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Ananias and Sapphira, an Original Sin in the Church: the Eschatological Dimension of Money

Not long ago a couple rushed into Casa Juan Diego, very agitated, asking to speak to us privately. They had just been reading the story of Ananias and Sapphira in the Acts of the Apostles, in which those who did not share their goods were struck dead. The couple, friends of the Houston Catholic Worker, had also just received a legacy. They wrote a check to Casa Juan Diego for $10,000. The account of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, whose theological violence has disturbed exegetes since the Fathers of the Church, has led to an infinite number of interpretations. In the following article, excerpted from VOCES, a theological journal from Mexico City, the author presents and develops the study of Daniel Marguerat on the meaning of the story of Ananias and Sapphira, placing it as a theological narrative of original sin which recurs in the reception of the Tradition. The author points out that in this case the presentation of the dramatic events does not emphasize the drama of individual salvation, but rather the unity of the community, especially as it affects the needs of other members and the poor. The story magnifies the power of the Spirit in building a community of love and brings into stark reality the importance of the universal destination of goods given by God. The author of the Book of Acts is very aware that the original sin of the community of Christians is a sin of money.

The Story of Ananias and Sapphira reads as follows:

The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all. There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need. . . A man named Ananias, however, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property. He retained for himself, with his wife’s knowledge, some of the purchase price, took the remainder, and put it at the feet of the apostles. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart so that you lied to the Holy Spirit and retained part of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain yours? And when it was sold, was it not still under your control? Why did you contrive this deed? You have lied not to human beings, but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last, and great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped him up, then carried him out and buried him. After an interval of about three hours, his wife came in, unaware of what had happened. Peter said to her, “Tell me, did you sell the land for this amount?” She said, “Yes, for that amount.” Then Peter said to her, “Why did you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen, the footsteps of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” At once, she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men entered they found her dead, so 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. (Acts 4:32-35; 5:1-11) New American Bible The aim of this study is to critique Daniel Marguerat’s interpretation of the passage about Ananias and Sapphira in the account of the Acts of the Apostles. The importance of analyzing this contribution by Marguerat lies in the application of the narrative of the book of Acts, and especially in the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Of course, this narrative criticism does not invalidate the contributions of literary criti-cism, but enriches the interpretation of the text and allows for a better hermeneutic understanding. Marguerat ques-tions in what narrative strategy Acts 5:1-11 takes place… how has Luke planned the reading of Acts 5:1-11 in the organization of his text? From the very beginning, the author presents the problematic question which the story of Ananias and Sapphira raises. He considers the story of the judgment of God on Ananias and Sapphira the most tragic episode of the Book of Acts. He asks himself: what is the intention of the author of Acts with this “blow of narrative force in the idyllic fresco of the first Christian community, developed in chapters 3 to 5. How can the tragic disproportion between the offense and the sanction that hits Ananias and Sapphira be justified? How to explain the absence of the typical offer of conversion in Luke’s writing? The reader faces the theological difficulty that Luke not only consents to assume this recounting in his work, but besides, accents its dramatic effect. In Mediterranean societies of the first century conventional family cells were common-that is to say, groups whose individuals were committed to a reciprocal solidarity analogous to the ties within a clan. These groups, built upon a philosophical and/or religious ideology, offered the individual protection against a social setting and unfailing emotional support. Five characteristics marked their identity: loyalty and trust in the group, preservation of communal convictions over against those outside the group, the obligation to provide for the needs of each member, and consciousness of sharing the same destiny. The author of Acts has desired to make known to readers that the original community, the Church of Jerusalem, carried out the ideal of sharing lived in the culture of the time. Luke’s eloquence focuses on the destiny of the community more than the psychology of the individuals. The author points out how the record of the life of the community is not contradicted by the narrative treatment of the role of the apostles. Peter, whose fulmi-nating word dominates the retelling, is not presented as a heroic individual: his prophetic discernment unmasks hidden desires, but the reader has learned from the beginning of the story that the powerful word of the apostle is the work of the Spirit (4:8). Peter works the theological reading of the deceit, situating it in the framework of the combat of God and Satan (v. 3,9a), but he does not pronounce any sentence (see v. 13:1): he predicts the imminent end of Sapphira, but does not decide her death. The role of Peter, the only Christian speaker until Acts 7 (Stephen), omniscent spokes-person for the apostles, never goes beyond the status of mediator in whom the Spirit lives (4:31). The author notes that the retelling comes from a literary genre from which ancient literature, as much biblical as nonbiblical, offers innumerable testimonies: the judgment of God. Characteristic of this genre is stating the fault of the guilty one and attributing the punishment to divine con-demnation. When the Jewish tradition appeals to the judgment of God (Gn 19; Leviticus 10:1-5; Numbers 14; Ez 11, etc.) the transgressor is generally annihilated; before God, it is a question of life and death. Thus die Judas the traitor (Acts 1, 18) and Herod (Acts 12:20-23).

