Formations 04.08.2018: Building Community by Giving Gifts

Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-37

The Buy Nothing Project is a Facebook-based organization that promotes local gift economies. In a gift economy, no money is exchanged, but people offer goods and services with the expectation that others in the community will do the same. As they explain their process on their group page,

Post anything you’d like to give away, lend, or share amongst neighbors. Ask for anything you’d like to receive for free or borrow. Keep it legal. Keep it civil. No buying or selling, no trades or bartering, we’re strictly a gift economy.

People have used the site to de-clutter their house after spring cleaning, quickly find a new piece of clothing for a child who needed it, secure craft items for a school project, or share their abundance when they accidentally bought too much of something at the grocery store. For some, the giving and receiving is the most important thing. For others, it is the possibility of making a new acquaintance or the knowledge that others can benefit from things they no longer need or are willing to lend for a few days.

Stories about how these gift economies work create goodwill in the community as people grow closer to one another and look for ways to show their appreciation for gifts they have received.

The cynics among us—and the cynic within us—may dismiss such stories as too good to be true. Will people really give each other things with no expectation of repayment? Aren’t they just asking to be taken advantage of?

We might ask the same about the church that Luke describes in today’s passages from Acts. He exults in these first believers’ generosity in selling their possessions to share the proceeds with their brothers and sisters in need. In this context, we are introduced to Barnabas for the first time, and the first thing we learn about him is that he freely gives away his property in order to build up the community of faith.

Like the participants in the Buy Nothing Project, his gift is not compulsory. And yet, it was no doubt highly encouraged. Furthermore, many people did the same: so much so that the concept of need seems to be foreign to the Jerusalem church.

Given Jesus’ teachings on money and wealth in the Gospel of Luke, it shouldn’t surprise us that Luke would describe the church in Acts as behaving with radical generosity.

Buy Nothing Project <http://buynothingproject.org>.

Stacie M. Waldman, “The Buy Nothing Project: Gift Giving to Build Community,” Scarsdale10583.com, 10 March 2018 <http://scarsdale10583.com/about-joomla/shout-it-out/6734-the-buy-nothing-project-gift-giving-to-build-community>.

Discussion

• What has been your experience with gift economies? What benefits do you see from such an arrangement? What potential pitfalls can you imagine?
• When has someone’s generosity made a difference in your life?
• How do you feel when you give someone a gift?
• How does Barnabas’s introduction at this point in the church’s history shed light on the sort of person he is?

Reference Shelf

Barnabas

“Barnabas” was the surname that the apostles gave to a man named Joseph (Acts 4:36). The name Barnabas literally means “son of encouragement” or “son of consolation,” and Acts refers to Barnabas a good man who was full of the Holy Spirit and faith (Acts 11 :24). Barnabas was a Jewish native of Cyprus and traced his ancestry to the priestly tribe of Levi (Acts 4:36). In Acts, Barnabas was important in the spread of Christianity because of his role as an encourager. Barnabas, like other Christians, sold property and gave the proceeds to the church (Acts 4:36 37). He presented and commended Saul, the persecutor of the church, to the apostles in Jerusalem after Saul saw the risen Lord and began to preach in the name of Jesus (Acts 9:27).

Bennie R. Crocket Jr., “Barnabas,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 87.

Community of Goods

The text offers a second Lukan summary, similar in content to the first (cf. 2:42-47). Both speak of the community holding things in common (v. 32; cf. 2:44) and the apostolic witness (v. 33a; cf. 2:43b). This summary also speaks explicitly of the believers being “of one heart and soul” (v. 32). It was not uncommon in literature of the Hellenistic period to find the expression “one soul,” an idiomatic way of talking of friendship, joined with “holding all things in common.” As with the previous summary, Luke is painting an ideal portrait, recognizable to Gentile readers of the early community: “What [Gentiles] esteemed as an ideal, had become a reality in the young Christian community.” The expression “there was not a needy person among them” (v. 34) is an echo of Deuteronomy 15:4. Deuteronomy 15:1-11 applies well to Luke’s portrait of the early Christian community. The “people of God” dwelling in the land were to be a people who were generous so that there would be no needy persons among them. Recall that Luke is portraying the early Jerusalem community as the “restored” people. Thus, it is only fitting that in their life together they realize, through their generosity and sharing, God’s intentions for God’s people as spelled out in their Scriptures. Like the ideal portrait of God’s people presented in Deuteronomy, the early community can best be described not so much as practicing communal ownership, as generous sharing. Verse 34, which employs imperfect tenses, can be read to say that people were in the habit of selling property and bringing the proceeds to the apostles. This implies a regular practice of disposing of property “as any had need” (v. 3b).

Laying the proceeds at the apostles’ feet is
fitting in this context. The larger issue is “Who
is the true leadership of (restored) Israel?”
 Readers know it to be the apostles. Laying 
something at someone’s feet symbolizes “a state
 of submission or obedience” (cf. Josh 10:23-24;
1 Sam 25:23-25; Ps 8:5-6; 110:1; Luke 7:38;
8:41; 10:39). Thus, by entrusting their property to the apostles, these early followers show
that they too understand wherein the real leadership resides. The scene concludes with a
picture of Barnabas laying the proceeds from his
property at the feet of the apostles. Herein 
exemplifies faithful obedience to those who rule over the twelve tribes of Israel.

J. Bradley Chance, Acts, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 80–81.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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