What is the Bible? Part 61: Ananias and Sapphira
Today, Ananias and Sapphira. Have you heard this story? More of you have contacted me with questions about this story than anything else in the Bible, so let’s do this.
The story begins in the New Testament, towards the end of chapter 4 of the book of Acts. It’s early in the life of the church, and the writer tells us that
all the believers were one in heart and mind
no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.
He goes on to write that
from time to time those who owned houses or land sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
Now, enter a man named Ananias, who,
together with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property.
With her knowledge he keeps part of the money from the sale for himself, but then brings the rest of the money to the leaders of the church, pretending that it was all of the money he got from the sale.
Peter, one of the leaders of the church, unleashes on him, asking
Ananias, how it is that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and you have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?
Peter then goes on to ask him more questions, all of it reaching a crescendo with the declaration
You have not lied just to human beings but to God.
The text then reads:
Ananias heard this, fell down, and died.
Just like that.
The people who witness this are understandably a bit freaked out (seized with fear is how Luke puts it), some young fellas come in and take the body away and bury it, and then three hours later Sapphira shows up. Peter asks her if the money that Ananias had given was the whole sale price of the property, she says Yes, Peter asks her how she could test the Holy Spirit, and then he tells her that the fellas who just hauled away her husband’s body are right outside and they’re ready to carry her out as well-
And then Sapphira falls over dead. Right then and there.
The fellas who carried out her husband’s body then carry out her body, bury her next to her husband, and everybody is freaked out all over again.
And that’s the story.
Let’s pause for a moment here and think of all the people we’ve heard over the years tell us that they’re starting a new church that’s fresh and real and relevant, you know, just like the New Testament church.
Really? Like that one? Like the one in Acts 4 and 5? Because bodies were dropping right and left in that one…
(Please tell me you thought that was funny.)
Now, a few observations about the story.
First, a bit about economics and generosity.
Remember that the writer of this book Acts here has lots of material to draw from. Lots of stories, lots of accounts, lots of memories-he has to make choices in writing his account about what to include and what to leave out. In other words, the ordering of these stories isn’t random. Luke has an agenda, a message, a distinct story he’s telling. And one of the things he wants us to know at the end of chapter four is that
God’s grace was so powerfully at work within them all that there were no needy persons among them.
According to Luke, one the most direct results of the grace of God at work is people taking care of each other’s material needs. Food, water, clothes, shelter, health care, that sort of thing. Grace to Luke is not an abstract theological concept but a reality that leads people to take action on behalf of each other.
Grace has implications. Grace leads you somewhere. Grace creates a human connection and community, one grounded in real needs being met by real people in real ways.
Sometimes when people talk about the economy and politics and their convictions about how things should be run, what you subtly (and not so subtly) pick up on is their belief that we’re each on our own. It’s up to us to figure it out and make our way in the world and work hard to get what we need. It’s interesting to note that of all the things Luke could tell us about the early church, one of the most important things he wants us to know is that in the early church you weren’t on your own. There were other people looking out for you, others had your back, others would step in and make sure you had what you need.
Second, let’s talk about Peter.
He’s a bit harsh, isn’t he? Why does he unleash on Ananias and Sapphira like he does? Wasn’t the church about grace? They were giving some money, right, why wasn’t he thrilled about that?
Good questions. Let’s start with the backstory. Because Peter has a past. He’s the one who denied Jesus, didn’t he? This is the dude who when things got dicey repeatedly told people that he didn’t know Jesus, even though he did know Jesus.
This is that dude.
And now he’s in charge of the church. Can you see why authenticity is so important to him?
For Peter, it’s not about the money. Nowhere in this passage do we see even the slightest shred of greed on the part of the church leaders. What grieves Peter to no end is the dishonesty. Pretending is what gets him all fired up.
If you sell your land and keep the money that’s fine. If you sell your land and give the money to the church to distribute to those who need it, that’s fine. But whatever you do, according to Peter, don’t come in here making a show of your generosity, giving us the impression that this is all the money, when it isn’t.
Few things will kill the life of a community faster than pretending. (I’m using that word kill intentionally. Clever, huh?)
It was never about the money, was it? It’s about participation. It’s about a new kind of world. It’s about each of us doing our part, whenever we’re able, to contribute to the common good. Sometimes you don’t have anything to give. Something you don’t have any money, any resources, any hope. And in those moments, you need others. You need to know that you’re not on your own.
