There is a very entertaining show called “The Grand Tour” on Amazon’s streaming video service. A recent episode featured an attempt to fit a small sports car body onto a very large SUV chassis. The resulting vehicle looked like a morbidly obese person wearing a professional cyclist’s spandex racing jersey.
The show evaluates cars from all over the world, but not all of the hosts enjoy the test drives. One of the hosts of the show, a man called “The American,” considers any car except a US made V-8 muscle car from the 1970’s to be communistical.
The opinions expressed by “The American” have been the cause of a great deal of complaining and speculation on the part of viewers. Some consider him boring; others consider him to be a shallow stereotype. In actual fact, he’s a lampoon addressed to the former employers of the journalists who star on the show.
“Communist” is probably also the first thought that comes into some people’s minds when reading today’s selection from the Acts of the Apostles. Today’s first reading says, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need.” (Acts 2:44-45)
It is a mistake to superimpose modern political and fiscal categories on the ancient world. While distributing to each “according to his need” might sound like communist ideology to us, it has a very different meaning in this Scripture passage. In this passage, the reference to having “all things in common” (Acts 2:44), is a statement about the ingenuity required of the Apostles.
The Eleven were Galileans. At the point in time described in today’s first reading, the Eleven were living in Jerusalem, and far from home. In ancient Judea there were no banks or social welfare institutions. The Eleven would have been entirely on their own, with no possibility of financial help from anyone – except those who comprised the church community in Jerusalem.
The members of the church in Jerusalem sold “their property and possessions and divide(d) them among all according to each one’s need” (Acts 2:45), in order to support the Eleven and their companions who were in Jerusalem to preach about Jesus’ resurrection.
This arrangement was not an ideal implemented in all Christian congregations; rather, it pointed to a principle that governs all Christian congregations (even today).
The Catholic Church has always used an unique metric of fidelity to revealed truth. In Catholicism, doctrinal orthodoxy is measured in terms of church unity. A teaching is true if it promotes Church unity, and it is false if it destroys Church unity. The unity of believers in the Jerusalem church (demonstrated by their selfless financial support of the Apostles), was proof of their faithful adherence to the teachings of Jesus.
The Scriptures expect us to imitate the example of the church in Jerusalem. We are to imitate their single-minded commitment to unity within the Church. Sharing possessions in common is not necessary, but a lifelong habit of forgiveness is a necessity.
Our human nature tends to seek division rather than unity. Mistakenly, we assume that our individuality depends on actively distinguishing ourselves from others. Consequently, we look for reasons to separate ourselves from others. In the Catholic Church there are plenty of such reasons. The moral failings of some church leaders is more than sufficient reason to separate oneself from the Church community. The moral failings of Church members is an equally compelling reason.
It’s an easy choice to live in isolation from the Church community; it’s a much more difficult choice to live in union with the Church community, but it is the choice that validates the truth of our beliefs. Living in union with other believers requires a particular type of forgiveness called forbearance. Forbearance is exactly what it sounds like: bearing with one another, forgiving one another’s failings and choosing to foster unity.
Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel are most often understood to be the basis for the sacramental forgiveness granted in Baptism and Reconciliation, but they apply equally to the lives and actions of all the Church’s members. Jesus commands all his disciples to set people free from their sins. (John 20:23) Our ministry of reconciliation begins here, with one another; when we forgive one another we give the world proof of our faith and of the truth of Jesus’ teachings.