God Triumphant: Reflections on the Church After Calvary
Ananias and Saphira
Acts of the Apostles 5:1-11
The story of Ananias and Saphira shows that the idyllic existence of the first Christian Community did not last too long. The arrest of Peter and John had been worrisome but not hurtful. As has been the case ever since, attacks on Christianity from outside have the effect of making each individual reexamine their faith and strengthen it. It does not separate one devoted Christian from another; rather it drives them closer together fighting through the onslaught from those outside who hate them.
The fall of Ananias and Saphira must have been disturbing for those first Christians. The event is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (5:1-11) and the story goes something like this. A married couple named Ananias and Sapphira were part of the first Christian community and were as fervent as the rest. Perhaps overcome with a moment of ecstasy, they decided to join the others in giving a contribution to the upkeep of the group. In a moment of unrealistic enthusiasm they promised the Lord all the proceeds from the sale of everything they owned.
Their rash decision was something like that exhibited at fund-raising dinners, where guest after guest stands up and tries to outdo their neighbor in the extravagance of their contribution. John rises to say: "I give $1000 to the cause" only to hear Jim rise and say: "Well, I give $10000" and so on and so on ... each one trying to be the "top giver". I suspect that when they got home their wives (reasonable women that they were) berated them for their exuberant enthusiasm but by then it was too late. They had already signed the checks. The poor fellows had forgotten the message of the Gospel stories of Zaccheus who dedicated half his wealth to God and the widow who gave only a "mite" (the smallest coin of the day). Both were accepted lovingly by the Lord because he knew that they gave as much as they could reasonably give.
Ananias and Sapphira went beyond reason in their gift and quickly had second thoughts about keeping their promise. They decided to follow through in the sale of their property but, while still promising to give all of the proceeds to the work of the Lord, to give only a portion. When Peter found out about their deception he called both of them before him and said:
Why did you do this? All of the property belonged to you before you promised to give it away. There would have been nothing wrong in keeping it all for yourself and not promising to give any of it to God. But once you made the promise, God expected you to keep it. Your real sin is not your keeping back part of your wealth (indeed, you could have kept all of it without sin). Your great sin was in lying, not to me, but to God and for this you must be punished.
Their punishment was immediate and severe. Both of them dropped dead on the spot.
Luke ends the story with the comment:
Great fear came on the whole church and on all who heard about it.
Acts of the Apostles, 5:11.
No doubt part of the shock came from the punishment, but I suspect that many were also shocked by the revelation of "human weakness" in the greed and deceit of the couple. It may have made everyone think twice about their own claim to virtue. It may have made them realize that despite their reverence for the Father, despite their love for Jesus the Son, despite the presence of the Holy Spirit deep in their souls ... there was no guarantee that they would never turn their backs on God and walk away. They, like the rest of the human race, had been redeemed but they were not yet saved! Their salvation would depend on a life-time of trying (not always successfully) to remain faithful to God.
The fault at the root of the deceit of Ananias and Saphira was the temptation to greed that arises from time to time in most of us. We want more and more of what is not ours (be it property or prestige or power or even love) and clutch tightly whatever we can grab, crying out in exaltation: "I GOT MINE!" Augustine believed that greed was at the root of most of our sins because it was the expression of our tendency to be "attached" to more than we need to live this life honorably. (Commentary on the Epistle of John, 8.6)
Greed is destructive because when we seek and become attached to more than we really need in this life, earthly things become like "birdlime on our spirit" preventing us from flying to the heaven where God awaits. (Sermon 112, 6) We become like the Athenians whom Paul unsuccessfully tried to wake from their slumber. They could not be converted because (in the view of Augustine):
They loved the things of this present life and slept amid them. They found their things delightful and were like someone who dreams that he has discovered treasure and slumbers peacefully as long as he does not wake up. In the same way those who desire many things fall asleep in their greed and their slumber is pleasurable as long as it lasts. But this passes away just as life itself passes away and they find that they have nothing because they have entrusted nothing to the hand of Christ.
Commentary on Psalm 75, # 9.
Augustine observes that when it comes to the goods of this earth, the devil attacks us through greed and fear. When we don't have possessions we greedily pursue them; when we have them we are overcome with fear of losing them. (Sermon 94A, 5; Sermon 346B, 4) Just as charity is the root of all that is good so greed is the root of evil because it stands in the way of the charity whereby we reach out with what we are and what we have to help those who need our help. (Sermon 350, 1)
In selfishly holding back a portion of their goods from the community, Ananias and Saphira did not do as much good as they claimed to do. Moreover (to use Augustine's poetic phrase), by "licking the dust of the earth" by loving it too much they cut themselves off from the God above. (Sermon 231, 4)
Worse than their greed was their deceit. They lied to God claiming that they were giving away All the money received by selling their property. This was the real reason why they were punished with death. As Augustine says: Some people think this punishment was too severe, that people should die just for withholding money from their assets, but this punishment was imposed because of their lie, not because of their greed. To offer half their property as though it were the whole, that's the lie that had to be punished.
Sermon 148, 1
But why punish a simple lie? The answer is because it was a lie to God. It was like the all-too familiar lies made to God ever since ... lies where we say we are Christian but do not act like one, lies whereby we say "Yes" to God but do not mean it, lies whereby we say "No" to our vices but do not mean it. Is this serious? Hear what Jesus had to say:
You have heard the commandment imposed on your forefathers: "Do not take a false oath; rather, make good to the Lord all your pledges... Say "Yes" when you mean "yes" and "No" when you mean "No".
Hear what St. James added later on in a letter to his friends:
Let your word be "yes" if you mean "yes" and "no" if you mean "no". In this way you will not incur condemnation.
Epistle of James, 5.12
No one would claim that Ananias and Sapphira were evil people. Augustine believed that although God punished them with death because of their greed and deceit, there is no reason for saying that they were condemned to hell. He told his listeners:
We may well believe that after this life God spared them because his mercy is great. Indeed, perhaps the reason why they were punished by death on earth was that they might not be punished eternally after death.
Sermon 148, 1
Their severe punishment in this life was meant as a warning to Christians ever after to live the faith they profess. To say "Yes" to Christ and to mean it by living their "Yes" as best they can and, when inevitably failing, to come to Christ asking forgiveness and the strength to do better in the future.
Unfortunately in the history of the Church the failing of Ananias and Saphira would be repeated. Although there have been (and are) some truly good people in the Church (Sermon 311, 10), the Church on earth will always be a mixture of good and bad. (Sermon 260d 2-3). The only thing Christians who are striving to be good can do is to endure the bad and pray that they will not join them by breaking their own promise to try to be faithful to the Lord. (Commentary on psalm 25/2, 5)
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