But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. “Ananias,” Peter asked, “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, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!” Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.
After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.” And she said, “Yes, that was the price.” Then Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who 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, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.
The story of Ananias and Sapphira can often catch us off guard. Following the resurrection of Jesus, his ascension and then the descending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Luke has been painting a positive picture as the seeds of early Church activity are planted. The apostles take the lead and set out the shape of how this community of Jesus followers should operate. They seem united and committed about how they should live and worship and they do so with confidence. All is well. That is until we encounter the disturbing events in Acts 5: 1-11.
To transfer all private ownership to common ownership seems a big ask from the apostles. However, it was a way to ensure an even distribution of resources that meant “there was not a needy person among them” (4:34) and it was a policy that appeared to work. But does that mean everything? Clearly for those with little or nothing this would be a popular community to be part of but for those with assets, this was a bigger test of faith. Ananias and Sapphira fell into the latter category so perhaps as an insurance policy just in the case this Jesus movement did not work out, they retain some of the proceeds from their sale.
However, this is a decision that backfires when they are both found out. The problem here though is not that they have decided to keep some funds to themselves, it is they have tried to do so in a way that gave the impression they had not. The Acts description of the perfect church has been shattered by the actions of Ananias and Sapphira. Luke could of course have left this story out but that would have given a false impression of the early Church. It consisted of real people with real weakness so in this sense was no different to the church we are part of today. This story contains a warning for us when we are tempted to present ourselves through our words and actions as better than we are. At the end of the day it is only ourselves that we are fooling but it is God that we are letting down. For Ananias and Sapphira the realisation of this was just too much when directly challenged by someone with the authority of Peter.
God of wisdom and love, You know me better than I know myself. You know my weaknesses. You know the times when I have given way to temptation. You know my strengths. And you know my heart. Forgive me for the times I have failed you. Enable me to serve you as you desire and be the person you want me to be. Amen
David Scott is an ordinand at the Scottish United Reformed & Congregational College.