The parable of the unjust steward is among the most thought provoking of all the parables of Jesus. The steward, who was soon to lose his position due to either incompetence or negligence or both, negotiates with his master’s debtors, settling with them for pennies on the dollar. He does so to win favor for himself and not in his master’s best interest. Curiously, the master commends the steward’s shrewd handling even though the master did not receive in full what he was owed. Jesus remarks about the superior cleverness of worldly people and then urges us to “make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home” (Luke 16:9). Lest we be mistaken, Jesus does not share the parable to endorse unjust or even unethical business practices. No, the purpose of the parable is simple: we should use money as a means to make friends for eternity.
From the church’s earliest moments, we see God’s people using their money to care for one another. In both Acts chapters 2 and 4, Luke observes that the early disciples viewed their possessions as something to be sold in order to help vulnerable saints. Luke says their generosity was so overwhelming that no one among them lacked anything (Acts 4:34). At first, money was laid at the apostle’s feet, pooled into a communal fund, and then distributed to those with needs in the body of Christ (Acts 4:35).
The tremendous growth of the church demanded that the apostles appoint men to oversee the dispersal of the common fund (Acts 6:1-6). The apostles delegated to these seven men the task of “deaconing” (literally ministering) to the Christian widows who depended upon the kind generosity of their brethren to survive in an era before an IRA, social security, 401k, or life insurance was available for their care. From 1 Timothy 5:3-16, we know that the church continued to support widows whose family was either unavailable or unwilling to help them. The early disciples used their communal funds to care for widows.
Poor saints also received the help of the early church. 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 directed the congregation to collect money each week. Corinth was one part of a larger effort. The churches of Macedonia and Achaia were accumulating a gift for the poor saints in Judea and Jerusalem (see Romans 15:25-27 and 2 Corinthians 8-9). Paul says such a financial gift from the Gentiles was appropriate since they had spiritually benefitted from the Jews. This also fulfilled a pledge Paul made to Peter, James, and John in Galatians 2. As they parted, the three apostles sent by God to the Jews urged Paul “to remember the poor” (verse 10). Paul expressed his eagerness to do so and fulfilled it in his final trip to the homeland of his fathers, taking with him relief for the poor Jewish Christians in Judea and Jerusalem.
When Agabus came from Jerusalem to Antioch, he indicated through the Spirit that a great famine would affect the whole world (see Acts 11:27-30). Moved by the prophet’s prediction of a future calamity, the brethren in Antioch decided to pool their money together and send a gift to the brethren in Jerusalem and Judea. Perhaps they – like the Macedonians and Achaeans – recognized the spiritual debt they owed their Jewish brethren and sought to repay it in some small way. Whatever their motivation, their example is clear: the body of Christ took care of fellow brethren facing great calamities.
The church also cared for those who preached the gospel. In 1 Corinthians 9:3-14, Paul recognizes that the one who preaches the gospel is entitled to receive support from the church for that work. The apostle refused the Corinthians’ support while he was among them, choosing to make tents for the sake of the brethren (see 2 Corinthians 11:8 and Acts 18:3). When Philippi learned of Paul’s need, they sent him help (see 2 Corinthians 11:7-9 and Philippians 4:15-16). Elders who ruled well and ministered the word were also eligible to receive financial support from the body of Christ (1 Timothy 5:17-18). In the case of both elders and evangelists, Paul appeals to the Old Law for support (compare 1 Timothy 5:18 with 1 Corinthians 9:9). It is both scriptural and appropriate for the church to financially support those who labor in the word.
The writer of Hebrews exhorts us to “Remember the prisoners as if chained with them--those who are mistreated--since you yourselves are in the body also” (Hebrews 13:3). Ministering to the general prison population is certainly a good work. However, it seems likely that the Hebrew writer calls us to remember those who are incarcerated for the sake of the testimony of Jesus Christ. Persecution of the church had evolved from the local and regional levels to across the empire. While in Roman prison, Paul received a gift from the church at Philippi (4:18). Epaphroditus nearly lost his life bringing the gift to Paul (2:27). Like all Roman prisoners, Paul depended on the generosity of those outside for both necessities and comforts. The Philippian congregation saw fit to help him by sending a gift.
These five examples offer compelling evidence for how the early church used their collective funds. In each case, the money was dispersed to people, specifically to fellow Christians. Can you think of an instance where the collection taken up by the church was used for any material purpose? As Jesus taught in the parable of the unjust steward, money will end one day. In the Sermon on the Mount, He teaches that what can be purchased with money will also perish (Matthew 6:19-21). How then can the church layup treasures in heaven? By investing in what will last for eternity: people.