By Lee Van Ham
Redistribution of wealth has not been taught or practiced in faith communities since the first couple of centuries following Jesus. Acts 4:32-36 is just one biblical example. There, followers of Jesus’ Way have all things in common. Special mention is made of Barnabas, a Jew from Cyprus, because he sold a piece of property and brought the proceeds to the apostles for redistribution.
After the first few centuries, Bible teachers have spoken of this as an inspiring vision from the early faith communities, but not as a model for current faith practice. Barnabas is spoken of as showing exceptional sharing, but not as practicing redistribution. In fact, he is not just a caring philanthropist. He sees that the economic systems are wrong. He believes that the apostles are innovating a small-scale system in which all have a livable share of Earth’s abundance. He recognizes that he’s been part of a system of greed, not sharing.
But commentators on Acts 4:36, where Barnabas appears, chronically miss the point. They do not mention systemic change. They merely admire this generous act of sharing. The radicalness of his action is missed.
Did acts like his change the economic system of Rome’s empire. No. But here’s the thing. Jesus was not intent on changing the economic systems of empire but on creating a “contrast society” to empire—one where radical redistribution could be and would be practiced. To that end, the Biblical Sabbath and Jubilee were his guide. The spiritual communities that formed in his name after his death did the same. Barnabas knew what he was doing. Today’s commentators on his life miss it.
Truth is, Sabbath and Jubilee were never embraced by any empire or wielders of power, and too few people who believed that wealth would give them power to behave generously. Sabbath and Jubilee have been embraced by people who seek to be part of communities who do life differently, more justly, and bring freedom.
Wes Howard-Brook in Come Out My People: God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond is clear in this regard: “The basic purpose of the sabbatical and jubilee is to assure that no long-term structural injustices and inequalities become entrenched with the community of YHWH’s people.“ (277)
Grotesque maldistribution is destroying our planet today. It is murdering people and other species. Humanitarian sharing can never correct this. Change of the economic systems is required.
Will governments, corporations, or oligarchs agree to such change? I can’t imagine it. But there’s no reason, therefore, for speaking of Jubilee as impractical and irrelevant. It’s about putting Jubilee into practice in small contrast societies, not the platforms of political powers.
I find that I have lost interest in models of church that have become too corporate and imperial to even teach economic systemic change and seem blind to seeing that Jesus did so. Jubilee seeks to form circles, or contrast societies. As systems fail today, and many speak of collapse, could it be that Jubilee will soon be seen with new eyes?
(Note: “Contrast societies” came to me through Ulrich Duchrow, Heidelberg University, in his book Alternatives to Global Capitalism: Drawn from Biblical History, Designed for Political Action, 1996.)