Tuesday, June 26, 2007

So what's up with Ananias and Sapphira?

So long as we've started with problematic Biblical passages, I guess we might as well continue. But first, a clarification: when I say, "problematic", I mostly mean morally problematic. I'm not really qualified to delve deeply into textual difficulties, but I figure I'm allowed to ask pointed questions about passages that seem to endorse things that are morally repugnant.

This isn't an attempt to repudiate the Bible or anything. In my opinion, it's absolutely ridiculous to hunt around for objectionable passages out of this book or that book, and follow that up with a conclusion that the Bible is worthless. By contrast, this is an attempt to expose questionable pieces of scripture that we might use to justify our own misbehavior. It's an attempt to allow ethics to affect how we interpret and assign normative value to various parts of scripture, when we usually do this the other way around.

So let's take a peek at the passage that was the sermon text at my church this past Sunday. It's the story of two early Christians, Ananias and Sapphira, and is found in Acts 5. I'll start my quotes a little earlier, in chapter 4.

Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet.

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife's full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles' feet.

Then Peter said, "Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God."

When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.

About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, "Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?"

"Yes," she said, "that is the price."

Peter said to her, "How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also."

At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.


Now, let me begin by saying that I don't think we should let Ananias and Sapphira off the hook for being greedy. The story obviously presents them as trying to get the church to approve of their generosity while feathering their own nest. But really, does the punishment fit the crime? So that's my first question about the ethics implicit in this passage: how is God morally justified in killing Ananias and Sapphira?

My second question has to do with Peter's attitude. Like one of my friends at church said, "Peter doesn't seem to be acting very much like Jesus." To make this a little more obvious, imagine Ananias and Sapphira as a couple from your church. You can even imagine some people you don't like very much.

Now imagine that the husband comes in to talk one of the church leaders, lies to him, and then keels over dead from a heart attack. When the wife comes in a couple hours later, what would you expect the church leader to do?

A. Gently break the news of the husband's death.
B. Warn the woman to be honest so God doesn't strike her dead.
C. Craftily cross-examine the woman and get her killed too.

I would hope for A, or at least B, but Peter seems to be doing C. Yep, those are the kinds of leaders I want for my church! So the second question is: how is Peter morally justified in entrapping, rather than comforting, Sapphira?

My third question isn't really specifically moral, but in light of ConcernedEngineer's recent comments - about how rejecting him is the same thing as rejecting God - I want to ask this question too. When Sapphira lies to Peter, he responds with, "How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?" My third question is: How is lying to Peter the same thing as "testing the Sprit of the Lord"?

My hunch is, there are no satisfactory answers to these questions. There is no way to justify the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. There is no way to justify Peter's entrapping Sapphira. And lying to Peter is absolutely nothing like testing the Spirit of the Lord. Combined with the fact that this is one of only two New Testament stories about God striking people dead (excluding whatever the heck is happening in Revelation ... and correct me if I'm wrong), I think we should be very cautious in trying to interpret this story and apply it to today's church. Frankly, I'm tempted to take the scissors to this story, but that would put an ugly hole in the middle of the story of Stephen, so I'll refrain.

30 comments:

The Christian Heretic said...

how is God morally justified in killing Ananias and Sapphira?

Considering that "morality" is completely relative, I'd have to say that justification is completely irrelevant here. When it comes down to it, it's about the power. God has the power to do what He wants, the question is whether He's willing to risk our devotion by what He does (there's also the question of the accuracy of any of the Bible stories, but that's another issue altogether). While I don't like death anymore than the next person, I accept (at least intellectually) that it's a completely natural thing in this universe and not "bad" (since "bad" is also relative). Really, the only real problem I would have with God is if He allowed someone to be tortured forever, and even that I wouldn't consider wrong (as I don't believe that "wrong" exists), just not something that I would want from a deity and hence I wouldn't want anything to do with Him if He did.

scoots said...

From the perspective of Luke (who wrote Acts too), the apostles are being led completely by the Holy Spirit at this point, so Luke would probably regard the lie to Peter as indeed an (attempted) lie to the Holy Spirit, and thus to God. Abuse of power is still a possibility in Acts, but it’s never even hinted at (from Luke’s perspective) as something that the apostles would do. It’s almost like they’re possessed by the Holy Spirit, so Peter becomes a sort of super-hero. (He comes across differently in Galatians 2, of course, but we have to take the story for what it is.)

