The Early Community of Jerusalem

The Early Community of Jerusalem

While the Gospel for today continues Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles repeats the first reading from this past Sunday.  In this short passage, St. Luke makes several keys points about the early Christian community.

First he records a rather utopian view of the Christian community as it came to be lived in Jerusalem.  The notion of sharing one’s possessions freely with the rest of the community represents a very early form of communal life.  It also speaks volumes about the collectivistic nature of this culture where individuals saw themselves as members of a group rather than as single entities.  For those of us who live in the Western culture, this is almost incomprehensible.  Almost everyone in our culture has his own bank account and IRA, drives his own car, and possesses the deed to his own house.

At the same time it should be pointed out that the Jerusalem community’s lifestyle is in accord with the Scriptures and the Greek philosophy of the day.  In Aristotle’s writings we read: “Friends’ goods are common property.  Brothers have all things in common.”  These sentiments are strengthened by the Hebrew Scriptures which state: “There should be no one of you in need.” “The needy will never be lacking in the land.  That is why I command you to open your hand to your poor and needy kinsman in your country: Therefore I command you, you shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.” (Deut. 15:4, 11)  The care of the poor and the needy has always been a priority in the Judeo-Christians religions.

Next St. Luke speaks very briefly about the preaching of the apostles who were preaching “with great power.”  While we have had an example of Peter’s preaching earlier in the Acts of the Apostles, this passage tells us that the apostles all seemed to have success in their preaching.  The Greek word that St. Luke uses to describe their preaching is “dynamis.” 

St. Luke also speaks of the apostles as “administrators” of the common funds.  This places them on the same footing as the Temple priesthood which was charged with the same responsibility.  Given Jesus’ criticism of the Temple priests with regard to money in the Gospels, this development may seem strange.  However, it is important to keep in mind that Jesus’ criticism spoke of exploiting the poor rather than the simple act of administration.

Finally, St. Luke introduces a new character in this passage, Barnabas (or Joseph) who was to become a major figure in the Christian community as a companion and fellow missionary of Paul’s. 

Thus, in a few short verses, St. Luke enriches our knowledge of the early Christian community considerably.  As this work unfolds, we will learn even more about the life of the first Christians.  More importantly, St. Luke uses a rhetorical style that can best be described as “parallelism.”  This work is a companion to the Gospel which appears earlier in the New Testament.  In many cases we will find that the events that take place in the Acts of the Apostles are mirrored by similar events in the Gospel.  If Jesus did it, then the apostles do it as well.  Here we see that the apostles styled their ministry and preaching on the ministry and preaching of Jesus.  They carried out Jesus’ commission by imitating his life.  Surely we must do the same.

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

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