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Acts 4: "They had everything in common"

by Brant Pitre June 24, 2021 0 Comments

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Dr. Brant Pitre discusses Act 4. Does the fact that the early Church "had everything in common" serve as a biblical foundation for communism?  This was taken from the Mass Readings Explained.  Subscribers can find the full video here:


Okay with all that said let's go back then to the first reading for today, which is not from the Old Testament, but from the Acts of the Apostles. It's a very famous description of the early church in Jerusalem, the community of believers in Jerusalem. And this is what it says Acts 4:32 and following:

Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And 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 were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.

Alright, so that’s the reading for today. So I’ve already kind of answered the question, why does the church give us this reading? Well because during the Easter season she's going to constantly begin with readings from the Book of Acts that give us little windows onto the life and the mission and the activity of the early church. In this case, the reading highlights three elements. First, the church in Jerusalem was unified, this is very important. Unity is a mark of the authentic, Apostolic church, and Luke expresses that by saying that they were of one heart and one mind. What does that mean, one heart and one mind? Well one mind means they believe the same things, right, so they have the same doctrine, unity of doctrine. They were of one heart means that they also chose to do, they acted in similar ways, they walked the same walk. So we tend to associate this in Catholic theology with the intellect and the will, right, the mind and the heart. What we believe but also how we act, what we do, the intellect and the will. So they were of one heart and one soul. A second element here is not just unity but also community. So they live together, and they not only live together, but they share their possessions with one another.  It says here that they had everything in common. And, it gives an example of this by saying that any of them who possess lands or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of what was sold, lay it at the apostle’s feet and then it would be distributed to anyone in the community who had any needs. So the poor would benefit from the almsgiving of the rich. And then finally, last but certainly not least, is just the practice of almsgiving. I just want to highlight that there. So when it says that these wealthy men would bring the proceeds of their sales and lay it at the apostle’s feet and give to those who had any need, these are acts of charity, right. This is an act of almsgiving, especially for the needy, the poor, widows, orphans, those kind of people within the early church in Jerusalem. They would receive the alms of those who were well-off. Okay, so that is just a beautiful little window of what the church was like in the First Century A.D. in Jerusalem.

Before we go any further I just want make a little note about this passage here. In recent years I've heard lots of secular critics of Christianity frequently appeal to this passage as a kind of biblical foundation for communism, right, for the political, modern political system known as communism, in which everything is considered as ultimately belonging to the state. So the state can take your possessions and dispense them at will to those to whom it sees fit. So people frequently will say ah look, this is the biblical, you know the early church was communist or some people even argue, you know, Jesus was communist. Is that really what’s going on here? Is this the political system of communism? And if it’s not, what's going on here? What does it mean when it says everyone had everything in common? So let me make a couple points about this real quick. First and foremost, I might just note, The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for what it's worth, has a short section on communism that actually rejects the contemporary political system known as both communism and/or socialism, and this is what it says in the catechism paragraph 2424, it says this:

A system that “subordinates the basic rights of individuals and of groups to the collective organization of production” is contrary to human dignity…The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modern times with “communism” or “socialism.”

In other words, the church there fundamentally rejects any political system that doesn't heed the right of the individual to private property and places the collective or the state over the rights of individuals with regard to ownership. And, you can look here at this early passage from Acts, notice the apostles are not gathering the money, giving it to the state and then having the state dispense it to whom they will. Possession in common and distribution to those who are needy are taking place within the ecclesial community itself, within the church. It doesn't involve any political system; they're not acting in concert with Caesar or with the tax collectors, with the Roman government, anything like that. So this just simply isn't about a political system, it's about the life of an early religious community. And in fact, the Catechism aligns this passage precisely with the life of the church, not with a political system, but with the life of the church, especially in the history of the church with religious life and religious orders, in which the radical living out of the gospel involves the Evangelical councils. What are the three Evangelical councils? Poverty, chastity, and obedience, right. And, you'll see this over and over again in the history of the church, especially in monastic communities. You can think here of the Franciscans for example, the early Franciscan order, when St. Francis was founding the order, one of the first things people do as they come into the order, some of the wealthy landowners, wealthy merchants, as they come into the religious order, enter into the community, take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, they’ll sell off their property and they’ll give it to those who are in need, right. This is something that happens over and over again in the history of the church. So the Catechism tells us two things. First, it says in paragraph 918 that:

From the very beginning of the church…

And that’s what we’re reading about here.

…there were men and women who set out to follow Christ with greater liberty and to imitate him more closely by practicing the evangelical councils of poverty chastity and obedience.

And that’s what we see here being practiced, a kind of radical poverty by some of the early Christians in Jerusalem. The final thing the Catechism says about this passage is probably the most important one. If you have your Catechism, you can take it out, it’s paragraph 952. When this verse is quoted in the Catechism it cites it with reference to the principle of almsgiving. Listen to what the catechism says here, paragraph 952, it quotes Acts 4:32 and it says this:

“They had everything in common.” Everything the true Christian has is to be regarded as a good possessed in common with everyone else. All Christians should be ready and eager to come to the help of the needy… and of their neighbors and want.” A Christian is a steward of the Lord’s goods.

So in other words, what the Catechism points out there is the church has always recognized that some people are called to live in radical poverty, but other people are not. But, all Christians are called to enact the principle which is being given in Acts 4, namely that we do not actually have absolute ownership of our possessions. We are stewards of God's possessions and we have a moral obligation to provide for those who are in need, to practice almsgiving, especially within the church itself, to any of our brothers and our sisters within the church who are in need. And, so we see that principle being practiced in the early church in a radical way in the church of Jerusalem. And it’s very interesting here that you can see, if you read Paul's letters, whenever he refers to the Christians living in Jerusalem, he always calls them, he uses the technical term, ‘of the poor’, to remember the poor in Jerusalem. So it seems that within the early church in Jerusalem this kind of radical poverty was something that was practiced very widely all the way through into Paul's own day, and we see a window into that from the Book of Acts here as well. But, all Christians are called to the charity of almsgiving, which is very significant for this day because we are on the Second Sunday of Easter, and the Second Sunday of Easter is also Divine Mercy Sunday. And, almsgiving, giving to those who are in need, is one of the corporal works of mercy, right. It's an expression of mercy to give to those who are need.  So I actually think that what the church is doing here on this particular Sunday is, with the gospel, it's giving us a window into the sacrament of mercy, the institute of confession. And then with the reading from Acts, it's giving us a window into the corporal work of mercy through the giving of alms to those who are in need.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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