The rich man toils as his wealth accumulates,
and when he rests he fills himself with his dainties.
The poor man toils as his livelihood diminishes,
and when he rests he becomes needy.
He who loves gold will not be justified,
and he who pursues money will be led astray by it.
Many have come to ruin because of gold,
and their destruction has met them face to face.
It is a stumbling block to those who are devoted to it,
and every fool will be taken captive by it.
Blessed is the rich man who is found blameless,
and who does not go after gold.
Who is he? And we will call him blessed,
for he has done wonderful things among his people. (Ecclesiasticus 31: 3-9)
Issues of wealth and poverty were much on the minds of the Biblical writers, just as they are much on our minds in this time of Covid, which has revealed underlying patterns of inequality within our broadly middle class society. For a book which is supposed to be about spiritual things, it’s astonishing how much of the material is about money. The Biblical authors were well aware that extreme inequality drives social tension, and they document numerous occasions in which that inequality called into question the social contract and led to the re-organization of Israel’s leadership. The teachings follow two major paths, each of which is present in our own lives: a) wealth is a blessing, a just reward for hard labor, and, b) wealth is also a temptation to arrogance, to cruelty, to self-centeredness, and to disregarding the welfare of others.
And so we come to Barnabas, “the son of encouragement,” whom the church celebrates today. Barnabas was a Levite, a man of property, who was among the early converts to Christianity after the death of Jesus. At that time, “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 so Barnabas sold his field and brought the money to the disciples to use for the good of all.
Barnabas actually appears as half of the story; his generosity is book-ended by the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who also sold their field and gave the money to the disciples — but only part of it. They kept back something for themselves, while pretending they had given everything. Peter responds by striking them dead. For their stinginess? For their duplicity? Who knows?
Most of us, and I include myself, are a lot like Ananias and Sapphira: we give what we think we can, and hold back what we think we need. In terms of money, this is prudent. No one looks forward to being in need. (And, in fact, a few chapters later in Acts, we learn that the Jerusalem community had, in fact, fallen into severe need; they had to be helped by the wider community of believers.)
But what we do with money both reflects and shapes the other ways in which we offer ourselves. When Barnabas offered everything, he entered into radical solidarity with the other members of his community. And that kind of solidarity is worth gold.
In today’s world, we have three models for handling money: self-centeredness, which teaches that the money we earn is for ourselves and for our families; generosity, which shares what we have with an open hand (and often does much good in the world), but without examining the conditions under which it was earned; and solidarity, which asks the most difficult questions, questions about access to education, about fair hiring, about the proper ratio of pay for between an executive and a factory worker.
So many of the areas in which we are faltering — care of elders, racial equality, fair pay and provision of PPE for essential workers (or for any workers) — cry out less for generosity than for solidarity. We could not sustain the policies we currently have unless those in power (and those who support them) were able to believe that these policies would never affect them directly. And once we do make that connection, pressure builds for change.
We who are Christian are called to be generous. The Bible teaches that the tithe, a gift of 10% of what you earn, is the minimum standard of giving, not our goal. But there is a world out beyond generosity, a world in which we “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law.” (Gal 6:2) The name of that world is the Kingdom of God.
— Deborah Meister