There’s an old folktale you probably know; it’s been told in various forms and through different media for decades, even centuries. There are numerous variations, but the main story goes something like this:
A weary traveler comes into an unfamiliar village; he is tired and hungry from the road, but he has no money to buy food. So, he goes from house to house in the center of the village asking if anyone has any food to spare. Each house refuses saying they have no food and are themselves starving. The man suspects the residents are lying. So, he takes a large iron pot, fills it with water, and puts it over a fire in the middle of the village. Some children come running up to him, curious as to what he is doing. He tells them he is going to make stone soup. At this point the villagers who had turned him away begin watching and listening outside their doors and windows. The man places a large stone into the pot and lets it boil for a while. Eventually he dips a ladle into the liquid and takes a deep sip. The villagers all hold their breath to hear his pronouncement. He says it is a little bland–to finish the soup he just needs a few other things: some salt, a little beef, some carrots, a cabbage, a couple of onions and some herbs. With these items, the soup will be just perfect. Each villager goes back into their home and comes back with one of the requested items. The man places them into the pot, lets it cook a while longer, and eventually has enough soup for not only him, but the entire rest of the village.
The moral of the story can be read different ways. Some folklorists believe the point is the man tricking the villagers out of their stinginess, making this an example of the popular “clever man” tale. However, in wider culture the story is most often used as an example of how a group of people working together can accomplish something far greater than any individual could do on their own.
This story always comes to mind when I read Acts 4:32-35.
The Book of Acts is basically the only extant text we still have that gives us insight into what happened with the earliest Christ-believers in the first decade or two after Jesus’s death, resurrection and ascension. Paul’s epistles weren’t written until 20-30 years after Christ’s death (and, remember, he never met Jesus); but Acts tells stories about what happened in the immediate aftermath of Christ’s ascension and what the believers did next.
Acts 4:32-35 in particular gives us a glimpse into how the very earliest group of Christians organized and conducted themselves. It really is a fascinating question: How do you go about creating a community of people who believe something unique? Something that almost no one else believes or will be inclined to believe? Something based on supernatural events and encounters that can’t really be “proved.” And if you believe you have been commissioned to carry the news of this experience to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8; cf. Mt 28:18-20), then what does that entail, and how is that mission to be accomplished?
This was a daunting task to be sure. And these believers had no idea if it would work, if they would be accepted, if anyone else would join them, especially those who had not encountered Jesus in person. It must have been a frightening and confusing time. However, Acts 4:32-35 portrays the believers as forming a tightly-knit community based on providing for everyone’s needs, and powerfully preaching the gospel message.
This passage parallels an earlier one that also talks about the communal life of the these new Jesus-believers, found in Acts 2:42-47. Here the believers are described as engaging in a number of communal practices: 1) devoting themselves to the apostles’ teachings; 2) devoting themselves to fellowship and the breaking of bread together; 3) devoting themselves to prayer; 4) holding all things in common, selling property and possessions as needed to provide for any needy; 5) meeting daily in the temple courts.
Context is always important to a biblical text. In this case I think it’s even more important than usual, because both of these passages describe events that took place in the immediate aftermath of an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Acts 2 passage follows immediately after Peter’s sermon given on Pentecost (2:14-41), which was preceded by the giving of the Holy Spirit, which gave people the ability to understand the apostles’ speech in their own language. Right after Peter’s speech we are told that “those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (2:41). Then we immediately transition into the passage describing the communal fellowship of the believers. That passage ends with an echo of 2:41 that forms an inclusio around the pericope: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (v. 47b). Although it is never directly stated, the implication is clearly that the communal harmony of the believers (described above), as well as their ministerial success, are the direct result of being filled with the Holy Spirit.
But if Acts 2 doesn’t make this connection directly, the Act 4:32-37 passage does. First, a review of the context of the passage. Acts 4:1-22 tells the story of Peter and John’s encounter before the Sanhedrin, where they were called to answer for their preaching (because they were “proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead”–4:2), and their public healing of a lame man at the temple gate (3:1-10). But the Sanhedrin is powerless to do much other than warn them against preaching in Jesus’ name (4:18-22). John and Peter are released and return to the fellowship of believers, who all praise God for rescuing them and offer up a great prayer of gratitude (4:24-30). When they finish, “the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (4:31).
Immediately after this we read our lectionary passage, describing once again how all the believers held all things in common and provided for everyone who had need, so none went without. Only this version goes into more detail than the one in chapter 2: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had” (v. 32). Let’s reflect a moment on what a powerful statement that is: “no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own.” This one short part of a sentence basically undermines the entire philosophy of a capitalist system, the one in which most of us were raised, and which is deeply ingrained into us, whether we want it to be or not. We’re taught from our earliest years, either directly, or by indirect observation, that certain possessions are “mine,” meaning I have control over what does or doesn’t happen to them. No one else is entitled to them. They should go out and get their own. Much of Western common law is based on this principle of personal property and the owner’s right to defend it.
So, why would anyone intentionally choose to give away what is theirs? Especially if they don’t have very much to start with? And, let’s be clear here, most of these believers would have been quite poor. Yes, there were apparently a few more affluent believers who owned land, which they donated to the group (2:45; 4:34-37). But the majority likely had very little. And yet, they gave it up for the greater good–the very people you’d expect to be most likely to cling to the few things they owned, who could seemingly justify keeping their things when others had so much more they could afford to part with. They gave generously. It is difficult to imagine many people today who would take such an attitude about it. So what motivated them?
It’s right there: “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit” (4:31). Just as in chapter 2, the coming of the Holy Spirit is what causes formerly individualistic, naturally selfish people to put aside their ego and form themselves into a loving community where every person’s needs are met, no matter what the cost. But the Spirit works even more wonders than this. Verse 33 goes on to tell us that: “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” The Spirit has the power to turn uneducated, ordinary men (4:13), untrained in the ways of persuasion or rhetoric, unused to preaching to crowds of hundreds, into compelling speakers who bring in thousands of new believers at a time (4:4). But even more impressively, the power of the Spirit is able to turn inherently selfish human beings into vehicles of selflessness and grace towards others: “God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them” (vv. 33-34). Here the connection is finally made directly. It is ONLY the power of the Spirit that can change individual hearts to think of the needs of the many before their own.
So, what is the takeaway from this passage for the modern church? Firstly, when the grace of God is powerfully at work in a person or in a community, it will change our focus from ourselves, our wants and needs, to the needs of others. This is only possible because God’s grace allows us to believe in his power to provide. Unless we believe that God is in control, and therefore will always meet our needs, without our help, we cannot come to this place as a community.
Ultimately this selfishness, this desire to gather as much “stuff” to ourselves as possible, to ward off future famine, is a reflection of our lack of faith in God to provide. We say we believe that God created everything, controls everything and can provide for all needs, but we often don’t live like we believe it. If letting go of “stuff” creates in us a fear of not having what we need, then we truly aren’t trusting in God to provide. It is the Spirit inhabiting us that allows us to change this mindset–to focus on God as the loving Father who will always supply all his children’s needs. Then, and only then, can we let go of our need for “things” and share them generously with those who have greater need. Only then can we truly be part of a selfless community of Christian believers. And only then, the scripture implies, will we be able to have a powerful impact in spreading the news of Christ’s death and resurrection.
 All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version of the Holy Bible, 2011.