This makes the passage hard to apply in real life, but I might try coming at it this way: Ananias and Sapphira were trying to use the name of Jesus to gain honor for themselves. So maybe they weren’t killed so much for lying, as for holding Jesus in contempt by trying to use him to lie to other people. Basically, they took the Lord’s name in vain. I’m sure we can all think of examples of people who have done this, from politicians to opportunistic religious figures.

This idea of being hurt or killed because you dishonored God or Jesus shows up at least a couple of other places in Acts: when God kills Herod for accepting honor as if he were a god (12:23), and when some Jewish exorcists get jumped by demons after they try using the name of Jesus (19:23-17).

The core idea here, I think, would be that God is holy, and that God won’t stand for people doing certain things that violate that holiness. That’s one way to look at it, anyway.

jennifer said...

I've always thought this was an interesting bit of narrative... I've long suspected that there's something missing in our understanding of the culture of the early church that might help us understand it. There has to have been something else, something we're missing. My guess, at this point, (and it is just a guess) is that there was some sort of norm involving selling off property and laying it at the disciples feet, such that (a) money laid there was assumed to be the entire purchase price of X and (b) the act of so doing was seen as a sort of test of ones spirituality/faith/insert your word choice here, administered by God himself, as it were. At least, that's the only way I've figured of understanding it.

As to your questions...

The first one's a non-issue for me since my understanding of God doesn't require that he be morally justified in his actions.

Peter: Who knows what his attitude was... in his potential defense, could he have been offering Sapphira a chance to redeem herself/separate herself from her husbands sin?

Spirit: Again, back to the obviously-present-but-unknown norm about this whole money at the feet thing. If (b) is true, Peter is only speaking on behalf of God, and not equating himself with God.

Just my thoughts. I'll be interested to see what anyone else has to say...

scoots said...

You’ll like this, Matt. From a New York Times movie review this past week: “Evan Almighty” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It has some mildly naughty humor, but nowhere near as much sex or violence as the Book of Genesis.

Matthew said...

"nowhere near as much sex or violence as the Book of Genesis"

Cute. =)

shane said...

"how is Peter morally justified in entrapping, rather than comforting, Sapphira?"

Perhaps what is unusual in this text is Ananias' wife is given the same opportunity to tell the truth where her husband has failed. Rather than entrapment, Sapphira is given an uncommon opportunity to express her own moral agenda apart from her husband. Both are found morally suspect, and the punishment is consistent throughout Acts (as Scoots mentioned.)

There are many narratives where families, clans, or even entire generations are held accountable for a leaders arrogance, cowardice, lies or other unworthy actions.

Matthew said...

Good ideas from everybody. I have two questions, though, about things that seem to pop up in several of your responses.

First: why do some of you think that God should be held to lower moral standards than human beings? For example, why is it wrong for human beings to murder when it is apparently OK for God to murder? Some of you seem to say that power justifies any evil action, or that God, being God, is exempt from having to respect life - so why do you think so? You seem to be answering my first question by saying, "God doesn't have to justify her actions", but why?

Second: Several of you gave alternative interpretations of the "point" of the story: good ways to work around the uncomfortable ethical questions in the text. Scoots suggested that we take the message of the story to be "don't violate God's holiness", and Shane suggested that we dwell on the fact that Sapphira was actually given a chance to tell her own tale, rather than being nuked simply because her husband was nuked. These approaches may be helpful for people who value the text enough to overlook the obvious ethical problems, but for people who are approaching the text and trying to evaluate the ethical standards implicit in Christianity, neither of these equivocations is going to help much.

So suppose I'm coming from outside the church. How would you justify the behavior of Peter in this passage? And the behavior of God? I guess it would be OK to say "that's not the point of the story", but then the obvious questions for me would be: did God really do this? And would Jesus endorse the behavior of Peter?

scoots said...

I would say that God is indeed a holy God, who reserves the right to destroy anyone who violates that holiness. Clearly God doesn’t often strike people down in such explicit ways now, but in this case Ananias and Sapphira were made an example of.

Becoming a Christian, and taking on the name of Jesus, should be something that’s done with fear and trembling. I think this story shows us how God feels about people who don’t take that seriously, and its purpose is to call us to sober reflection.

I don’t quite buy the entrapment claim, because Sapphira had already participated in the lie and God knew it. God could have just struck her dead on the spot, but instead (as Shane said) she was given a chance to confess.

If Peter had had her killed, the story would be a lot more questionable. But the clear implication is that God killed her, not Peter, so I think his actions are pretty reasonable, if a little stern.

Matthew said...

"I would say that God is indeed a holy God, who reserves the right to destroy anyone who violates that holiness."

So by what reasoning does God have the right to destroy anyone who violates her tender sensibilities? I certainly don't have the right to kill my son when he poops his pants.

