November 7, 2014

Acts 5:1-11 Ananias and Sapphira

The Death of Ananias (Raphael)

But a man named Anani′as with his wife Sapphi′ra sold a piece of property, 2 and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, “Anani′as, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” 5 When Anani′as heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.

7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8 And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” 9 But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Hark, the feet of those that have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” 10 Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things.

Acts 4 ended with a glowing picture of life in common among the Jerusalem Christians, to the point where everyone was voluntarily pooling their possessions.

Ananias and Sapphira
Ananias and Sapphira (4th c. tomb)

Acts 5 introduces the first jarring note as one of the couples, Ananias and Sapphira, wanting to look virtuous in front of others, publicly handed over “all” their goods but secretly conspired to keep back a portion for themselves. Peter uncovers the deception and the two both die.

Saint Luke recounts this as factual history, but he has also put his finger on the besetting sin of church life: pride. We want to look a certain way to garner the praise of others. And we are willing to lie to do that. This particular story is very dramatic, but lying about who we are and puffing ourselves up can become an almost natural part of daily life as we just tweak and spin our image. We do this as individuals, as families, as nations, and especially as churches. And thus we build up an idol that we like, defend and protect. We convince ourselves that we are acting correctly. And all of this destroys the honesty and trust that is the basis of any genuine community life.

Fr Schmemann
Fr Alexander Schmemann

In his Journals, Father Alexander Schmemann repeatedly saw this dynamic at work in Orthodoxy and lamented that Orthodoxy’s idolatrous preoccupation with itself pushed Christ into the background. 

‘Little children, keep yourselves from idols!’ (1 John 5:21).  Sometimes I see Orthodoxy in a thicket of idols. To be attached to the past always leads to idolatry, and I see many people living by the past, or rather, by many pasts. (18)

I realize how spiritually tired I am of all this “Orthodoxism,” of all the fuss with Byzantium, Russia, way of life, spirituality, church affairs, piety, of all these rattles. I do not like any of them, and the more I think about the meaning of Christianity, the more it all seems alien to me. It literally obscures Christ, pushes him into the background (146).

An Orthodox person will not say, will not acknowledge that Orthodoxy can be decadent…An Orthodox person will condemn that very thought as heretical and sinful (315).

To change the atmosphere of Orthodoxy one has to learn to look at oneself in perspective, to repent, and, if needed, to accept change, conversion. But in historic Orthodoxy, there is a total absence of criteria of self-criticism (47).

Father Alexander thus brings us back to Ananias and Sapphira and their lying, with its roots in pride and a desire to “spin” their public image. May God protect us all from following their example.