Ananias and Sapphira: A Case of Malicious Identity (Acts 5:1-11)
The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) are nothing if not frightful and puzzling. The two, a married couple, sell a piece of property and publicly give the proceeds to the community. However, they secretly hold back a portion of the money for themselves. Peter detects the deception and confronts the two separately. Merely hearing Peter’s accusation causes each of them to fall dead on the spot. To our ears, their fate seems out of proportion to their infraction. Peter acknowledges that they were under no obligation to donate the money: “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own?” he says. “And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal?” (Acts 5:4). Private property has not been abolished, and even those in the community of love-for-neighbor may legitimately choose to hold the resources God has entrusted to them. So why does lying about the money bring instant death?
Many attempts have been made to describe the reason for their deaths and even simply to name the sin they committed. It appears, fundamentally, that Ananias and Sapphira’s transgression is they are counterfeit community members. As the scholar Scott Bartchy puts it, “By lying in order to achieve an honor they had not earned, Ananias and Sapphira not only dishonored and shamed themselves as patrons but also revealed themselves to be outsiders, non-kin.” They are not so much misers as imposters.
Their deceit demonstrates that they are still functioning as members of the Roman patronage system, while they pretend to have become members of the Christian love-of-neighbor system. They attempt to look like Barnabas in his other-centered approach to stewarding resources (Acts 4:36-37). But their motivation is actually to gain honor for themselves on the cheap. In so doing, they actually function as part of the Roman patronage economy. They look generous, but they are giving for the sake of status, not love. Moreover, their lie about their stewardship of resources is interpreted by Peter as a lie to the Holy Spirit and to God (Acts 5:3-4). How striking that a lie to the community is equated with a lie to the Spirit of God! And a lie about resources is as serious as a lie about “religious” matters. We have seen already that one of the primary roles of the Holy Spirit is to form God’s people into a community that uses resources in accordance with a deep concern for others. It is not surprising, then, that Ananias and Sapphira’s faked act of generosity is depicted as falsifying the work of the Spirit. Their false generosity and their attempt to deceive the Holy Spirit are a threat to the identity of the Christian community. This is a sober reminder of the serious stakes connected to the Christian community and to our own participation within it.
Ananias and Sapphira’s deceit occurs in the realm of money. What if it occurred in the realm of work itself? What if they had falsely pretended to serve their masters as though serving God (Colossians 3:22-24), or to treat subordinates justly (Colossians 3:25), or to engage in conflict honestly (Matthew 18:15-17)? Would deceiving the Christian community about such things have caused a similarly unacceptable threat to the community? Luke doesn’t report on any such cases in Acts, yet the same principle applies. Genuinely belonging to the Christian community carries with it a fundamental change in our orientation. We now act in all ways—including work—to love our neighbors as ourselves, not to increase our social status, wealth and power.
See options for interpretation in Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible, (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 318-319.
S. Scott Bartchy, “Community of Goods in Acts: Idealization or Social Reality?” In The Future of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester, edited by Birger A. Pearson, A. Thomas Krabel, George W. E. Nickelsburg and Norman R. Petersen, 309-18 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 316.
For a full treatment of this narrative with respect to economic and communal implications, see Aaron J. Kuecker, “The Spirit and the ‘Other,’ Satan and the ‘Self’: Economic Ethics as a consequence of Identity Transformation in Luke-Acts,” in Engaging Economics: New Testament Scenarios and Early Christian Reception, edited by Bruce W. Longenecker & Kelly D. Liebengood, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 81-103.