Jesus’ shared table community was an expression of voluntary “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”
by Herb Montgomery | May 10, 2018
“Yet too often, historically, economic reforms have come at the expense of those barely getting by while the wealthy find new ways to profit. Jesus’ teachings are about breaking the cycle.”
“Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’” (Mark 10:17-21)
Last week we looked at various shapes that human societal structures can take and compared them to Jesus’ vision for human community, a shared table. We considered that Jesus’ teachings were political, with an economic emphasis on distributive justice, not merely distant, purely religious theology.
I also want to be careful not to spiritualize Jesus’ vision. Jesus wasn’t telling us how to structure churches or worship services. His vision for human community was much larger: concerned with the structures of human community that create systemic oppression and social, political, and economic exploitation.
Jesus spoke about economics more than any other topic. He did not propose a system of charity, with the haves giving to the have-nots and leaving the system that creates haves and have-nots untouched. No. The vision of Jesus that we get from the stories was of an entirely different social order, one where no one has too much while others don’t have enough, where “sun” and “rain” were distributed justly on all. (See Matthew 5:45)
As he taught his followers in Luke:
“‘Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven [by giving to the poor] that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is [in the poor], there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:32-34)
It is appropriate for Jesus to address his audience’s fear here. Fear is the primary emotion that causes us to hoard more than we need for today. Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid.” He then reassures his followers, “It’s the Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom.” This is not a world where the haves have all their possessions stripped away and given to the have nots. This is not a reversal of fortunes, but a redistribution that makes sure everyone has enough. Our fear of the future is replaced by a trust in our community—that we will take care of each other.
Jesus was calling those who had more than they needed to liquidate those properties and give to those whom the system had impoverished. This was a kind of wealth redistribution: sharing. Poverty is not the result of chance. It’s is the end result of how economic systems are structured. Chance and accidents will happen, but Jesus was offering a way to include everyone rather than benefit a few at the expense of the many. At its foundation, Jesus’ vision was a call to redistribute hoarded wealth, and his shared table taught shared economics.
Any time we speak of wealth redistribution, those who barely have enough start getting upset. They clutch the little they have and say you’re not going to take it away from me and give it to someone else. This is understandable. But Jesus wasn’t speaking to people who were just breaking even. In Luke, Jesus is speaking to those who have considerably more than what they needed. Jesus’ vision was a social and economic order that benefitted everyone, together, where everyone took care of one another. Yet too often, historically, economic reforms have come at the expense of those barely getting by while the wealthy find new ways to profit. Jesus’ teachings are about breaking the cycle. Jesus’ shared table was rooted in equity. Everyone might not necessarily have the same, but no one would go without.
In 1902, a Russian naturalist and anarchist philosopher named Peter Kropotkin wrote an essay collection titled Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. In these essays, Kropotkin described mutually beneficial cooperation and reciprocity in both the animal world and human society. What he discovered was contrary to social Darwinism. The societies and species that were the “fittest” were not necessarily the strongest, where the strong ate the weak. The fittest communities practiced mutual aid. The strong took care of the weak. These species had the highest rates of “survival.”
What developed out of Jesus’ teachings was a community that sought to practice that kind of voluntary, non authoritarian, mutual aid.
Ability and Need
In the book of Acts, which is believed to have been written by the same author as Luke’s gospel, we find that the very first fruit of embracing Jesus’ vision for human society, his shared table, was economic. The very first change that followers made when they were baptized into the Jesus community of the 1st Century was to sell your extra so others would have enough or receive from others so that you had enough.
“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:41-47, emphasis added.)
Two chapters later we discover that these believers had completely eliminated poverty within their growing but small community.
“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:32-35, emphasis added.)
