he’s completely rejected all of Jesus’ teachings. Think of all the people disowned by Friends who remained Friends in their own hearts, but especially those, like George Keith, who gradually drifted off in their own direction, but held onto what they thought was the essence of Quakerism. I’m suggesting that Paul may have been baptized and taught by an expelled ‘heretic’ who had no love for the leaders in Jerusalem but still considered himself a follower of Jesus.

      Then there’s The Ascension of Isaiah, one of the very first tracts of merkabah mysticism, a mystical movement that grew up in Judaism officially later in the second century that focused on study of the first chapter of Ezekiel—a vision of ascension into heaven, like and yet not like Isaiah’s vision—and that practiced heavenly ascension spirituality. Paul is arguably the first recorded merkabah mystic in history, by his own account—unless you count Ananias, one of the three masters of this mystical tradition in The Ascension of Isaiah.

      Suppose these three Ananiases are all the same man: excommunicated teacher of Paul and merkabah mystic. Of course, the details of all these stories don’t really match up very nicely with this speculative reconstruction, but the details also hold intriguing hints. A project for deeper research.

  • Chris Mohr says:

    Excellent post, and I liked your concise definition of testimony, as distinct from “social action positions.”

    You asked: “This would probably mean that financial disclosure would be an obligation of membership…. Can you imagine organizing your meeting around these principles?”

    No! Not at this time. However, I give an incredible amount of financial information to the local Friends School… Could we translate that financial aid process into the Meeting context? The thought boggles my mind, I have to admit. And yet I think several folks in our Meeting would be willing to engage in the conversation, even if in the end we, too, might run from the shadow of the cross.

    Hm, maybe a “financial aid” model is a decent contemporary framework to use, since we’re in the “meantime” rather than awaiting Christ’s imminent return. Who in the community needs support just to meet their basic human needs? Who in the community needs support to grow into their potential as a worker, scholar, minister, or the like?

    • Chris, I think you’re onto something with the idea of using financial aid for education as a model for helping meeting members. And I especially like the way you include support for growing into ministry, scholarship, etc. Meetings would still have to come up with the resources, but even there the financial aid model might be a help: treat this aspect of the meeting’s financial life as a separate fund and have the equivalent of a ‘capital campaign.’

  • forrest curo says:

    According to William Stringfellow:”Sex, fashion, and sports are all among the angelic powers.”

    And so, particularly, is “money.” (See Jacques Ellul, _Power and Money_, which seems to be still available for pdf download at http://www.jesusradicals.com/theology/jacques-ellul/ )

    Jesus said that we “could not serve two masters.” But we try. Generally we give our hearts to Jesus, but our heads to Mammon.

    But that’s making us out to be more consistent than human beings ever are. What we really do is to suffer with conflicting loyalties– and conflicting theologies– in the same mind/heart.

    The ‘Acts’ church was actively engaged in a specific mission of spreading the word, in which turning over money and property could be considered functional… To sell your property, take the money and turn it over for consumption by the church membership– basically works as a means of financing immediate missionary work, not sustaining a community. Once you run out of wealthy converts, there goes your church! [And in fact, there was obviously a change of policy sometime between that early church and us.]

    Does this mean that Jesus made a mistake? Rather, it’s a mistake to try implementing his economic principles [extension of basic Torah covenant: God retains ownership of the land, gives use of the land for the purpose of nourishing His people] by looking backwards to hints we’re given about how the church operated in unique times and circumstances.

    How can we implement those principles? Is it only about giving away things– or more about making what we have and who we are available as needed? Thinking… more later!

    • Forest, thanks so much for the Jacques Ellul resources. I knew him by name only, and skimming through Money and Power was a revelation. Can’t wait to read it.

      I think there were two problems with the way the earliest disciples implemented the Jubilee. The first had to do with the pervasive teachings of Jesus on the one provision of Jubilee legislation from Leviticus 25 that didn’t have to do directly with the poor: letting your land lie fallow. Or, more directly for Jesus, utter dependence on God’s providence—”take no thought for the morrow . . . but seek first the kingdom of God.”

      I am sure that this radical faith worked pretty well while he was alive, though the gospels are full of stories that indicate how close to the edge they walked, especially those who accompanied him in his itinerant ministry. They seem to have been hungry a lot (“blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”) The instructions for traveling ministers to “ask, seek, knock,” and not to even take a loaf of bread for the road, plus the curse of towns that turned them away suggests that things were a bit tough at times, but that at least there was a formal teaching and process for their sustenance as they traveled.

