Easter, Luxury, and Time
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. . . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. [Acts 4: 32, 34-35]
Yesterday we heard the above passage from Acts as one of the readings for the Second Sunday of Easter. Many churchgoers raised on the idea that Christianity has a necessary link with capitalism are surprised when they hear Luke’s account in Acts 4 of the earliest Christian community’s primitive socialism. As with Jesus’s parable of the relative ease with which camels can transit the eyes of needles compared to the difficulty of a rich person entering the kingdom of heaven, so with this narrative: many preachers struggle mightily to suggest that the plain sense of the text is not actually what it means.
But any dispassionate reading of the scriptures will reveal that the Bible is hardheaded about the corrosive effect of money on the human soul. The book of Leviticus has far more to say about the evils of lending money at interest (considered a sinful practice in Christianity up to the time of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations) than it does about sexual practices. Ancient Israel observed the practice of a Jubilee Year in which debts would be forgiven. Jesus, when he made the remark about rendering unto Caesar, had to ask somebody to hand him a coin.
There’s a lot of talk in our culture about the way we Christians have strayed from the “old time religion”, but perhaps the greatest deviation concerns our corporate forgetting of the Bible’s economics. What mattered most (both in Israel and in the early church) was that the abundance of God’s creation be available to all. According to the Hebrew prophets, the major reason God judged Israel by sending it into Exile in Babylon was that the rich had forgotten their obligations to the poor.
As we do on politics and theology, Christians will always stake out a variety of positions on economic theory. Early Christians did not study with Keynes or Friedman. There is no one Christian way to think about money.
As I’ve thought about these issues, I’ve been mindful of the ways in which what we say about money might also be said about time. (“Time is money,” after all.) Early on in my work in the church, people were often more eager to give their time than their money. These days, the reverse is true: it is often easier for us to part with our money than it is to make a gift of our time. Sadly, this could be said of how we treat our families and friends, too.
One of the things I noticed this Lent, as I thought about the connection of time and money, was that my personal view of luxury and impoverishment have dramatically changed over the course of my life. This new appreciation of time as more precious than money may result from my getting older; it may be because I’ve gradually stopped doing altogether the things I used to give up for Lent. This year I found that making time—for people, for prayer, for reflection, for rest—was in fact for me far more luxurious than any object or service I could possibly buy.
Charlie Chaplin once said, “The saddest thing I can imagine is to get used to luxury.” When it comes to things, I think we’ve become a society that has become satiated if not overwhelmed with material excess. The earliest Christians were on to something: they knew that while their stuff might be expendable, their relationships with each other were not. They gave over their money to the common purse so that they could more fully experience the luxuries of relationship and time.
What made the Apostolic Christians establish new priorities for living was their joyful experience of the risen Jesus and the implications of his resurrection for how they could live their lives. In the light of Easter, the true value of all our possessions and commitments readjusts toward honoring the simple gifts of life, relationship, and time. May this Easter season be for us a time of taking in the depth of God’s love, the abundance of life, and the preciousness of each other and the time we can share.