Monday, April 24, 2006

There Were No Needy Among Them

Well, this is typical. The post-title is part of (my memory of) a sentence from Acts of the Apostles. We heard it at church yesterday. You can read it here: Lectionary. It wasn't the most important part of what we heard. I've got to go with "peace be with you" from the gospel for that honor. Nonetheless, it caught my attention and I got stuck there, musing on what it might mean. Leave it to me to get stuck on a phrase that went by in a split second.

The idea is that the community shared goods and needs in common and everyone was cared for. On the one hand, I prima facie don't believe that there were no needy among them. People become needy for all kinds of reasons, and sharing goods in common -as lovely as it can be- won't prevent that. Someone's husband is going to die, and now the widow is emotionally needy -at least temporarily. Financial need the community can address if it just will. Yet, neediness comes in many forms and sharing goods in common isn't going to help with all of them.

Moreover, who gets to decide what level of need merits the group's attention? We social workers struggle with this question all the time. How much should a person fix herself and when should the group step in? Should the person have to ask? Some people will ask too soon, expecting too little of themselves. Other people will never ask at all, expecting too much from themselves. How many barriers do we -and should we- put between people and help? Who do we help? Is membership in the group obvious? Can people move in and out of group membership? How many people get to participate in the decision-making process? Do you really think that the community in Acts didn't have to consider these questions? This is why people get advanced degrees in this stuff, for heaven's sakes!

But, I don't think we get to avoid questions just because they're hard. On some level, I don't care if or how the community answered these question then. What's stuck with me for 24 whole hours now (a minor miracle in my brain) is that the community cared enough about economic justice to factor it into the fabric of their society. Charity wasn't enough. Charity (not in the classical sense of caritas -I mean more the way we use the word now.) means you have a need. I have the thing you need and I share it with you. That can be a very good thing; it might mean that you get food and don't starve to death. But nothing transforming has happened to society in that exchange. I still have all the power and position in society, and you're still the person in need.

The community in Acts did something different. Everybody deposited everything they earned in a communal "pot" and the end result was dished out according to need. It doesn't sound as though the people who deposited more in the communal pot got more -unless they also needed more. That's a transformation of society. And not without its own troubles, I know. But maybe we're supposed to be disturbed by the message. Maybe a transformed world isn't supposed to be easy.

One thing we forget about in modern society (in the U.S. at least) is the giftedness and interdependence of all people. The poor we shall always have with us. True enough -especially when we're busy creating more poor people every day. But poor people and needy people and old people and sick people and vulnerable children all bring gifts to the table. The community is enriched by their presence if we'll take the time to notice. People want to contribute. I'm quite sure I'm right about this. We don't trust people not to want more than they're entitled to -whatever that means. But sadder still, we don't trust them to contribute freely and generously.

But God calls us all to be partners in creation. To create a future free from want or fear -that's our work. And we all need to set about doing it, that all may have abundant life.

And there's a lecture/homily I can never give to a room full of students -unless they're seminarians, I suppose. And yes, I'm aware that I'm unlikely to be invited to give a talk at a seminary! More's the pity ;)

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