To each according to need


The Believers Share Their Possessions

Acts 4:32-37

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.

The great mantra of the 21st century appears to be “fairness”. There can be no other formula for decision making, no other way to arbitrate dispute, no other way to determine whom should receive what. The underlying assumption in this fetish of fairness is that we are all equal in opportunity and therefore to the victor goes the spoils. A fancier way of speaking of this kind of thinking is a meritocracy, where people get ahead, are rewarded and receive their due based on their achievement. Again this kind of analysis only makes sense if you believe all of those who are active in this life have equal access to the tools of achievement.

And there is another assumption to be exposed in this mantra of fairness, the absence of a conversation around need. Again, the only way a theory of giving to each on the basis of their opportunity and effort makes sense is if you discount the need of the recipient. If one person needs more than another should that need be a part of the consideration of how resources are distributed? If you ignore need it is much easier to rationalize giving to those who make the best effort.

And then there is the most basic brand of fairness, just taking what resources are accumulated and dividing it by the number of people in the community. The two most popular types of fairness are these; giving out resources on the basis of effort or on the basis of dividing up the bounty and dividing it equally among all those who are present. In our culture these types of fairness are what 99% of people who define as fair.

But the Book of Acts has another definition of fairness, “They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” What if our distribution of resources, of assignments, of any kind of capital (social, material or political) was based on what someone needed?

I recall a conversation between two parents and their three adult children. The baby boomer parents had witnessed terrible feuds among their siblings, and heartbreak and hurt between their parents and their siblings, on the basis of who got what in a will. So in this mantra of fairness these parents told their adult children that all of the assets would be divided up equally, to the cent, about the three children. The parents assumed the response would be relief, joy and even gratitude. Instead the adult children looked embarrassed. Later when he was along with his parents the eldest child told his mother and father, “I appreciate the gesture but I am doing just fine, it is our youngest sibling who is struggling, why not give the lion’s share of your assets to him?” The parents looked shocked, even hurt. “But that wouldn’t be fair” responded the mother. The father nodded. The father added, “You all had equal opportunities to succeed and just because you and your middle brother worked harder shouldn’t leave you penalized with less. It’s only fair.” The middle brother said the same thing to his parents as the oldest son but neither could shake the resolve of the parents. Fairness was the mantra, the rational, not need.

In the end any theory is evaluated on its outcome and in this case the outcome would add resources to those who didn’t need them and provide the one most in need with less than he could use. In a case where one of the recipients was wasteful or living in world of addiction one could argue the youngest son might receive more than his brothers but someone else would manage those funds, the youngest son would have to make a case to release the funds. But this strategy would still provide resources to the one most in need.

What is your definition of fairness and how do you determine who should receive what when the resources of the community are pooled together. It’s worth considering.