The posting thus far on this passage have focused on the fear and violence present in this story. Our modern, and perhaps liberal Quaker mindset is discomforted by this. And I find myself resisting other people’s resistance to this text. And I’m trying to unpack this somehow.
We very much want a clean cut peacenik of a Jesus. And while the spirit of Christ in me cries out against the violence and oppression in this world, I’m not altogether convinced that was the agenda of the historical Jesus and hence of his disciples. I know how hard the choice to uphold the peace testimony is for a white middle class North American — and I do a miserable job of it.
But that wasn’t the situation for the first Christians. It was closer to being like Nazi occupied France. And you aren’t a collaborator with Vichy. You are a fully active member of the resistance. And then you advocate to your fellow resisters — a course of non-violent action. If the Romans don’t crucify you your best friend may well slit your throat.
I do not believe that we have become more spiritually evolved and thereby grown out of their errors — because I know I haven’t. I believe they found themselves called to something that was well-nigh impossible and incredibly dangerous.
I’m also not entirely convinced the story of Ananias and Sapphira is historical. If it isn’t — or even if it is — what’s it doing here?
First, it qualifies the utopian vision. It shows us that these folks were human. And some made mistakes. And just maybe, by Luke’s day — this community of goods — of sharing and equality and mutual love — had grown into something a little bit more pragmatic and Luke was struggling to understand why his church wasn’t like their church even as he tried to witness to the faith he loved.
Second, there’s a parallel story in the book of Joshua. God has commanded the Israelites to go to battle to not keep any booty for themselves but rather to destroy it. This takes away two fundamental reasons for war — personal profit and military glory — both belong to God not to the tribal leaders. This battle was the battle for the Promised Land. One tribal leader holds back some silver. He is in fact a major family leader — in other words he was rich already. When it is found out God orders the death of the offending leader and his cohorts and the destruction of the silver.
How does this fit? Ananias was a landowner and therefore rich. He held back what was to be delivered to the poor. So he also dies. Instead of the community killing him on God’s behalf God acts directly — or alternately — a word from Peter kills with divine power without need for human instrument.
In either way — a new war for the Promised Land is taking place. But giving to the poor has replaced sacrifices on the altar. Indeed, the poor are the Promised Land and the priests of the temple and the apostles are the prophets and the warband leaders.
All of which assumes this connection with this connection with the entry into the Promised Land was in Luke’s mind as he wrote — for it is not explicit. I may be wrong.
(Already mentioned by Crystal I John 4:18)
That to me is the fundamental answer to the problem of Ananias and Sapphira. It seems rather clear that the church in Acts 4, notwithstanding the tremendous spiritual experiences they had undergone, was not perfect in love. Power, domination, coercion: all these things stem from fear. These two unfortunates were sufficiently infected with it to succumb.
If Peter had said that God would require their souls forthwith, he would have been mistaken IMHO; God doesn’t do that. It’s the fear that infects the church today that causes people to say dolorously, “It was God’s will”. “God called them home” is a bit better.
It’s fear that causes people to say, “we have to attack Iraq in order to make ourselves safe”. Only God can make us safe, and not with the weapons we spend so much on.
Where I’m coming from is that scripture speaks of the fear of God as a positive as the beginning of authentic spirituality. I can speculate on the concept all I want. I can cite learned tomes. Experience is a tad thin.
One book: Rudolph Otto The Idea of the Holy (Das Helige). The entire book is an attempt to deal logically and in some ways anthropologically with what is basically an emotion: the sense of the numinous. What do you want? He’s a German theologian/philosopher from early 20th century. The only way they know how to deal with emotion is write book length logical analyses with extended footnotes.
Contemporary spirituality wants us to see God as a close relation Father-Mother-Brother-Friend — and the teachings of the gospels encourage this. But this is only a part of the story. The story of Annanias and Sapphira speaks to another approach to the divine. And while I’m not sure I fully understand it I’m not ready to dismiss it as contamination from more primitive religions either.
The numinous happens when we have a sudden awareness of how infinitely small we are before the majesty of God and how infinitely unworthy we are before the holiness of God. The closest experience to this I can witness to was one day waiting for a bus. A low lying storm cloud passed overhead. It was dark and foreboding and it was close enough you could see the edges seethe like they were boiling hot. There was a yellow-green tinge to the sky — which sometimes marks tornado sightings. I was fascinated with the storm cloud but also felt fear at the same time. And not just of the storm cloud. This was an encounter with God as well.
What do I do with this?
See now that I, even I, am he; there is no god besides me. I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and no one can deliver from my hand.(Deuteronomy 32:39)
Blows that wound cleanse away evil; beatings make clean the innermost parts. (Proverbs 20:30)
The experience of the ancient world was that healing was painful. And in healing the spirit wounding the spirit may very well be the first stage of growth. Spirituality in traditional mystical literature speaks of three stages: purgation: getting rid of the spiritual toxins (sins) — exposing them and abandoning them; illumination: growing in virtues and enlightenment; union: union with God.
Dante went through the inferno, and then purgatorio, before getting to paradisio. With the exception of those fundamentalist folks stuck on the Purgative Way — with the mea cuplas and the Jesus save mes — most moderns want the illumination and the union without the purgation. You can’t get a rotten tooth yanked without being well dosed with novacaine and laughing gas.
