April 12, 2015
In moral philosophy, there are seven deadly sins or vices. They are: Pride, Envy, Anger, Lust, Gluttony, Greed and Sloth. I don’t know the history or the etymology of how these came to be known as the seven deadly sins, but I can fully appreciate why they are called deadly. It is no surprise that falling headlong into any one of them can be deadly, literally and figuratively.
When our country was plunging into recession in 2008, the sixth sin – greed – seemed to figure prominently. While Wall Street and corporate banks were in turmoil, another story of rampant greed emerged. In 2009 Bernard Madoff was sentenced for perpetrating the largest, most complex Ponzi scheme in history. Madoff was a formidable presence on Wall Street and in the economic universe. He was the former chairman of NASDAQ. He started his own company decades ago with the money he saved from being a lifeguard. He worked with a number of charitable foundations. He sat on the board of Yeshiva University and donated thousands and thousands of dollars to a variety of charities. And he defrauded hundreds upon hundreds of people at a cost of up to 50 billion dollars.
I’m no economist, but this is my understanding of how a Ponzi works: you entice investors to invest in a non-existent entity. Then you pay off old investors with the capital you receive from new investors. There is never any profit, because there is nothing from which to earn profit. I imagine that new investors would have to continually be brought in to keep the scheme sustainable. But when it collapses, those new investors lose. In the case of Madoff’s scheme, they lost big.
One example of the people he defrauded was Elie Wiesel. Wiesel is an author; his most well-known work is Night, which is a memoir of his imprisonment in a concentration camp. He is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and a humanitarian. His foundation, the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, was one of many Madoff victims. Madoff, who was known for his charitable giving, willingly and knowingly scammed … anyone. His greed must have been all-consuming.
Greed, that sixth sin, has proven time and time again, and certainly in this last decade to be worthy of the label deadly. Yet in our lessons today, we turn to this short collection of verses in Acts. In this brief telling we see a community that seemed to be the antidote to the Bernie Madoffs of the world. Greed had no place in this community. Indeed private ownership had no place either. These verses tell of a community based in giving rather than possessing; that was focused on “ours” instead of “mine.”
“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. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 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.”
Not exactly a Ponzi scheme is it? In fact it is a remarkable outline of communal living. The apostles, because of their witness to the resurrected Christ, were the spiritual leaders. As people sold their possessions and gave up their ownership of things, all the money they made was brought and laid at the apostles’ feet. Then it was distributed to anyone who had need. As a result, no one in this early community of believers had need.
Chills traverse my spine when I read verse 34, “There was not a needy person among them.” Considering we only have to look outside these doors to see people desperately in need, this description of a community without it stands in stark relief. What would our neighborhood, our community, our world be like if it were grounded in this story from Acts? What would it be like to wake up in the morning and know, without a doubt, that there was no one living in dire poverty, that children here and around the world were well-fed, clothed, schooled, and loved?
“There was not a needy person among them.”
There are plenty of needy people in our midst, and it is wonderful to imagine poverty, need, and desperate want being eradicated. Yet think carefully about how this need was eradicated. The people who were being led by the disciples did not just give a lot to the poor, but continue their previous means of existence. They changed how they lived entirely. Private ownership was a thing of the past, and communal, shared living was the new normal. However what sounds great in scripture can be much, much, much more challenging to actually live out. Truth be told, the way this community ended need sounds a little scary. Actually it sounds a lot scary, because it goes against how most of us live. I don’t mean that we are greedy, scheming people. But we live with what we own. We own houses. We own cars. We own stuff. Our property, our stuff, is important to us. And with as much stuff as we have, we still aren’t satisfied. I could give you a list a mile long of stuff I’d like to own, so I know I’m not even close to doing what this passage speaks of. Selling everything I own and laying the proceeds at the feet of spiritual leaders? I don’t think so. I suspect that if we were reading about this in the newspaper instead of Holy Scripture, we’d think we were reading about a society based on socialism, and socialism does not go over well in our world.
But these people were of one heart and soul. This was not a community that was based on an economic or political policy. The people of this early Christian community had been transformed by faith. They were changed by the witness to the good news of Jesus Christ given by the apostles. This was not a change or a transformation that was merely internal. This was not a private faith. They manifested their belief, their faith in how they lived and the way they lived. Their community reflected their faith.
When I’m really honest with myself, I must admit I don’t know that I could ever do what these people did. I’d like to think I could, but really doing it? Really selling everything that I own and putting it into a common trust to be used for all? What about sending my kids to college? What about buying groceries and clothing and keeping body and soul together? How will we live?
But what is so remarkable about this passage, although I realize it should not be so, is that it speaks of trust. To live in this way took trust. It took trust, not only in the disciples, but in God through the resurrected Christ. It took absolute trust in the power of the good news for the people to give up their claim on stuff. It took trust that they would be cared for in the necessities of life, for them to do something so loving, so giving, so trusting.
Will I ever be that trusting?
It occurs to me that the real issue at stake is that of security. I don’t think that I have a problem with being generous, with being giving, but deep down do I fear that if I give too much, there will be nothing left for me and for mine? Luther is quoted as saying that security is the greatest idol of them all. Not wealth, not power, but security. Perhaps it is an innate quality of human nature to crave security; to need to know that there will always be enough. I posed a question on Facebook the other day about what makes people feel secure. The majority of my friends who responded said things like faith, family and friends, love, hope, God, Jesus. I don’t dispute any of them. I don’t dispute their sincerity. If I had been the one answering that question, my response would have been similar. However all of the people who answered have homes, jobs, some sort of financial means. These were not wealthy or dramatically affluent people. But they – and I – still have some means of security. My question to myself, my question to us all, is how would I respond if I didn’t have the things that make me feel secure? Could I trust God enough to give up those external signs of security? Could I relinquish my private ownership so that no one would have need?
They were of one heart and soul and there was not a needy person among them.
This was not a Utopian society. This was not a community made up of perfect people, perfect believers in every way. These were real human beings with all of the flaws and failings of being human. Some of them will fall away. We know from the rest of Acts and from history, that these kinds of communities wax and wane. Some thrive for a while, some fail immediately. But what is so significant to me is that they wanted their entire lives to reflect the transformation they found in the resurrected Christ. They wanted to live out, to the best of their ability, what they believed. And they trusted God in Christ enough to try. They were of one heart and soul. We are also called to be of one heart and soul. I know that I won’t be able to walk out of here today and sell all that I own. But I also know that I am called to think more of the greater good than of myself. I know that I want my life to more truly reflect my faith. I know that I am called to trust. The good news is that it is never too late to do just that. It is never too late to be of one heart and soul. Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.