A Crime Against the Spirit

Marguerat concludes that Ananias’ crime is a crime against the Spirit. Ananias has been made into Satan’s instrument in his battle against the Church. Satan has led Ananias against the work of the Spirit, and this opposition has to result in death. Peter’s discourse says nothing else: it is not man to whom Ananias has lied, but to God (v.4b). The transgression is not ethical but theological; the lie is not denounced as hypocrisy but as dishonesty, a fraud against God. Opposing the Spirit in this way, Ananias and Sapphira have made a lie of the ideal of chapter 4, verse 32. This places the community in danger, and in turn, due to not responding to the ideal of one heart and one soul (4:32a) threatens in its missionary efficacy. The couple, who excluded themselves from the ecclesiastical unity, damage the community ideal. Far from resolving this crisis by founding an ecclesiastical jurisdiction of ex-communion, the text shows the work of the Spirit in its role of “infallible guarantor of the communion of inner-community.” For the author, the conflict presented in this writing also is meant to lead to an awareness of the terrible efficacy of the Word. The pragmatic effect of the story is to evoke the fear of God (v.5b, 11). Marguerat asks, “Why, on two occasions, does the author feel the need to specify the effect of the news on ‘those who hear it’?” Everything happens as if in this account, Luke were writing about the effect he wants to lead to in the listener/reader. But what does Luke want the reader to fear? The terrible judgment of God? The power of the Spirit? For the author, more likely: fear of the power of the Word. From beginning to end, the story is woven from words and sayings. Like Ananias’ offense, Sapphira’s is also one of dishonesty (v.3b, 8b); Ananias dies upon hearing the words of Peter (v.5a); “all who heard” were afraid (v.5b, 11). The three-time mention of fear must capture our attention: here the words of truth bring death (v.5a); there they lead to religious fear (v.5b, 11). The word that is heard has the power of life and death, which is what the story explains. A theology of the Word works the text, allowing the vision to be heard, recognizing a very Lukan insistence that we have previously encountered. From Acts 2:37 on, faith is presented as the fruit of listening to the Word. This theme pervades chapters 2-5, in which the faith of the newly converted results in the formation of the Apostles (4:4; 5:5, 11, 20), and in which the gift of the Spirit becomes concrete in the boldness of the Christian proclamation (4:31). The conclusion of the sequence confirms this tie between pneuma and logos; the activity of the community animated by the Spirit is an activity of word: (5:42). The hostility of the Jewish authorities consists partially in wanting to silence the Apostles (4:17; 5:28,40). Marguerat concludes that what matters to Luke is not instilling a “fear of the sacred,” but relating the powerful elimination of an impediment to the spreading of the Word. Weakened in its missionary development by an act that damages its unity, the community is not left on its own. Much like God concerns Himself with the incarceration of the Apostles and liberates them, ordering them to speak (5:20), here God becomes terribly involved with an obstacle to the spreading of the Word.

An Original Sin

Acts 5 does not simply stigmatize Sapphira because of her husband’s evil act; the text is dedicated to showing her culpability (v.8); a man-woman duality develops here, which structures the text in two frames and makes it stand out. For the author, a curious characteristic of the story orients the reading towards another plane: the emphasis on the complicity of the man and his wife (v.2); this shared knowledge is explicitly confirmed by the answer to Peter’s interrogation (v.8). The Apostle returns to this theme to ask Sapphira: “Why did you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?” Ananias and Sapphira form one body, one with the other, and this tie of complicity has undermined the solidarity of the community. Accomplices in the lie, the couple has made clan against the ecclesiastical group; in place of the communion of believers, they have substituted their own complicity. The author points out that the collusion of the original spouses (the first couple of the Acts) brings to mind another original couple. The analogy that comes in this spirit is the story of the fall (Gen 3). Examination of the narrative context demonstrates that the drama of Acts 5 constitutes the first crisis in the history of the origins of Christianity. The reference to Gen 3 is supported by a constellation of characteristics: 1) the destruction of the original harmony (v.4:32); 2) the figure of Satan, usually perceived by the Jewish tradition as a serpent; 3) the origin of the flaw in the sin of the couple; 4) the lying to God (Gen 3:1; Acts 5:4b); 5) the expulsion at the end of the account (cf. Gen 3:23). For Marguerat, this parallel sheds new light on the typology with which the story plays: the transgression of Ananias and Sapphira is seen as the duplication of the original sin of Adam and Eve. Lying to the Spirit constitutes, in the narration of the Acts, the original sin of the Church. Conclusion of the story of Acts 5: the ekklesia is a community whose members are weakened, but whose project of communion is saved by the judgment of God.