Connor said...

"but in this case Ananias and Sapphira were made an example of"

This, to me, seems to be what the passage is about. You better behave, or look out! May be a good scare story but if it really happened then I can only assume that God gave up this idea because he realized he was going to have to 'knock off' a lot of church people.

scoots said...

Matt said: “I certainly don't have the right to kill my son when he poops his pants.’

Um, you’re not a holy deity. That’s the whole point.

I don’t think holiness can be equated with sensibilities. I think moderns have lost our sense of what holiness means, probably because God never does anything scary like strike someone dead on the spot for violating it.

Matthew said...

"I don’t think holiness can be equated with sensibilities."

But I have to be able to evaluate God's purported actions using my moral sensibilities. Otherwise I can't evaluate whether the God you're asking me to follow is good or evil. I'm an ignorant heathen, and for all I know, Baal is similarly "holy".

jennifer said...

Some of you seem to say that power justifies any evil action, or that God, being God, is exempt from having to respect life - so why do you think so?

It's not that God is exempt from having to respect life... but rather than the creator always has control/sway/power over the created to do with it as she wills. While it may be troubling for me to destroy something I've created, it's certainly not immoral... and God refers to himself in terms of creator-ness often enough that I find it to be a plausible understanding (think of the Jeremiah/potter narrative in Jeremiah 18).

The Christian Heretic said...

So by what reasoning does God have the right to destroy anyone who violates her tender sensibilities? I certainly don't have the right to kill my son when he poops his pants.

Again, it's not about rights (or right vs. wrong), it's about the power. You have the power to kill your son for whatever reason you like, and can certainly do so too, but others will then use their power to put you in prison or have you killed because they don't like what you've done (and God might also use His power to punish you if they don't because He might not like what you do). The difference between us and God is that none of us have the power to put Him in prison or kill Him for killing someone for doing something He doesn't like (unless He lets us). When it comes down to it, morality is nothing more than what someone likes vs. dislikes (be it a human or God doing the liking and disliking). The important thing is that we don't forget who has the power and who doesn't, but also that there are different forms of power as well (force isn't the only form of power. Non-resistance can sometimes be even more powerful than force).

Connor said...

"I'm an ignorant heathen, and for all I know, Baal is similarly "holy"."

Isn't that the catch. The God of the bible is different than Baal or others because he is real and actually acts in this world. I'm thinking of Elijah and his great altar challenge and striking down Ananias and Sapphira and plenty else. I guess the difficulty really comes in the fact that it often seems that this God stopped doing things.

Matthew said...

"While it may be troubling for me to destroy something I've created, it's certainly not immoral"

But what about destroying someone you've created. Would that be immoral?

Matthew said...

"When it comes down to it, morality is nothing more than what someone likes vs. dislikes"

I disagree. At the very *least*, Morality (with a big 'M') is a kind of weighted average of what most human beings think is good and evil. If you're coming from an evolutionary perspective, you'll probably be able to see how this broad consensus is what you might expect to develop over millions of years of people trying to live together with other people.

I expect that it is a mistake to paint the universe using only the brush of Power, but I guess a discussion of power depends on the answer to the first question. Because if things can't be right or wrong, it's probably impossible to critique power, and the law of the jungle has to prevail. I think humanity is beginning to learn that might does not, in fact, make right, and I think it would be a mistake to give up on this hard-won bit of wisdom.

Steve said...

Uzzah, the guy who was killed because he tried to stabilize the Ark of the Covenant as it was rocking back and forth on its way, got a raw deal too.

Paul said...

"It's an attempt to allow ethics to affect how we interpret and assign normative value to various parts of scripture, when we usually do this the other way around."

To me, that's major.

As to the particulars of this passage, I'd want to see this as an instance of hyperbole used to make a point. Certainly Jesus does that a lot with the beam in the eye, the camel and the needle... Maybe that wasn't an uncommon device to employ.

Otherwise, to get it to make moral sense, it seems to me you have to work at in a pretty convoluted manner that resembles how a defense lawyer would try to defend someone whose reason for a double murder was withholding of funds.

I've come here for a little respite from my own blog. It's gotten crazy. I'm all tangled up with Paris Hilton in a national media scandal, no kidding.

Seriously, The Interfaith Alliance and the State of Belief program that I link to - I'm surprised I hadn't run into them earlier. From what I read online, the former was organized in 1994 specifically to counter the Christian Coalition. Looks like a strong progressive Christian organization.

crystal said...

Hi Matthew,

This passage really gives me the creeps! I wrote about it once too.

heather said...

