Nothing Hidden From God . . .
Reflection by Rev. Richard Jorgensen
The multitude of those who believed were of one heart and soul. Not one of them claimed that anything of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. With great power, the apostles gave their testimony of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Great grace was on them all. For neither was there among them any who lacked, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each, according as anyone had need.
Joses, who by the apostles was also called Barnabas (which is, being interpreted, Son of Encouragement), a Levite, a man of Cyprus by race, having a field, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, and kept back part of the price, his wife also being aware of it, then brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the price of the land? While you kept it, didn’t it remain your own? After it was sold, wasn’t it in your power? How is it that you have conceived this thing in your heart? You haven’t lied to men, but to God.”
Ananias, hearing these words, fell down and died. Great fear came on all who heard these things. The young men arose and wrapped him up, and they carried him out and buried him. About three hours later, his wife, not knowing what had happened, came in. Peter answered her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.”
She said, “Yes, for so much.”
But Peter asked her, “How is it that you have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.”
She fell down immediately at his feet and died. The young men came in and found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her by her husband. Great fear came on the whole assembly, and on all who heard these things.
Acts 4:32-35 offers another one of the summary statements which the author of Acts uses to offer a picture of life in the early church. In this case, we read that those who believed were “of one heart and soul,” that they held all things in common, and no one in the community lacked anything they needed. The apostles continued to give their testimony to the resurrection of Jesus with power, and there was “great grace” upon the whole community.
This summary is not simply intended as a history lesson, but as a theological teaching on what the church should be in its life together. Sometimes, people will dismiss these passages as simply “too good to be true,” or perhaps suggest “that was then, this is now,” especially with respect to the idea of common property. Perhaps it says something about us if we are too quick to dismiss passages like this. God really does care about how we use our resources, and how we share with one another. Perhaps, if we captured some small measure of the ways they did share their gifts with one another, we might also have a more powerful witness to the world.
Immediately following the summary statement, we are given a positive example of someone sells a piece of land and lays the proceeds at the apostles’ feet. And this man is given a nickname, “Barnabas” which means “Son of Encouragement.” This brief summary also serves to introduce someone who will soon play a key role in the story moving forward, and whose ministry will help change the path of the Gospel forever.
My daughter is now in her twenties, and is a school teacher in Baltimore. Several years ago, while still in high school, she was teaching the first and second grade classes in Sunday School. One morning she opened the lesson book to discover the class that day was based on Acts 5:1-11, the story of Ananias and Saphira. She read the lesson aloud to her class, and immediately had their attention. This is not the type of story we usually teach children, and probably not the type of story we are comfortable teaching adults either. However, it is part of the Book of Acts for a reason which we will consider below. I am not sure that I would have been brave enough to teach this story to young children. My daughter was willing to try, especially since it was in the curriculum. She also tried to soften it a bit and assure the children that there was more to this story than just the gory details. This story, as disturbing as it is, does catch our imagination. At the end of class, one of the parents came for their child and asked the question, “So what did you learn today?”
The child immediately answered, “Give or die!”
I have always appreciated that’s child’s understanding of this story, because it is so simple and direct. I also believe there are a few nuances that we may wish to consider. The details of the story are rather simple: after we have read an idealized summary of the early church in which everyone shared all they had, and we even have the positive example of Barnabas who does exactly what was expected, we now get a story of a married couple who conspire together to lie to the community and to hold back something for themselves. They sell a plot of land, give some of the money to the community, and hold back some for themselves, and then lie about it to the church. In turn, they each die suddenly when confronted by Peter.
Their behavior, while seemingly atypical for the early church, is actually how most of us handle our possessions. We share some of what we have, but rarely share everything. Perhaps that seems like common sense, but in the context of this story, it seems like a dangerous and deadly choice.
The most obvious interpretation of this story is that Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead by God because of their greed. Another possibility is that it was not their keeping proceeds for themselves that caused death, but that they lied about it to the church, and more importantly, they attempted to lie to God.
With either of these interpretations we are still left with the uncomfortable conclusion that God has killed two members of the church. It is perhaps even more disturbing to see how the story unfolds, as Peter confronts first the husband, who dies, and then hours later, he confronts the wife. In some ways, it is especially troubling to consider the case of Sapphira: her husband dies and is buried, but no one bothers to tell her before she goes to see Peter as well, and then suffers the same fate of lying and dying. If Peter were a prosecutor, we might call this entrapment, and we also might wonder about the nature of God in this story.
Some people would suggest this story serves as a reminder that God takes the life of the faith community seriously, and indeed, as awful as it may seem to have both Ananias and Sapphira die in this way, it is necessary to preserve the wholeness and holiness of the church.
There is still another interpretation observing that the text never explicitly says that God killed either of them, just that they both died when confronted by Peter.
No matter what way we might try to interpret this strange story, there really is no way to put a “good spin” on what happens with Ananias and Sapphira. However, I might invite us to notice the way the author shares this story seems to suggest that they don’t take it as seriously as they might take other stories. In part, we see this in the language regarding the price of the property is not specific, but rather, hypothetical, something akin to “such and such a price” (see the NRSV). Also, some of the elements of the story are rather fantastic, that there just happen to be young men waiting when both Ananias and Sapphira are confronted in turn by Peter and are ready to bury them immediately after they died. It is almost as if they knew what was going to happen, or perhaps their presence makes the story all the more colorful.
I am by no means suggesting that we simply ignore this story, but there is probably more nuance than simply “Give or die!” Since the author of Acts seems to tell this strange and somewhat gruesome story with such a light touch that it is almost comical, we may want to follow their lead and hold this story lightly, but also learn from it. Like the earliest Christians, we are also called to share what we have received from God and to care for one another. There really should not be anyone in our faith community who goes without food or shelter. We also should not lie to the community of faith, and most especially, we should not lie to God, who cannot be deceived and already knows what is in our hearts.
Perhaps most important of all, we should remember that God expects us to live faithfully together, God takes the integrity of the church seriously, and God does expect us to live into our calling and our commitment to be servants of Christ and one another.
Holy Spirit, you know what is in our hearts and we can hide nothing from you. Teach us to be honest with ourselves and honest with you, and may our lives reflect your call and your purpose, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.