Ananias and Sapphira

In a discussion over at Vox Nova, the story of Ananias and Sapphira came up in the context of a discussion on something else.  This is one of the most disturbing stories of the New Testament, and as I was pondering it, an insight that I’d not had before came to mind.

First, for those who may not be familiar with this story, here it is, from the New English Bible.  The first paragraph is Acts 4:32-35, the rest is Acts 5:1-12:

The whole body of believers was unified in heart and soul.  Not a man of them claimed any of his possessions as his own, but everything was held in common, while the apostles bore witness with great power to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.  They were held in high esteem; for they had never a needy person among them, because all who had property in land or houses sold it, brought the proceeds of the sale, and laid the money at the feet of the apostles; it was then distributed to any who stood in need.

But there was another man, called Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, who sold a property.  With the full knowledge of his wife he kept back part of the purchase-money, and part he  brought and laid at the apostles’ feet.  But Peter said, ‘Ananias, how was it that Satan so possessed your mind that you lied to the Holy Spirit, and kept back part of the price of the land?  While it remained, did it not remain yours?  When it was turned into money, was it not still at your own disposal?  What made you think of doing this thing?  You have lied not to men but to God.’  When Ananias heard these words, he dropped dead; and all the others who heard him were thunderstruck.  The younger men rose and covered his body, then carried him out and buried him.

About three hours passed, and then his wife came in, unaware of what had happened.  Peter turned to her and said, ‘Tell me, were you paid such and such a price for the land?’  ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘that was the price.’  Then Peter said, “Why did you both conspire to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test?  Hark!  there at the door are the footsteps of those who buried your husband; and they will carry you away.’  And suddenly she dropped dead at his feet.  When the young men came in, they found her dead; and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband.  And a great awe fell upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these events; and many remarkable and wonderful things took place among the people at the hands of the apostles.

Charming little story, huh?  Oozes with Christian love, mercy, and forgiveness!

One of the purposes of this whole series is to look at how we can appropriate and be informed by the Bible as part of our faith while not necessarily accepting the barbarous bits, without just “cherry picking” what we like.  I’ve been working towards an overall theory of how to do this.  Most such problematic parts are in the Old Testament, but this is smack in the middle of the New, with the ethos of which it is most discordant.  General theories aside, a possible way to look at this occurred to me, which I posted at Vox Nova.  I’m putting my response below, slightly edited for this format.

Think of it like this:  Had Peter pulled out a sword and killed Ananias and Sapphira outright, almost all of us would say that would be a wrong and sinful action, out of proportion to their sin. Thus, how is it OK that Peter (presumably) invokes the power of God to do so? How is it OK if Peter uses God as his weapon instead of a sword? In short, how is it OK for God to do it? As Nietzsche said in Beyond Good and Evil, “One is most dishonest towards one’s God: he is not permitted to sin!” In short, we proclaim God to be all-good, all-loving, and all-merciful, then excuse all the nasty things He is said to have done, since He isn’t permitted to sin. I don’t look at God that way. I don’t think He did do a lot of the nasty stuff He’s said to have done; and in this case, I don’t think God did smite the couple, per se.

Consider this passage, story number sixty from Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert (a great book that I’d recommend to all), a translation of parts of the Acta Seniorum, the tales of the Desert Fathers:

One of the brethren asked an elder, saying: Father, do the holy men always know when the power of God is in them? And the elder replied: No, they do not always know it. For once a very great hermit had a disciple who did something wrong and the hermit said to him: Go and drop dead! Instantly the disciple fell down dead and the hermit, overcome with terror, prayed to the Lord, saying: Lord Jesus Christ, I beg Thee to bring my disciple back to life and from now on I will be careful what I say. Then right away the disciple was restored to life.

Now we know that Peter is consistently portrayed in the New Testament as impulsive, not very reflective, wishy-washy, and somewhat passive-aggressive.  In fact, in my reading of it, he comes off as rather passive-aggressive in this very passage, especially in his rather sneaky questioning of Sapphira.  A standard teaching about supernatural gifts that one gains is that they are not to be sought for or emphasized, and that they are, in a sense, morally neutral. In short, just because you have visions or locutions or heal the sick, it doesn’t necessarily mean ipso facto  that you’re super-holy, let alone have good judgment as to how to use such charismatic gifts (see 1 Corinthians 13).

So, it seems to me that Peter was rather in the situation of the hermit and deliberately or inadvertently used that power inappropriately. However, unlike the hermit, he didn’t have the wisdom or discernment to realize it was a bad thing. Of course the others were thunderstruck and frightened, so the story made it into Acts; but I don’t think that fact means we have to endorse the action. I mean, to do that implies that pastors can kill sinful members of their flock, or pray to God to do so. That doesn’t seem very moral!

I think this is a pretty fair interpretation, assuming the incident occurred as reported.  Another interesting theory that sees it as a pericope originating as a legend or mythologized version of a more mundane event can be found here, where I ran across it while searching for an image for this post.  Upon thought, I rather like this version better than the theory I postulated; but I think either of them works.

I remember reading this as a younger man about the time the whole Jim and Tammy Baker scandal (Google it if you’re too young to know what I’m talking about) broke, and thinking of this passage and thinking, “Yeah!  That’s what these bastards that use religion to fleece the poor oughta think about!”  I’ve mellowed a lot since then.  I still have no love for bastards who use religion to fleece the poor; but Jesus called us to love everyone, even such fleecing bastards.  Killing fleecers–or in light of current teaching on capital punishment, killing anyone if it’s not absolutely necessary–is no longer something I think is a cool idea.  How easily we project our often misguided zeal onto God.  How strongly we must strive to avoid doing so!

Posted on 11/08/2012, in Bible, Catholicism, Christianity, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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