Studying Acts 4 32 – 5 11

We are studying Acts 4:32-5:11 for Sunday, November 22 – the story of Ananias and Sapphira! It is seriously the ultimate stewardship season text!! As part of our quarter-long study of love, though, it’s obviously a negative case. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this really rich text:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Acts is the part II to the Gospel of Luke’s part I.

We move from an account of the life of Jesus to an account of the birth and life of the early church, from Christ’s ascension, the events of Pentecost, through the early activities of the apostles closest to Jesus, and on to the commissioning of Saul/Paul, last of the apostles, and his missionary career, arrest in Jerusalem, and final transport to Rome. Geographically, the narrative begins in Jerusalem and moves mostly northward and eastward around the Mediterranean, the ocean in the center of the world, to Rome, the city at the hub of the world.

Our story, the story of Ananias and Sapphira, comes early in the text. The early Christians have not yet left Jerusalem. Peter and John have healed a lame man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, preached about Jesus, been arrested by Temple authorities – including the high priest Annas – and warned to stop doing that.

Our reading begins with the announcement that all the believers were “of one heart and soul” and held all their property in common. That communist sympathizer tone probably explains why a friend of mine, who used to be a union organizer, had Acts 4:32 read as the scripture at his wedding. However, I recently read an article that argues that this description of the primitive Christian community works more like a sign of the promised arrival of the Golden Age utopia, something that would have been immediately recognized by an ancient audience.

Either way, the text presents the early Christian community as a model of unity and generosity. That’s one reason this would be a good stewardship season text!

Who on earth would have had lands and houses to sell in the first place? Surely not many of the early Christians – since it wouldn’t have been many people in the first century, a time of severe economic and social inequality. I suspect that the kind of property, the chōriōn mentioned in verse 34, one of which Ananias sells, would have meant something specific in the context of first century real estate. It sounds like it wouldn’t have been a large tract of land, but a small parcel. The “place” called Gethsemane, as a matter of fact, is such a chōrion. I haven’t been able to track down anything specific in the time available to me, however.

Still, I imagine that if we could do the research on land tenure in ancient Palestine, we’d be able to tell something about the socio-economic status of these generous people from this language. I imagine, too, that what we’d find out is that they were small land-owners. That would still have made them hugely privileged relative to most of their fellows, even assuming the early Christian community was more or less a cross-section of the first century income and wealth distribution. If we assume that the early Christians were disproportionately members of the lower classes, “hugely privileged” would have been even more true.

There’s another reason this would be a great stewardship text! Because it’s easy to lose sight of how privileged we are, when we are. Especially when we’re aware of people who are hugely more privileged than we are, as everyone would have been in the ancient world. Or, today. When we hear the word “privilege” today we are more likely to think “billionaires” than to think “us.”

[Some information about inequality in the ancient Roman world is here; a more general discussion of Roman socio-economy is here.]

Another interesting question: what exactly would Sapphira’s relationship to the property have been? Her legal, social, and economic standing would have been complex, because apparently Ananias and Sapphira are Jewish Christians, and they are living in the Roman world, so several layers of law and custom come to bear on something as legal and economic as the sale of a parcel of land. Women could inherit land; a woman’s husband would administer and could benefit from that land, but precisely how was subject to conditions established in the marriage agreement. [The Encyclopedia of Jewish Women summarizes the legal status of the married woman under rabbinic law, but that may not all be applicable to the first century; here’s a summary of married women’s status under Roman law, but that may not all have been applicable to Jewish women.]  

There are good reasons to assume Ananias and Sapphira are Jewish Christians. This is the part of Acts that focuses on the life of the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem. The “Hellenists” – the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians – haven’t even been mentioned yet; that will come in the next chapter. Ananias seems to be a Jewish name. [Etymology here.]

Let’s always read Ephesians 5:21-33 in light of this cautionary tale, OK?

Note the marked contrast between the behavior of this Ananias and that of the Ananias who is the hero of Act II of the story of Saul’s vision of Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:10-19).

Acts 4:32-35 is in the lectionary as the reading for the Second Sunday of Easter (B), but the story of Ananias and Sapphira is one of those things you’d never know about the Bible if all you know is the lectionary! Apparently the curators of the lectionary do not share my enthusiasm for this story, or my view that it would make an unparalleled stewardship season text!! Why not, we might ask.
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CLOSER READING: Verses 32-35 describe an ideally united, mutually caring community that witnesses to the power of the risen Lord Jesus and that experiences grace, specifically exemplified by generosity and the absence of need. The word used here for “needy” occurs only here in the New Testament. We might want to think of “the proceeds” as “the value” of what was sold.

The word translated “possessions” in v32 strikes me as a peculiar and pregnant word. Luke uses it A LOT, but Paul uses it, too. In other contexts, it can mean something like “be,” in the way we might think of being … our identity, or our character, or our occupation or office (the way Jairus WAS a ruler of the synagogue in Luke 8:41). “Possessions” like this COULD be personal or spiritual qualities like goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection, and love (see 2 Peter 1:3-11); although they can simply be stuff we have (see 1 Corinthians 13:3). So there may be a sense in which these kind of possessions make people who they are, or might be thought of that way.

