Thursday, July 5, 2012

Jabez or Barnabas? Grace, Gospel, and $$

Remember that little firecracker of a book, The Prayer of Jabez?

Author Bruce Wilkinson parlayed these two verses in 1 Chronicles 4 into a miniature empire of material to help us "break through to the blessed life:"

9 Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, "I gave birth to him in pain." 10 Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, "Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain." And God granted his request.

Actually, it's a wonder it took until the year 2000, when Wilkinson's book was first released by Multnomah, for somebody to seize upon this otherwise unknown character from the Old Testament narrative.  After all, having an apparently decisive response from God to a request for blessings and freedom from pain fits right in with the good-God-gospel many people want to believe today. 

All we have to do is ask.  It seems so simple and childlike.  Which is what made the book so popular among evangelicals.  Hey, Christ says all we need is childlike faith the size of a grain of mustard seed, right?

The Gospel According to Barnabas

Meanwhile, nobody's yet written as wildly popular a book on the faith of Barnabas.

Most of us will remember snippets about Barnabas, a resilient and reliable leader of the early New Testament church.

In Acts 4:32-37, we're first introduced to Barnabas in a passage of scripture that almost never gets preached today:

32 All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. 34 There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. 36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet.

Now you know why no modern preacher dares to preach directly from this text.  At least, not exegetically.  What congregation wants to be reminded that all the stuff they think they own... they really don't?  Who really wants to sell their possessions so that everyone in their congregation is financially equal?

It's heresy, isn't it?  Especially in the type of free-market religious consumerism we Western evangelicals love to wallow.

At least, we'd like to believe it's heretical.

Barnabas, on the other hand, sold some property of his and gave "the money" - not just a tithe, or an offering, or a percentage, but according to this text, the full sale price - to the group of believers.  We're not told that he gave the money in exchange for a tax-deductible receipt.  He didn't give the money contingent on it being spent for a new Family Life Center complete with gymnasium.  Granted, the text says he "laid" it at the apostles' feet, instead of "gave," but that's a sign of relinquishment and dedication, isn't it?  Any way you look at it, Barnabas did something we today would consider radical.

Probably even back then, what he did was pretty radical.  Something tells me that when believers talk about doing something "radical" for God these days, however, they're not talking about selling their stuff and giving all of the proceeds to their church.

Unfortunately for those of us who want to just ignore what Barnabas did, this isn't the only time we hear about him in the Bible.  In Acts 9, Barnabas is one of the first to receive the newly-converted Saul into the community of believers in Jerusalem, which surely must have been considered a radical move, seeing as how Saul had a vicious reputation as a warrior against Christ-followers.  In Acts 11, Barnabas is described as "a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith," through whom "a great number of people were brought to the Lord."

Barnabas and Saul were the church's first team of traveling evangelists, even though they eventually split up.  So maybe being among the first is what makes Barnabas a uniquely heroic believer in Christ.  Maybe we're not all supposed to be like him.  Maybe that's our "out" so we don't need to follow his example?

Except that back in verse 4, Barnabas wasn't the only one who participated in what right-wing Republicans today would call "wealth redistribution," was he?  "No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had."

Sounds like communal living, doesn't it?

You mean... the early church were Communists?!

We're Stewards, Not Owners

No, I don't think Communism is what this text is teaching, or what the Bible as a whole teaches.  Plenty of Scripture passages talk about how people who don't work won't eat, how workers are worthy of their hire, and how being rewarded for prudent investing is moral.

But what this passage illustrates, as corroborated by equally-provocative passages in Proverbs 3 and 19, is that the things with which God blesses us aren't simply for our use and enjoyment.  They're for His use in His body, right?  We're stewards, but not owners.

This example of Christ-honoring "wealth redistribution" in Acts 4 isn't even a one-time, freaky experiment.  Later on, in 2 Corinthians 8, the apostle formerly known as Saul, who had been rechristened Paul, exhorts the church in Corinth to be more like their brothers and sisters in Macedonia.

Be more like the Macedonians?  In what way?  This is what Paul writes to the Corinthians:  

13 Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. 14 At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, 15 as it is written: "He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little." 


The word Americans love except when it comes to their wallets.  Yet Paul doesn't leave much room for nuanced interpretations, vague misunderstandings, or dispute.  He's saying economic equality should be a hallmark among followers of Christ.

God's Grace is Meant to be Given, Right?

Hey - I'm not making this up, am I?  I'm not re-writing the Gospel, am I?  If you can parse some other interpretation out of these passages, then please - be my guest.  They trouble me as much as they trouble you.  I'm not conditioned to embrace economic equality.  I may not have much, but I have more than some people.  I'm as selfish as you are - and probably more so.

This is why trite little books like The Prayer of Jabez can sell so well, and why the Gospel according to Barnabas is probably new material to the most seasoned Christian.  It would be simply too much to think that Jabez prayed for blessings so he could, in turn, give all of those blessings away, wouldn't it?  We automatically assume Jabez kept all of the profits from those blessings for himself, but what if he didn't?  For all we know, Jabez could have been the world's first prolific philanthropist.

Meanwhile, we're left with a one-word clue regarding the wealth-redistribution radically exhibited by the early church:  grace.  In Acts 4:33, as the apostles continued to testify about Christ, grace abounded among their fellowship.  Might the same God-given grace they showed to each other be the same grace we're supposed to show to each other today?

We say grace is what we want.  But maybe we should be careful about what we ask for.  True grace may compel us to do things that are truly radical.

Hmm... something tells me that counting the cost of salvation includes the price of those things we think are ours, but really aren't.

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