Word Study #143 — Possessions

This subject of considerable controversy, liberally seasoned with both boasting (“prosperity” cults) and guilt-trips (“simple-living” advocates), like many other hotly disputed topics, finds its most “Christian” analysis (surprise, surprise!!) in the words of the Lord Jesus. In fact, the very first listing in Young’s Analytical Concordance is Lk.12:15, where he cautions, “Be on guard against all greed: because life does not consist of abundance of possessions”! (See also W.S.#72) “Stuff” is not what it’s about!
Notice, please, that the Lord did not categorically disparage “possessions” – huparchonta. In fact, Luke had earlier noted (8:3) the service of a group of women who looked after the needs of the disciple group (KJV – “ministered to them”), “out of their own substance” – another translation of huparchonta – the very same word. (If you’re worried about the term “minister”, it is explored in W.S.#40).

Huparchonta, the most commonly used of six words, appears only 14x in the New Testament. It is translated “possessions” 2x, “goods” 7x, “substance” 1x, and “(things) that one hath” 4x. Classical uses include “existing circumstances, present advantages, possessions, present or future resources,” and “according to one’s means”.
In Mt.24:47, 25:14; Lk.16:1, 12:44, the reference is to a person entrusted with stewardship over the possessions of another; the rest are dealing with one’s own. And although the expectation in the former group is uniform – faithful administration of the assignment – the latter category is not. Jesus’ assessment of faithfulness with respect to possessions is tailored to the person with whom he is interacting.
For example, Zacchaeus (Lk.19:8) is commended for his commitment to “give half his goods” to the poor. Both Mt.19:21 and Lk.12:33 record Jesus’ instruction to a rich young man, “Sell what you have” – note that neither writer includes the frequently quoted “all” to the statement, although in Lk.14:33, Jesus does speak of the necessity for a person to set aside “all that he has” in favor of discipleship. Even so, much later, Paul (I Cor.13:3) remarks upon the uselessness of even giving all of one’s possessions, if it is not a gesture of love.
This is the beauty of the scene in Ac.4:32: it reveals no required divestment of all property, but rather, “The multitude of those who had become faithful was of one heart, and one life: and none of them said that any of his possessions was his own, but for them, everything was shared.” – one might say, held in trust for the benefit of the brethren.

Ktema, used 4x, and only translated “possession” (Mt.19:22, Mk.10:22, Ac.2:45, 5:1), ktetor, “possessor” (only in Ac.4:34), and their corresponding verb, ktaomai, 3x “possess”, 1x “obtain”, 1x “provide”, and 2x “purchase”, usually referred (classically) to real estate, but also in the New Testament to Roman citizenship (Ac.22:28), provisions for a journey (Mt.10:9), behavior (Lk.21:9, I Thes.4:4), and “purchase” (Ac.1:18, 8:20).
This is even more the case with kataschesin,which is used only twice, of the Old Testament concept of “possessing” the land (Ac.7:5, 45), and chorion: “possession”1x (Ac.28:7), “field” 2x (Ac.1:18, 19), “parcel of ground” 1x (Jn.4:5), “a place”2x (Mt.26:38, Mk.4:32), and “land” 3x (Ac.4:37, 5:3, 5:8).

The large group of references that involve the radical sharing in the new church right after Pentecost (Ac.2:45, 4:32, 4:34, 4:37) and the consequent episode with Ananias and Sapphira (Ac.5:1-10), deserves closer examination. It is essential to note that this unusual expression of shared life was never recorded to be a requirement. It grew out of the common life and devotion, both to the Lord and to one another, that was growing among them. The descriptions in Ac.2:42-47 and Ac.4:32-37 are of people whose highest – or perhaps only – priority was to learn more about the new life upon which they had embarked. They couldn’t get enough of being together! They were sharing in so many wonderful things – healing, deliverance from prison, learning from those who had walked and talked with Jesus, and absorbing hundreds of new arrivals – that the logistics must have been horrendous! So as needs arose, those who had property were able – and motivated – to provide for them. Barnabas earned his nickname, “Son of encouragement” from the generosity of his gift – so that most likely was not the norm. It’s not accidental, though, that this is mentioned immediately before Ananias and Sapphira’s scheme. Apparently that couple perceived that a large gift was the way to be admired!

Please note that Ananias and Sapphira were NOT judged for the amount they contributed, or failed to contribute, but for their deception. Peter did not challenge their ownership of the land – only their prevarication (v.4, 8). It had already been amply demonstrated that the brotherhood could weather the storms of persecution. But dishonesty would be fatal. Only with total transparency and honesty can the Kingdom thrive. It is, after all, the domain of the One who proclaimed, “I AM the truth.”

There are four other words that are occasionally translated “goods”:
agathos – most frequently appears as an adjective, “good” (63x), but also as “good things” 14x (only two of which, Lk.16:25 and Gal.6:6, can be construed as being material), and “goods” 2x (Lk.12:18,19)
ousia – only used twice, once as “goods” (Lk.15:12) and once as “substance” (Lk.15:13)
skeuos – rendered 19x as “vessel”, and only twice translated “goods” (Mt.12:29 and Mk.3:7, in the parable where Luke uses huparchonta of a strong man guarding his possessions)
huparxis – only used twice: Ac.2:45 with ktema of the things sold to enable sharing in the brotherhood, and Heb.10:34 with huparchonta, referring to property confiscated in persecution, in comparison to “more enduring possessions” in the heavens.

So, where does this leave the sincere aspirant to Kingdom living?
As in so many other situations, the key is found in one’s focus.
There is absolutely no endorsement in the New Testament of the notion of the accumulation of possessions as a sign of “blessing” – quite the opposite (Lk.12:18,19, 16:25)!
But neither is there any endorsement of ostentatiously renouncing possessions and living off of the largesse of one’s wealthier (or worse, poorer) associates while loudly criticizing their more comfortable situation!
Finding a responsible balance is a dilemma where careful discernment by a group of folks seeking to be faithful is of the utmost value. If whatever one “possesses”, whether much or little, material or otherwise, is simply “held in trust” for Kingdom use, subject to mutual counsel with fellow Kingdom-seekers, it is unlikely that we will go far astray – and those possessions may do a lot of good.
May we be led, together , to such an end.

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