It’s also a homonym with “arch,” the kind in mon-arch and olig-arch. That may actually be relevant here, because something is going on in this story with authority, and who has it, or should.

This is even more explicit in Greek, where Peter reminds Ananias in verse 5:4 that the value of the property WAS (hypērchen, that word again) in his authority or power. (Like the kind the devil is talking about in the wilderness, when he offers Jesus the authority or power of all the kingdoms of the world. Luke 4:6. Just saying.)

The theme of authority may explain the text’s weird fixation on feet. The phrase “the feet of the apostles” occurs three separate times, but then Sapphira falls down at Peter’s feet, when the feet of the young men – who, we might note, had risen earlier, to bury the dead Ananias – approach the threshold. That’s a lot of feet. They may remind us that putting people or things “under someone’s feet” is a figure of speech for putting someone in charge of those people or things, giving someone power over them. (As in Psalm 110:1.)

I would rather not discuss the way feet can be a euphemism for other body parts in scripture. Even though, to people who see the need for words like “phallocratic” and “phallogocentric,” which is admittedly sometimes also me, that might appear relevant here. Moving on.

In verse 36, Barnabas’s identity gets a lot of emphasis. He’s introduced as Joseph – think of all the wonderful Biblical Josephs we know, from Joseph in Genesis to Joseph in Matthew 2; a Levite – meaningful, as having ritual and social responsibilities in the Jewish community; born in Cyprus – maybe also meaningful, but I don’t know how; whom the apostles have called “Barnabas,” which “being translated” [“metahermeneuticized” – I especially like that] is “son of encouragement” – which in Greek might remind readers that “the paraclete” aka the Holy Spirit is an encourager. Probably not a coincidence, particularly given Luke’s close attention to the activity and role of the Holy Spirit.

So Barnabas is a positive role model. He lays everything he is/has at the feet of the apostles. [Another reason this text is an awesome stewardship text, right?!]

Ananias (“given by YHWH”) is introduced in the next verse, 5:1, along with “his wife, Sapphira,” [More precious than rubies? See Proverbs 31:10.] The text will emphasize her relationship (“his wife”), repeating that three times, while mentioning her beautiful name just once. Their names are auspicious, but their behavior proceeds to belie those names.

The two act as one: Ananias sells the property with his wife, and keeps back part of its value with her knowledge. Later, Peter will confront her as being in harmony with her husband in this action. The very act of keeping back seems possibly to have a shady connotation. Certainly that’s so in the New Testament, where besides here in this story it only occurs in Titus 2:10, where it refers to slaves “pilfering” from their masters.
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Now things get complicated. Ananias and Sapphira clearly have done wrong. But what, exactly?

Peter says Ananias has “lied to the Holy Spirit” and “lied … to God,” and that Sapphira has conspired with her husband to “test the Spirit of the Lord.”

On the principle that God knows everything, and that all the persons of God are equally well-informed, the very idea of “lying to God” is hard to understand. Since God, we think, knows what’s on our minds and in our hearts, how would we conceal that from God? We might try to lie to God, or think we’re lying to God, but presumably it wouldn’t ever work. As it doesn’t work this time.

I wonder, however, whether the real immediate issue is that Peter’s and the other apostles’ own leadership authority is energized and directed by the Holy Spirit, and involves discernment in the power of the Holy Spirit. Bringing an offering for the church and laying it at the feet of the apostles confronts the apostles with a need to act, and act appropriately. Since they listen to the Holy Spirit when they take action, this amounts to a provocation of that Spirit.

It’s not as if this were just a routine bureaucratic matter, subject to Robert’s Rules and all that. If it were, the apostles would presumably duly move and second “to receive an offering of x amount in the name of y with the church’s thanks” and motion being carried would instruct the clerk of session to send a note for tax purposes, and check that right off the to do list. In that case, maybe, Ananias-and-Sapphira would have been lying “to humans.”

But if Peter and the other apostles are speaking and acting as moved by the Holy Spirit, then the act of Ananias-and-Saphira becomes a test of the Spirit’s power and integrity, as that is manifested in the acts of the apostles. That makes it a different story.

[It occurs to me that the way I feel when a student tries to copy something from the internet and turn it in as their own work, as if I would be too dim to notice that they’re suddenly talking like a graduate student, and as if I wouldn’t think to use Google to track down the source of their instant erudition, may be akin to how Peter feels in this story. I usually say “What were you THINKING??” Maybe I should start saying “Why did Satan put this in your heart??”]
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I think we should notice that the text does NOT say God kills Ananias, or Sapphira. The text tells us that, upon hearing Peter’s alert identification of their behavior for what it is, they fell down and “breathed their last” – there’s that spirit again.

Maybe they died of shame.

Or maybe they simply could not now hold back the truth, and had to lay at the apostles’ feet the full value of what they had received from God in the first place – their very lives.

When other people hear about these events they are overcome with great fear. This seems like appropriate affect for when you suddenly recognize that everything you ARE, life and all, belongs to God, who could ask for it back at any moment.

Another reason this is an awesome stewardship text.
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Image: Brescia Casket (rear), public domain, Wikimedia Commons

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