Our community group had a great conversation last night as we read Acts 4:32-5:11 – a passage recounting the early church’s relationship with their possessions and with each other. It is, more (in)famously, known as the passage where Ananias and Sapphira die on the spot after their deception and falsification is made known to the community.
This is one of those passages that can be difficult to stomach. In our context and culture, it’s sometimes easier to avoid reading, preaching, or discussing passages like this in an open forum. There are questions about historicity, questions about God’s character, questions about judgement and divine intervention, and questions about what we do with the rest of the Bible when pieces of it cause so much strife. These are tough questions to answer, so we spent a night talking about it.
A few things we talked about:
- How The Passage “Works” It’s not just a story of two people dying, but is (1) a general description of the community’s actions and behaviors toward one another (Acts 4:32-35), (2) a particularized example of Barnabas living out this behavior (Acts 4:36-37), and (3) a particularized example of Ananias and Sapphira NOT living out this behavior (5:1-11). This is one of the instances where the Bible’s chapter breaks make absolutely no sense, and by separating out something of a “text of terror” from its context potentially makes the passage even more problematic for contemporary readers.
- The Cause of Death Our group was pretty divided on this one. Some felt it was clearly intended as a sign of divine judgment – the death of Ananias and Sapphira was an act of God. Others (including me!) were less convinced since the story does not state outright God’s role in their deaths – and, given the breadth of Biblical literature, it wouldn’t be out-of-place for the writer to do so.
- The Big Sin This is clearly about lying to God (Peter states that pretty clearly), but there’s also a communal piece to the sinful, broken actions of Ananias and Sapphira. Their conspiring, withholding and deceiving were not just personal, private spiritual matters but public, communal statements about authority, possessions, and priorities.
- The Power Play In contrast to the general community behavior, where people would bring gifts to the apostles’ feet for distribution, Ananias and Sapphira are withholding money from general distribution. In other words, they are rejecting the leadership of the apostles and, instead, claiming power for themselves based on their wealth and social status. The story rejects the Pay-to-Play Social Darwinian mentality that Ananias and Sapphira are qualified to lead and control resources simply because they are rich.
- Eden, Round Two The story can be read as a parallel of Genesis 1-3 – there’s an idyllic community where all needs are met but a deceptive longing for power and glory – to “be like God.” The serpent’s words – “you shall not surely die” – are acutely shown to be the ultimate lie when the rejection of Eden (the community of believers) by Ananias and Sapphira is brought into the open.
- Life or Death Scenario It seems plausible, given the story in Acts, that if Ananias and Sapphira did not die in this story, other less-privileged members of the community would have died due to lack of resources. This story fulfills the Israelite prophetic tradition (not to mention the teachings of Jesus) regarding the rich, judgment, love of money, etc. Whether we like it or not, how we handle our possessions and share those possessions with others is a matter of life or death. Every day, the poor and marginalized literally die because of the failure of the rich and privilege to love God by loving neighbor; this is one story where the opposite happens.