In the midst of discussions surrounding the late unpleasantness (or the Great Decapitation), one local leader remarked that we needed to be careful about taking all that stuff about Jesus’s ministry to the poor and our call to sacrifice to the poor “too literally.” Rather, we should let the rest of the New Testament be our interpretive guide, and follow the lead of the book of Acts, which, as the sequel to Luke, shows the fulfillment of Jesus’s ministry in the life of the early Church. When we look at it this way, “we see that the ministry to the poor is essentially a metaphor for the preaching the gospel to the Gentiles; indeed, I don’t think ministry to the poor is mentioned once in the book of Acts.”
Now, at the risk of seeming obsessed with this issue, I will try to demonstrate again how flatly such a statement contradicts the Biblical witness.
It is certainly true that, in the latter part of Acts, Luke focuses on the wide-ranging missionary journeys of Paul, and is more interested in explaining the range of his journeys and the methods of his evangelism than the way his newly-founded Christian communities functioned. However, this is not, I think, because Luke thinks it does not matter how the communities functioned, but rather because he has already displayed this to us in the earlier chapters, and so he sees no need to go through all the details multiple times. And when we turn to those earlier chapters, we find, far from “no mention of ministry to the poor,” what seems on the contrary to be almost an obsession with it. Indeed, I think Luke would be shocked to hear of any dichotomy between “preaching the gospel” and “ministry to the poor,” since such a dichotomy contradicts the picture of gospel preaching that we see in Acts 2-6. I will first quote from the verses that follow Peter’s first great sermon in Acts:
“So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart.” Now, hang on a moment, Luke! What’s all this about having all their goods in common? First of all, that seems a rather stupid Marxist thing to do; but aside from that, why are you making such a big deal of this? I mean, repenting and believing the gospel means making Jesus the Lord of your life, getting rid of your sins, beginning to live a pure life, learning to worship him properly. I see that you talk about “breaking of bread,” which seems to be the Sacrament, and “prayer,” so worship is mentioned, but you talk about it almost as if it were just an extension of this new economic community of “togetherness” that has been formed. It seems like there should be a lot of more important results of the gospel than all this property-selling stuff.”
But the protesting reader is probably willing to give Luke the benefit of the doubt…he probably didn’t mean to give it so much emphasis. But then comes chapter four. Peter and John have just been released after another controversial sermon, and Luke summarizes for us the results of their recent preaching and the growth of the new community: “And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.”
Whoa, wait a minute, Luke! Now, you’ve mentioned some important things about what the gospel brings: the congregation was of one heart and one soul—that’s good—unity in the Spirit and all; the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was on them all—that’s great—teaching the doctrines of the faith, growth in grace and all. But Luke, you seem to be mixing these things up with these odd Marxist notions of shared property. Is that what it means to be of one heart and one soul—to share property? Is that was “grace” means—to sell all your stuff and give to the poor? Come now, Luke.
The theme continues into chapter six, where we learn that there has been a problem in this sharing of goods—the Hellenistic Jews are being overlooked. This is a very important issue in Luke’s mind, and all the apostles consider that it is important enough that they should appoint new ministers to attend to these needs in the Church. More evidence of how important these issues are can be found in how fiercely those who have not renounced Mammon are opposed. In chapter five, Ananias and Saphira try to deceive the apostles about how much of their possessions they are giving away, and they are killed for it! And in chapter eight, Philip the deacon encounters an anti-deacon of sorts in Simon Magus, who, instead of ministering the gospel by giving away money, is trying to gain money by ministering the gospel, and he receives a remarkably fierce condemnation from Philip.
Now, it is certainly true that these themes drop off the radar in the latter part of Acts, but I hardly think this is because the apostles have changed their mind about what’s important; rather, Luke is taking these things for granted—this is what a Christian church is supposed to look like, and we are to assume the same sort of thing is happening when Paul preaches the Gospel. Indeed, the Epistles suggest that this is the case, as Paul repeatedly insists in many letters that rich and poor must be equal in the Church, and seems nearly obsessed with taking a collection from the Gentile churches to aid the poor in Jerusalem.
Jesus’ focus on ministry to the poor, and giving away of possessions, is not some odd anomaly, but provides the marching orders for the Church, as Acts clearly demonstrates. It is hard to see how anyone could so thoroughly miss this in Acts, and these statements about poverty in Scripture that I have tried to refute in some of these posts can’t help but make you wonder what kind of worldview can make American Christianity so blind to the concerns of Scripture on these issues.