In this community, each person contributed “as each one was able” (Acts 11:29). And within this community, each person was given to “according to their need.” (Acts 2:45; 4:35) Jesus’ shared table community was an expression of voluntary “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”
The Jewish Sayings of Jesus contain the earliest version of Jesus’ instructions to those who creating these community structures. We spent an entire two years on this collection of sayings found in both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels (see Sayings Gospel Q: A Two Year Journey Reaches Its End)
If you are new to Q, an excellent place to begin is James Robinson’s The Gospel of Jesus: A Historical Search for the Original Good News. I want to share two sections from Robinson that give insight on what we are discussing this week:
“His basic issue, still basic today, is that most people have solved the human dilemma for themselves at the expense of everyone else, putting them down so as to stay afloat themselves. This vicious, antisocial way of coping with the necessities of life only escalates the dilemma for the rest of society. All of us know the result all too well, for we have experienced it ourselves in one form or another: the breakdown of mutually supportive human relations that results in the distinction between the haves and have-nots; the ruling class subjugating serfs, sharecroppers, and blue-collar workers; the battle of the sexes; dictatorships of one kind or the other; exploitation in the workplace; and on and on. (The Gospel of Jesus: A Historical Search for the Original Good News; Kindle Locations 138-142)
“By using the ‘kingdom of God,’ Jesus put his ideal for society in an antithetical relation both to other political and social systems and to individual self-interest (“looking out for number one”). The human dilemma is, in large part, that we are each other’s fate. We become the tool of evil that ruins another person as we look out for ourselves, having long abandoned any youthful idealism we might once have cherished. But if we each would cease and desist from pushing the other down to keep ourselves up, then the vicious cycle would be broken. Society would become mutually supportive rather than self-destructive. This is what Jesus was up to . . . Put in language derived from his sayings: I am hungry because you hoard food. You are cold because I hoard clothing. Our dilemma is that we all hoard supplies in our backpacks and put our trust in our wallets! Such “security” should be replaced by God reigning, which means both what I trust God to do (to activate you to share food with me) and what I hear God telling me to do (to share clothes with you). We should not carry money while bypassing the poor or wear a backpack with extra clothes and food while ignoring the cold and hungry lying in the gutter. This is why the beggars, the hungry, the depressed are fortunate: God, that is, those in whom God rules, those who hearken to God, will care for them. The needy are called upon to trust that God’s reigning is there for them (“Theirs is the kingdom of God”).” (Kindle Locations 56-77)
Equity often feels like oppression to those who have more than they need. Many have solved the problem of future uncertainty by hoarding for themselves today, others be damned. For them, this is not about possessions as much as it about surviving if something bad should happen to them in the future. I believe Jesus realized this. His vision for human society was to create a community where people will care for you if some ill fate should impact you in the future, and, right now, you provide for someone devastated by ill fate today.
Consider the ravens. Consider the lilies. The system Jesus taught where we take care of one another is a much better solution for the future than fear. Why not give it a try?
“Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’” (Mark 10.17-21)
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells one of the wealthy, religious and political elites, “But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you” (Luke 11:41).
1. What does this mean for us today? Did Jesus really mean that “everything” is tied to our generosity toward those our present system impoverishes? It doesn’t matter why someone is othered and marginalized, whether because of race, gender, education, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, religion, ability or whatever! Everything is connected to our attitudes toward those who face exclusion and/or exploitation: whether we are generous and compassionate or participate in the exploitative status quo. Discuss this with your HeartGroup.
2. Over the past few weeks, we’ve discussed Jesus’ preferential option for the marginalized and vulnerable. What does it look like to learn to listen to and believe the experiences of those the present structure disadvantages and exploits? Discuss this with your HeartGroup.
3. Is it enough to grant everyone an equal opportunity to compete in a system that still produces haves and have-nots? Did Jesus envision a different social structure where no one became a have-not? What examples do we have of attempts to create societies like that in the past? What prevented these societies from being successful? What external or internal challenges were involved? Discuss these questions with your HeartGroup.
Pick a practice you shared in number 2 above and practice it this week. What difference does it makes in your “generosity” toward the marginalized. Experiment with it. See if it’s true that in creating a world where generosity and compassion are exercised toward those exploited, “everything becomes clean.”
Thanks for checking in with us this week.
Keep living in love, survival, resistance, liberation, reparation, and transformation.
Another world is possible.
I love each of you dearly.
I’ll see you next week.