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.