      However, the fallow provision and the principle behind it presuppose an end to the need for such radical dependence on providence. In Leviticus, it’s the beginning of the next growing season. For Jesus, it was the decisive coming of the kingdom, as he predicts in many Son of Man sayings and describes in the Little Apocalypse (Mark 13 and parallels). The early church clearly expected his return soon but ended up waiting indefinitely. This exhausted their resources.

      The second problem was staying in Jerusalem. Jesus had specifically instructed them to return to Galilee to wait for him, and they didn’t. I think they literally thought he would return any day, especially after the incident at the empty tomb, which, of course, remains obscure because the accounts differ so much. But something happened that excited those who were left behind.

      I think they found the pressures of urban poverty too great to withstand over the long haul. One of the drivers of this drain on resources was the steady influx of widows from the diaspora. Men living abroad wealthy enough to do so often chose to return to Jerusalem to die so they would not be buried in unclean soil, leaving their often exclusively Greek-speaking wives behind. Hence the tensions over the welfare fund for the “Hellenists” and the appointment of Hellenist fellowship supervisors under Stephen. At least by the time of Paul’s fundraising appeals, the Jerusalem saints were already in dire straits.

      We do not know what would have happened if they had returned to village life in Galilee, as instructed. This would have fragmented their relief efforts and greatly reduced their access to resources. It would also have left behind all those widows and all the “priests” who converted in large numbers (Acts 6:7), probably Levites who were prohibited by law from owning property or doing anything, in fact, but serve in the temple. There were always too many Levites and too few jobs, so the temple had a special welfare fund just to take care of unemployed Levites, but it was never enough. This was one reason why so many “became obedient to the faith.” So it probably made sense to them at the time to stay in the city. But it couldn’t be sustained indefinitely.

      The principle of faith—of radical dependence on God’s providence—lies at the foundation of any such communitarian economic covenant, no less today than in Jesus’ time. You at least have to have faith that the community is going to come through for you, if you need it, and that the people who manage the sharing fellowship are going to be responsible with the money you give them. It’s hard to sustain this kind of faith, especially when people screw up, as they inevitably do—even the first disciples had their Hellenist crisis.

      Today, we have the advantage of a capitalist culture that recognizes in tax policy the social value of churches and nonprofits. This makes some kinds of social entrepreneurship a viable option for addressing the sufferings of the poor without having to constantly deplete your members’ assets. Meetings who wanted to get more engaged in ministry to the poor could explore nonprofit businesses as a means to the end. My own meeting hosts two flee markets a year, but the proceeds go mostly to support of the operating budget. I believe that originally, a larger portion went back to the wider community somehow, though that was before I joined.

      • forrest curo says:

        “Take no thought for tomorrow” was initially addressed to a rural audience, who would hardly take it literally. ‘Plant but stop angsting about it. Trust God for outcomes, whatever happens.’

        Depending on the hospitality of sympathetic villagers was probably a perfectly viable way to mount an organizing campaign… with more risk of them going hungry than Jesus or his supporters. (But some annoyance at villages that didn’t respond, hence cleaning off the dust you’d collected on the way there ‘as a witness against them’.)

        But this would not be the way that Israel was expected to live when Jesus came to rule there. See William Herzog’s _Prophet and Teacher_ for a better idea of Jesus’ long-term program (if all Israel could have accepted it!)

        —————

        The future development of the Church lay in the Roman urban centers. Jerusalem was a good center for organizing that development in the immediate future. (Remember, in ~40 years Palestinian real estate was due to lose all its agricultural and residential value to a massive, punitive Roman counterinsurrectionary expedition.)

        “Charitable projects” are soon reduced to token efforts. Unless “the rich” involved come to recognize their own condition of poverty, it just turns into “another good deed for the day.”

  • Thank you for the vulnerability you shared at the end of the post. I seek to surrender authority over my life to Jesus the Christ, but I have a long way to go on that path.

    Do you know of contemporary Friends who have “truly sought the fellowship of the Spirit in the sharing of wealth and the ministry to the poor”? I am hungry for examples of such faithfulness.

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