Which leads us to the people dying part.
Because that’s why so many of you have questions about this passage, right? You’re trying to sort through why the people die.
So let’s clear up a few things.
First, this is the New Testament and someone dies. Yep. That’s how the story goes. Sometimes you’ll hear people talk about the Bible like it has two parts: The bloody, violent Old Testament part in which God randomly takes people out for all kinds of reasons, and then the New Testament part in which God suddenly gets nicer because of Jesus and nobody dies.
The truth is, there’s a fair bit of death in the New Testament. Have you read the last book in the Bible, Revelation? Lots of death in that one. And there’s a ton of love and grace and generosity in the Old Testament. So let’s move past those simplistic categories. The Bible is much more complex, because life is much more complex.
Second, then, if you read this story carefully, you’ll notice that God is never blamed for the death. Ananias and Sapphira fall over dead but it says nothing about God killing them. Lots of people have asked why God ended their lives but that’s not in story. The details, as always, matter. (Actually reading whatever it is you’re discussing is often quite helpful. Haha.)
And then thirdly, which takes us all the way back to my reasons for starting this series in the first place, when we read this story we’re reading a story written by an actual human being reflecting how they saw the world.
Not a new idea, but a revolutionary one when reading the Bible. Remember, this story was written in the first century. People had a much more magical/mythical world view. (Volcanoes erupt because the gods are upset, storms come because of conflict between goddesses, crops don’t grow because of divine displeasure.) This story was written roughly 1400 years before the scientific revolution. Data and evidence and proof were not the primary lens through which people saw the world.
Let me put it another way: Let’s say you’re standing in a jewelry story about to buy your honey a lovely little necklace when a dude runs in wearing a ski mask, waving a gun, yelling Nobody move! You stand there frozen while he empties the display cabinets into a bag, cursing the salespeople for not helping him fast enough, threatening to shoot anyone who moves a muscle. He keeps shouting I’m in charge here! You’re in my world now! Do as I say! He then finishes and sprints out the front door into the street…where he’s hit by a passing garbage truck.
Now. Stop. Pause. Reflect. What are you thinking in that exact second as you watch him get hit? Probably something like
Serves him right
Well now that’s fitting
He had it coming…
Justice is poetic, isn’t it?
If you had any thoughts along those lines, what was happening in your mind?
You were connecting the two events.
Dude robs a store, gets hit by a car. The one event led to the other. Of course. Justice. The universe is put back in balance. Serves him right. You reap what you sow. Etc, etc.
Now, remember that your mind naturally wants to make these connections even though you’ve been living in a modern world that has been under the influence of the scientific revolution for roughly three hundred years. We’ve had it drilled in to our heads that you need actual evidence and concrete data to support any sort of convoluted idea that the two events are connected.
And yet you can’t help it.
Now go back two thousand years in history. Can you see how people living at a much earlier time in human history would connect the events? Can you see how Luke would tell a story implying that Ananias and Sapphira’s lies led to their death?
In the first century, it was very normal and natural to assume that events, especially unusual or rare events, had supernatural causes. Luke’s story telling here is an excellent example of how people saw the world.
We moderns naturally want explanations for what exactly happened. And in the absence of proof and data and explanations, we create them: maybe they had preexisting heart conditions, maybe the psycho-social pressures of betraying their community were too much for them to bear, maybe they died later from food poisoning but it was so close to the incident with Peter that Luke couldn’t help but write it up more dramatically than it actually happened…
We modern folks love to do this, it’s like a knee jerk impulse we immediately default to, taking a story like this and looking for rational causes.
All of it missing the power of the story. The farther we go down that rabbit hole, the farther we travel from the power of the story to transform us and wake us up.
Luke wants us to know that the resurrection led to the formation of a community of generous and honest people who gave themselves to the well being of each other, doing whatever they needed to do to make sure everyone had their needs met. They were highly aware of the divine presence in their midst, leading them and convicting them and giving them hope that a better world really is possible, right here and right how when we all do our part.
Is there a God who struck them down?
Did Peter actually know that they were about to die?
Is this an example of supernatural judgment?
I have no idea.
No one does.
Let the story be what it is.
Let the Bible be what it is.
And then go take care of someone’s needs.
And don’t pretend you’re more righteous than you are.
That’ll kill you.
Next: How to Deal with the Thing You Were Handed that Doesn’t Work Anymore