Today we remember and give thanks for the life and witness of St. Barnabas, numbered as one of the Apostles, and a figure of considerable esteem and interest in the very earliest chapters of the Church’s life.
His original name was Joseph and he was from Cyprus. He was called Barnabas by the Apostles, a name meaning “son of exhortation,” or “son of encouragement,” a splendidly positive self-identity. He was a man of some wealth and property, and we are told in The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 4 that he sold a field, giving the proceeds to the other Apostles for use in the Church’s ministry. In a property-obsessed society, his left a deep impression on all who witnessed it.
Later on we hear that Barnabas was a person of some considerable courage and inner strength. When Paul, the dangerous persecutor of the Church, experienced a conversion and became a preacher of the Gospel instead, Barnabas was the only Apostle who was at first willing to meet with Paul.
Barnabas, it seems, was an insightful, secure man who was willing to go beyond initial impressions or failures in pursuit of the truth about a person. Not only was he willing to give Paul another chance, but later on he does the same with Mark, who initially seems to have failed in his missionary work with Paul and Barnabas. Paul had no use for Mark after the latter’s failure to make it through a missionary journey; but Barnabas decided to undertake such a journey with Mark once more—a journey that worked well and ultimately led to Paul’s acceptance of Mark as a trusty and effective worker.
All of this shows how the different gifts and personalities in the Apostolic community combined together in a common confession of Christ to form a healthy, healing, and holy community of very realbut also very openand growingbelievers—so unlike a cult or destructive religious sect. Any community of Christians must consider how its own common life reflects this spiritually mature and reconciling way of life.
When we think of St. Barnabas, we usually think of his financial generosity and the good it did for the Christian community, which is described in Acts4 as a community without major income-inequality or division based on poverty or need. This is an example of how our faithful stewardship of the gifts we have received may in fact bring about a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom even in this broken world.
Barnabas’ generosity sets a pattern for all of us in the Church. Our giving is not only for the relief of the needs of others, but part of own spiritual healing and growth. By giving of the substance of his life, Barnabas was allowing God to expand the human heart and find the springs of true life. This remains true for Christians today.
Material possessions tend to seduce us into believing they provide the life we desire. Rather than being a means to an end, they become the end in themselves by replacing our love of God and neighbor with a love of false security and control. Barnabas’s act of giving sacrificially was in fact a means of liberation from delusion. This sort of wisdom always marks real discipleship. The first reading at Morning Prayer puts it this way:
Wakefulness over wealth wastes away one’s flesh,
and anxiety about it drives away sleep.
Wakeful anxiety prevents slumber,
and a severe illness carries off sleep.
The rich person toils to amass a fortune,
and when he rests he fills himself with his dainties.
The poor person toils to make a meager living,
and if ever he rests he becomes needy.
One who loves gold will not be justified;
one who pursues money will be led astray by it.
Many have come to ruin because of gold,
and their destruction has met them face to face.
It is a stumbling-block to those who are avid for it,
and every fool will be taken captive by it.
Blessed is the rich person who is found blameless,
and who does not go after gold.
Who is he, that we may praise him?
For he has done wonders among his people.
Who has been tested by it and been found perfect?
Let it be for him a ground for boasting.
Who has had the power to transgress and did not transgress,
and to do evil and did not do it?
His prosperity will be established,
and the assembly will proclaim his acts of charity.
(Ecclesiasticus 31:1-11, NRSV)
These words, so wise and balanced, stand behind Barnabas’s actions and behind all faithful Christian stewardship today. We give not out of fear or a desire to buy anything, but out of experiencethat by being liberal and open in our generosity we are being freed from domination by greed, fear, and delusion. How different this is from the empty, corrupt, and self-destructive culture around us! How much more merciful is the one who gives than the one who hoards!
St. Barnabas’s story, like those of the other Apostles, is not remote from the ordinary Christian; it is pertinent. We remember the saints for many reasons, but not least of them is the challenge their lives issue to our own discipleship. In this case, we may well ask ourselves how our giving and forgiving makes us in our own day a “son/daughter of encouragement?”
The Collect for the Feast of St. Barnabas the Apostle
Grant, O God, that we may follow the example of your faithful servant Barnabas, who, seeking not his own renown but the well-being of your Church, gave generously of his life and substance for the relief of the poor and the spread of the Gospel; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.