The ancient Greeks had some profound sayings about human friendship. Aristotle defined friendship as “one soul dwelling in two bodies.” Plato spoke of the practical consequences of this ideal. He said, “Friends have all things in common.” The bond of friendship so valued among the pagans was a lived reality that united the first Christians in love. In the opening pages of the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke tells us that “the community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32).
After the account of Pentecost, Acts records the mighty deeds accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit. The apostles preach the gospel courageously. Many are converted to the faith through their word. Miracles accompany their ministry. Joy fills their hearts even in the face of persecution.
After these amazing beginnings of the Church, Acts suddenly records the rather mundane account of the first property sale in the primitive community for the good of the needy. St. Luke, the author of Acts, wants us to see that the lofty side of the Church is not divorced from the practical side of living. Followers of Jesus who are moved by the Holy Spirit witness to the truth not just by their words but by their deeds of charity. Christianity is about fellowship. It is about sharing in very concrete ways. It is the friends of Jesus being friends with each other.
St. Luke tells us that “there was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need” (Acts 4:34-35). In this context, we meet Barnabas for the very first time. This man will have a very important role in the spread of the Christian faith. But the first thing that we learn about him is the fact that he “sold a piece of property that he owned, then brought the money and put it at the feet of the apostles” (Acts 4:37).
Barnabas came from a Jewish family on Cyprus. He was a Levite whose office required him to spend some time in Jerusalem. He was related to Mark, the author of the first written gospel, whose family lived in Jerusalem. There is even a tradition that numbers Barnabas among the seventy disciples that Jesus sent out on mission (Clement of Alexandria, (
). No doubt he was one of the earliest disciples of the Lord.
The fact that Barnabas is mentioned twenty-three times in Acts and five times in the letters of Paul witnesses his importance. After Paul’s conversion, it was Barnabas who introduced Paul to the apostles (cf. Acts 9:27). Quite possibly, Barnabas and Paul had known each other when they were fellow students at the feet of the famous rabbi Gamaliel. Barnabas’ ability to secure Paul’s acceptance by the leaders of the Church shows the esteem that Barnabas himself had in the eyes of the apostles.
So much trust did the apostles in Jerusalem place in Barnabas that, when they heard that the Church was spreading among the Gentiles at Antioch, they sent Barnabas to do an apostolic visitation and report his findings back to them. Antioch, present day Antakya, Turkey, was the third most important city of the Roman Empire. It was the capital of the province of Syria. When Barnabas arrived in Antioch, he was so impressed with the entrance of so many Gentiles into the Church that he went to Tarsus to enlist the help of Paul.
In his list of the prophets and teachers at Antioch, St. Luke mentions Barnabas first (Acts 13:1). No doubt he was a very good preacher. This may well have been the reason why he was chosen to undertake a missionary outreach of the Church to the world. The Church of Antioch sent Barnabas together with Paul to spread the gospel. Even though this endeavor later came to be known as Paul’s first missionary journey, Barnabas was really in charge. With great success, Barnabas, together with Paul, evangelized the regions of Cyprus and Central and Southern Anatolia in present-day Turkey (cf. Acts 13-14).
We can discover something of the reason for Barnabas’ great missionary success in what is first recorded of him in Acts. He sold his property. True generosity is never found in just one area of our life. It spontaneously erupts in all our actions. Barnabas gave away what he owned for the good of the Church. Here was a believer ready to give generously for the sake of others. Just as he shared his material possessions, he willingly shared with others his greatest treasure, his love of Jesus and his love of the Church. Here is an apostle worthy of imitation, in any age, but most especially in this day where there is much need, both material and, more profoundly, spiritual.
To be continued….