Each According to His Need
The end of the fourth chapter of Acts reads as follows: “The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need. Thus Joseph, also named by the apostles Barnabas (which is translated ‘son of encouragement’), a Levite, a Cypriot by birth, sold a piece of property that he owned, then brought the money and put it at the feet of the apostles” (Acts 4:32-37).
To the ears of many, this sounds an awful lot like socialism. Since property did not seem to be owned in this early Christian community, that everything was held in common and not individually, this sounds like a resounding endorsement of the communistic form of socialism. National socialism (Nazism), on the other hand, permitted individuals to own capital but the state reserved the right to dictate how that capital might be used. A car maker might be forced to build military vehicles and airplane engines, or they might be left alone to pursue their own line of products. Under communism, the state owned, managed, and ran the means of production. This was supposed to lead to abundant resources being distributed according to need such that there would be none that are needy. It only resulted in the squandering of resources and almost everyone being needy, even desperately so.
Where did communism go wrong? Simply put, they did not account for human nature. We are by nature greedy, jealous, lazy, petty, and a whole flock of other vices. The idea of being equal scarcely survives long among such vices. Unity is also not a common human trait either. Left to ourselves, we are unlikely to be of one heart and mind. Communism, however, attempts to achieve unity of heart and mind by force or by uniting people against a common enemy. Neither force nor fostering enemies accords with the Gospel.
What makes that early Christian community in Jerusalem what it is, what makes it different, can be boiled down to two factors: Jesus and grace. Jesus is the unifying principle, He is the one possession truly held in common. If you have Jesus, your most fundamental need is fulfilled. Possessing Jesus likewise creates true equality that no humanly devised form of economy or type of government could bring forth. Only through Christ do we realize the source of our dignity, being made in the image and likeness of God, and recognize the depths of our need in that we are all sinners. The king and the stableboy are of equal dignity in God’s eyes and they are equally in need of salvation from their sins.
Grace, the great favor that was accorded to all, also made the unity of that early community possible. It is grace, with the help of the virtues, that assists us not to succumb to our vices, or when vices get the better of us, allows the offender and the offended to reconcile with one another, thus mending the wounds that sin imparts to the unity of the community. Lacking the reconciliation that is seldom possible without the divine assistance of grace, a community will soon become divided, perhaps even bitterly and irreconcilably so.
While the Jerusalem community in early days of the faith was united in mind and heart, that there was no one in need and that no one claimed to possess anything besides Christ, creating a unity and peace not possible by human effort or ingenuity, this form of living without material possessions is mentioned only in the fourth chapter of Acts. As a general and universal community of the faithful, it seems clear that this form of living proved impractical. No doubt, because of human failings, the possessionless community came apart and did not become universal, common, or even sporadic in the early Church. However, such communities do exist in the form of religious orders such as the Franciscans or the Benedictines. This radical form of living probably can be sustained with small groups where everyone knows one another and where the community truly strives to have but one possession, Jesus, and to be docile to the graces necessary to live in such a radical manner.