My two cents on the morality of God killing Ananias and Sapphira... I think one of the problems is that we can't necessarily apply the morality that God has dictated for us to God. He's morally better than us, of course, but our roles in the universe are different. For example, we would be morally wrong to let someone die if we could prevent it, but everyone on the planet physically dies eventually (yet God could probably prevent it). Most of us don't find God morally negligent for allowing everyone since the dawn of time to die, because we realize that He deals with Eternity rather than only this lifetime. Death is not the end of us, just a transition - but we (correctly) feel that it is wrong for us to initiate that transition. It is simply not our place to cause or allow death - but it is God's, whether it is a 97 year old man, a woman in a car accident, or Ananias and Sapphira. I think it's too easy to apply the moral standards that we must live by to God, who is not human and has a different set of responsibilities and roles. It's morally wrong for my child to drive the car to the store, because she's young and not up to that level of responsibility and ability - but not wrong for me, because it's my job.

Matthew said...

Hi, Heather.

"I think one of the problems is that we can't necessarily apply the morality that God has dictated for us to God."

This is where our opinions diverge. I don't think God has "dictated" morals for us (except insofar as we can say that our consciences communicate moral behavior), and I think that if God is a being, then God must be subject to the same moral expectations as any other being ... otherwise, it's meaningless to say "God is good".

The comments above have a few more things to say about that, but basically, I think we're going to have to disagree about this story so long as we disagree about whether we should expect God to behave morally.

Aristotle said...

The question, "how is God morally justified in killing Ananias and Sapphira?" doesn't have any meaning. Morality is the regulation of human conduct based upon reason. It is impossible to speak about "morality" when speaking about God, as if He were subject to a moral law. His Will is his Goodness, etc... His Being is His Essence, etc. So it makes no sense to even ask such a question. Of course it is Good if God does it, because He is Goodness itself. God cannot do evil. The question then becomes how we can look at the act and see the goodness, not whether it is there.

Aristotle said...

Blogger Matthew said...

Hi, Heather.

"I think one of the problems is that we can't necessarily apply the morality that God has dictated for us to God."

This is where our opinions diverge. I don't think God has "dictated" morals for us (except insofar as we can say that our consciences communicate moral behavior), and I think that if God is a being, then God must be subject to the same moral expectations as any other being ... otherwise, it's meaningless to say "God is good".

The comments above have a few more things to say about that, but basically, I think we're going to have to disagree about this story so long as we disagree about whether we should expect God to behave morally.

Dear Matthew,

What you are saying doesn't make any philosophical or theological sense. God is not "subject" to anything. If He were, then by definition He could not be God. He is the source of ALL things in creation. The "moral law" so to speak is a fact of God's Being, and not something extrinsic to it, as if there were some law upon which He depends for His morality, and He has to obey it as we do. WE must obey it because it is HIS law; He does not "obey" anything - He IS that Goodness which is reflected in created things and which we have a share in by reason, which is a regulator of our conduct even naturally speaking.

It is thus meaningless to call God good if you say that He has to "obey" a law. If He obeys, then He is subject and not God. This is not to say that morality is relative; on the contrary, it is to tie morality to the surest foundation - God's Being itself.

I suggest a close reading of St. Thomas Aquinas to correct any misunderstandings in this regard.

Aristotle said...

"Morality" doesn't "apply" to God; rather, God is its source. God is Goodness itself. He is incapable of evil, which is a sure proof of His Omnipotent Power. This is also to say that morality is NOT relative; it does not have its source in the subject but in God and His Goodness.

Have you ever heard the ludicrous attack of the atheists that if God is all powerful then why can't He make a rock so heavy that even He cannot lift it?

It's the same sort of thing here. If God is all powerful, then why can't He do an evil act?

Because making a rock so powerful you can't lift it is a negation of power, a statement of impotence. The "can't" there is really a strength, not a weakness or negation. The same with evil. Evil is a privation of goodness, a privation of being; God is Goodness; God is His own Being. Thus to say that He could do evil is to say that He is able to have non-being, which is a weakness and not a strength.

The "fools" who say in their hearts that God does not exist would do well to dwell upon these things, as would the sincere Christians who wish to argue that God is subject to "obey" a moral code, as if His very being were something other than Goodness and that Good and Evil is a choice for Him as it is for us.