So we have these warm fuzzy experiences and call this the presence of God. And this may very well be so. But when we have those negative fearsome experiences. God is there too. Closer than hands and feet, but also wholly other and Holy Other and what do we do? Turn on the stereo. Have another beer. That image of God is pathological now. And instead of inspiring us to deeper spiritual life — it drives us deeper into sin and what Pascal called divertiment — escapes.
Rudolph Otto is out of print. Modern day spiritual directors light scented candles to make us feel welcomed by God’s holy spirit. I may be mourning a spirituality I never have had. And can never claim for myself.
I do not have answers here. I only sense I’m asking questions in an area others on the spiritual path aren’t asking.
When both Ananias and Sapphira died after church members accused them of lying to and deceiving God, it is as though God’s wrath against sinners Ananias and Sapphira killed them. Understandably this shocked the other believers. The point here seems to be two-fold: 1) to lie to and to attempt to deceive the church is to do the same to the God, and this is looked upon as a grave sin, and 2), sinning like this may put your very life in peril.
As I read this, I got the feeling that this message deals with the power and control of the church – a story as a means to control the behavior of the parishioners. Wow! Don’t lie to the church or God or it will cost you your life. This message is in sharp contrast to another message I hold dear – and that is that God is a primordial goodness that is eternally present, regardless of what one does or does not do – a goodness and love bestowed upon each of us that is neither earned or deserved. We are all beloved to God, and God is forgiving and merciful.
The sin of Ananias and Sapphira did not consist in the withholding of part of the money but in their deception of the community. Their deaths are ascribed to a lie to the holy Spirit (⇒ Acts 5:3, 9), i.e., they accepted the honor accorded them by the community for their generosity, but in reality they were not deserving of it.
Above is the NAB’s explination of the events in our reading … for some reason, I still feel pretty disturbed. I’m not the only one … the lectionary for the Catholic Church leaves out this reading … it’s never used in Mass. As I read at the American Catholic site …
Interestingly, while the Easter season readings emphasize this ideal picture of the early Church, Acts hints at times that all was not perfect. The framers of the Lectionary left out the curious story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). This married couple withheld from the common pot proceeds from the sale of some property. Peter confronts them and denounces their selfishness. Their punishment seems rather severe, for upon Peter’s interrogation about their evil deception, they both drop dead! Little wonder that this reading did not make it into the Lectionary! The message of instilled fear in the Church (Acts 5:11) goes counter to the hope-filled, joyful message of the Easter season. Yet perhaps the reading interjects a note of realism, namely, that it is not easy to fulfill the idealized vision of Church life presented by Acts.
It’s a sad commentary on human nature that this reading ends with a line that’s meant, I think, to reinforce our faith …. And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things. I prefer the line from 1 John 4:18 …. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love.
– The Death of Ananias by Raphael
I don’t know how I got the last passage wrong like that: I put Acts 2:1-10 in as title and yet got the right passage — Acts 4:32-37! Gaak! I musta bin asleep at the switch. Not that anyone noticed (or decided to point out to me the error of my ways . . .
But a man named Ananias with his wife Sapphira sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a 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 proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.
After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Hark, the feet of those that have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things.
Remember the estimated 1500 Iraqi nationals also held hostage but invisible to international attention.
And a country ripped apart by criminals, terrorists, foreign occupying armies.
This was the name given to Joseph (who became Barnabas). A few chapters onward we’ll read about the encouragement Barnabas gave Paul, leading to his missionary calling.
Barnabas is a type I seek to emulate. To encourage others in the exercise of their spiritual gifts is better than exercising them yourself. For one thing there’s less danger of inflation, which is so prevalent for those with outstanding gifts. Barnabas did not put himself forward; his ambition to do the Lord’s work was not wrapped up with his ego.
Re the communalism we’ll very shortly read of one of the disastrous consequences of that practice. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try it; it only points out one of the dangers.
Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.
This brings to mind the book by Thomas More, Utopia. The book, which was somewhat based on Plato’s Republic and which was said to be the inspiration for Marxism, depeiced a communal, democratic, religiously tolerant and pacifist society that has done away with poverty and persecution … they were also much influenced by the fact that Christ had encouraged his disciples to practice community of goods.
That Utopia had its problems, of course, and in its own way was as tyranical as the meieval European monarchies to which it was it was compared. As one page about Utopia put it …
It is an insidious kind of tyranny which works by persuading the people that it is all for their own good, and proceeds almost to enslave them to the state and remove as many elements of choice as possible … Religious toleration exists, so long as you don’t want to be irreligious. You may travel wherever you please, so long as you get permission … You may train for more than one job, and, once trained, may do whichever of them you please, except when one of them is more necessary than the other. You are quite free to hold political opinions, except that the penalty for discussing affairs of state away from the `senate’ is death … And Shakespeare, less than a hundred years later, understood that a system which allows no flourish, no splendour, and, ultimately, no beauty, could never be a spiritually rich one: Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s, cries King Lear, and it is hard not to agree with him.
Why did the communism of the early church fail? On the one hand, a working example of communal life does exist … religious orders. Within those orders there’s still excellence, diversity and individulaity alonside love of others and a cummunity of goods. But I’m not sure this kind of lifestyle would work in the greater world where people live as families … the desire, almost compulsion, to protect and perpetuate oneself may contradict the desire to perpetuate the community as a whole.