While this exact phrasing is allocated to Marx, there is a biblical equivalent to “From each according to ability, to each according to need.”
The pericope from Acts 4:34 & 35 is:
“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.”
While I have attended churches that lived fully into this concept, one has made it into the news. CNN reports in “Church gives fresh meaning to ‘offering’ plate” that a Texas church has opted to follow this example in its Sunday worship. As the plate goes around, people are asked to give what they can and take what they need.
This was done as a response to the economic downturn and the fact that many of the parishioners would be hurting from the fallout. It is, indeed admirable. No question about it. But what if it had been done, as a few other churches have, in response to the early church’s habit of sharing the wealth and providing for the common good? Admittedly, it sometimes takes misfortune to open us up to the lessons of scripture, but it is a shame that the church is similarly inclined.
The lesson from Acts reinforces that the church is not just an institution that is charged with seeing to the spiritual needs of people, but also one called to respond to physical needs. It isn’t “either/or”, but “both/and” to use an oft quoted saying. There is always need. My wife, Jenna, when someone comes to a church for assistance, is fond of saying, “Look! They think we’re a church.”
Jesus said that the poor will always be with us. Some seem to take that as a sign that it is futile to take care of the needs of the poor, because there will always be more in need. Still others consider the physical needs to be the primary, and only focus, leaving evangelism at the back door. We are called to be both, and the concept from Acts is one way we do that. Generosity, in itself, can be one way to be the evangelist.
In respond to known need, we respond in good stewardship by giving what we can – as much as we can – when we trust the church will use some of it for needs outside the four walls of the church. As a church administrator, I have seen this concept has proved itself true many times. Good stewardship also requires that we seek help when it is needed. It is not good stewardship for our children to go hungry, to not pay utilities, to fall behind on our rent if resources are available to mitigate our poverty. We need the courage to ask for help, if we’re good stewards, as well as the generosity to give faithfully when times are better.