That is in effect, without realizing it, to make God a creature. Far be it from us to so insult the Glory of the omnipotent God!

zenphoria said...

ok i came across your post when i was havng my own questions about the death of ananias and sapphira. You are right when you say that it does not fit in with the character of God. But who is to say that it is God. God is live, love and healing...he never strikes down "christians" in the new testament before or since. It never says God struck them down or an angel of the Lord. It just says they died. The result of which is fear. God is love not fear. Hence the scripture perfect love casts out all fear. so I don't believe that this was God striking them, but either a. Satan. or b. their own sin did them in. They were hiding, lying and cheating and they just got called out. A heartattack maybe. I don't believe this was God and I am tired of Christians using this to justify control in the church. thanks for your blog.

ryansbigwalk said...

I susprised no one's mentioned that it's probable that Peter just killed Ananias and Sapphira, and then when the event was recorded for posterity it was recorded inaccuratly, either because Peter was covering himself or because the event had gained a legendary status.

Matthew said...

> I susprised no one's mentioned that it's probable that Peter just killed Ananias and Sapphira

Outside of any other evidence, I'd hesitate to say /probable/, but I suppose it is possible.

Anonymous said...

It occurs to me that very few people are throwing out any sort of Biblical reasoning for this passage, and are instead trying to put God on trial for something we 'disapprove' of.

HUMAN morality changes over time, many people's more liberal morality are offended by what God decides is right and wrong in the Bible.

Just because God's morality at times can be harsh and unbending from OUR tiny, limited prospective, does not imply that God makes mistakes or is even capible of injustice. Indeed, if God was truly justice devoid of mercy, every man, woman, and child would burn for sin. Even children are cruel if you give them the opportunity too. Ignorance for the law is no excuse, that's why a Savior is needed in the first place.

You can't look at things like the holocaust, civil war in Africa and the small, petty compromises we make in everyday modern life and somehow think we are so 'righteous' compared to God. That he sees something in us worth saving is what's amazing. And I'm honored to receive it.

We so quickly, and easily, leap to the conclusion that it's not OUR morality that is mistaken, but God's. Now that is more frightening to me that this particular passage. To fit God in a little box of what we consider to be right and wrong, how much easier to do that than conform to His ways. Ten Commandments, DON'T BRING FALSE WITNESS is one of them. You break it, the consequences are on your head.

Ananias and Sapphira died because they lied to God's face and tried to hide it. Peter condemned them and brought God's judgment.

Anonymous said...

Because it never happened! Luke wrote Acts and was a companion of Saul of Tarsus/Paul, the self-proclaimed "apostle to the Gentiles" that the True Apostles never acknowledged as one. (He doesn't. even qualify to be an Apostle because the requirements were that they must have been witness to the Messiah's baptism, witness to His ministry and walked among Him. Saul/Paul never did any of those things!) Mathias was chosen by lot to replace Judas as the 12th Apostle. In Rev. there are 12 foundations for the 12 Apostles: "And on the wall of the city had twelve foundations; and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” Rev.21:14"....so where is Saul/Paul's foundation?! His own conversion story changes and contradicts each other---In his 'vision', he states the Messiah said, "It is hard for thee to kick against the goads", which was from a pagan play about the false god Zeus, written 500 years earlier. (Bachaae;Euripides) The Messiah would never quote from a pagan play about zeus to anyone! He spoke only what the Father gave him to speak and not from anyone else!

Now refer to the Letter to the Church at Ephesus---They are praised for "testing those who say they are Apostles and are not and have found them to be liars". Saul/Paul even writes of being rejected by them. John writes, "They went out from us but they were not of us, for if they had been of us, they would have remained; but they went out from us to disclose that they were not of us." Saul/Paul met Peter and James once. He preached his own gospel for 14 years before he went to meet them and when he did, he stated that they added nothing to him and he didn't really need to learn anything from them, so he went out on his own. Saul/Paul never even quotes the Messiah in any of his writings. His letters were not accepted by the early church. The true Apostles never mentioned him in their writings, only he includes some of them in his!

Saul/Paul's followers were called "Christians". The followers of the True Apostles were called children of the 'Way' and included BOTH Jews and Gentiles that rejected Saul/Paul's teachings. ALL Christian denominations are based on ' Pauline Doctrine' and have built their churches on his foundation. Saul/Paul wanted to build as many churches as he could in order to spread his false gospel and that requires money! With Luke's story, believers are taught that if you don't give enough money to the church, then you are accursed! Churches do the same thing, today.

See for yourself by comparing Saul/Paul's teachings in Acts and Letters to the True teachings of the Messiah and of our Father, who is in Heaven. Saul/Paul contradicts BOTH of them. However, the teachings of our Father and His only son do not conflict with one another.

And remember, as Saul/Paul admitted, "And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light."