An Ethic of Sharing

Upon identifying the offense of Ananias and Sapphira as an assault on the work of the Spirit, the interpretation of Marguerat unites with an essential result of the salvation history reading indicated above. However, the author indicates that a dimension of the text that has not been taken into account remains to be evaluated: the nature of the transgression. The act of the damned couple is a monetary offense. Luke’s sensitivity regarding the power of money is manifest throughout his Gospel, from the denunciation of the pride of the wealthy in the Magnificat (Luke 1:53) to the praising of the widow’s offering at the start of the Passion (21:1-4). Acts takes over with this theme from the very first chapter, upon reporting the curse adjudicated to the “wage of injustice” that Judas had obtained through his betrayal (1:18).

Monetary Transgression

For the author, it is not fortuitous that according to Luke, the two crises that span the “Golden Age” of Christianity both originate in an economic matter: the straying of Ananias and Sapphira, and the recrimination of the Hellenists in the face of the prejudice against their widows (6:1). Taking the traditional account of the death of Ananias and Sapphira and strategically placing it in this part of the narration, Luke wants to make known to his readers that the original sin of the Church is a sin of money. The relation of believers to their belongings takes on an eschatological dimension. Luke had already expressed this in the first two summaries in which the divine Spirit impels the sharing of possessions, simultaneously ful-filling the Deuteronomic demand for the removal of poverty from the bosom of the people of God (4:34 quote from Dt 15:4), and the ideal of friendship ( 2:44; 4:32). Spirit and money go together in Luke, who would in no way subscribe to the antibiblical dichotomy between “material things” and “spiritual things.” One of the moral realities of his account is, money can kill one who clings to it.

An Ontological Dimension of the Church

For the author, the punishment of Ananias and Sapphira demonstrates that this economic sharing does not reduce to a philosophical ideal, even if it were Greek or a romanticism of love. The altruistic management of possessions can be said to be an ontological dimension of the Church; wealth carries with it, in relation to the poor, a responsibility sanctioned by the God-Judge. In light of the judgment of Ananias and Sapphira, a foreshadowing of the eschatological judgement, the ethic of sharing possessions acquires extreme import. Mammon (Luke 16:13), destroyer of life, is also destroyer of the Church.

It is from this perspective that the added wording of verse 4 must be understood, that it alters the imperative character of 4:32-24 (the renunciation of one’s belongings is not obligatory, but voluntary) and readapts the critique of Peter in 5:3 (the crime is having lied about the whole commitment). After the attribution of the sin to Satan in verse 3, verse 4 returns to an ethic of individual responsi-bility. Marguerat asked why this wording correction was made and considers that it has a parenthetic effect: maintaining the free choice to give and profiling the responsibility of the individual, Luke adds to the eschatological threat an exhorta-tive dimension intended for the well-to-do readers to whom it is directed. If God’s judgment of the damned couple pertains to the time of origin, and as a result is not repeatable as such, the call to share remains.

The story of Ananias and Sapphira takes place in the narrative sequence of Acts 2-5, which can be qualified as a story of origin, with the same title as Gen 1-11. The literary genre of the account explains both the marvelous dimension of the narration (irresistible develop-ment of the Church) and its tragic aspect (two thunderous deaths without the least bit of compassion from the narrator).

The author of Luke-Acts has situated this account in more of an ecclesiological perspective rather than focusing on redemption; instead of develo-ping the drama of individual salvation, he magnifies the power of the Spirit and its work of spreading the Word. However, if the theme of Acts 5:1-11 is the original wound to the community, the social fiber of Luke’s writing has not been insensitive to the fact that this first sin of the Church was a monetary transgression.

Translated and excerpted from VOCES: Revista de Teología Misionera de la Universidad Intercontinental , No. 19, Jul-Dec 2001: “Acts of the Apostles- Narrative Approaches.”

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXII, No. 7, December 2002.