The story of Ananias and Sapphira is a rude interruption of the halcyon Pentecostal days of the Acts.
Up until now, every verse has been positively lyrical, like a big bright morning after a long night’s chilling dread. Jesus was dead, now He’s alive. The Apostles had fled, now they are speaking in tongues.
The Jerusalem ecclesial community is living out, in flesh and time, the Eucharistic life of the Risen Lord, turning the world upside down. Thousands of people witness miracles and hear the explanation that Jesus has destroyed the hegemonous tyranny of hell (mainly through the violent revelation of two points of theology that the Devil did not then, nor does not now, wrap his mind around: the Three-Personhood of the One Divinity, and the Two-Naturehood of the One Personhood of God the Son).
The First Mother Church, because they didn’t know better, naturally “were together and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need” (Acts 2.44-45).
I’ve always found it interesting to hear these startling verses decoded. The Study Bible immediately, in its annotations, deflects the simple implications by offering this mitigating clause: “While such communal living is not a mandate for all Christians …”
You might be entertained to know that I grew up hearing that this communal living was not a good thing at all. Somehow -- so the theory went -- this communal arrangement suppressed the “evangelistic mission” of the Jerusalem community -- despite the rather large fact that there is no evidence of such suppression, or shyness, or introverted lifestyle.
Later on, supposedly, God would send a famine to Jerusalem mainly to break up the ingrown and wrong-headedly socialistic commune. Of course, Agabus did not mention this in his prophecy (Acts 11.28): but we moderns know better.
I digress here. Suffice it to say here that there is no sense whatsoever in the narrative, even under the severe constraints of a sola scriptura hermeneutic, that God was at all displeased with the economic arrangements of the earliest Church.
So it was all happy. Even Peter and John, when they were arrested, were able to turn the arrest around and level a face-to-face confrontation at the very people who, just a few weeks earlier, had betrayed Jesus and arranged His crucifixion, even going out -- in a rather “un-Jewish” manner -- to the unclean site of execution just to get in their last “I told you so’s” on Black Friday.
Now, we see them quivering in their vestments: “So when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way of punishing them …” (Acts 4.21).
That, if you ask me, is a clear picture of impotence: the leadership of the Church of God’s People had clearly moved from the chief priests, elders, scribes and Pharisees over to the Apostles and James.
Potency was all on the side of the Church those days -- but, in a poignant contrast to later history, the power was not at all in the character of violence and domination. It was a marvelous Potency of Peace. If the Apostles would have taken up swords, contrary to the Lord’s command to “put away your sword back into the sheath” (John 18.10), then it would have been just another episode of a new usurper exercising the old themes of dominion.
As it was, it was not just another episode of the same. This was different. This was a revolution that sharply transcended all historic trends. The old powers would complain, characteristically: These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also (Acts 16.18).
Now that is rather complimentary, albeit in an offhand way.
The commune kept expanding. There seemed to be going on an interesting correlation. The greater the power of the apostolic proclamation of “the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,” the greater the grace was upon them all, and the more communal the life of the Resurrection, Eucharistic and Apostolic community. Even at the end of the fourth chapter of Acts, we read this: “For all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need” (Acts 4.34-35).
Enter Ananias and Sapphira. This episode is the very first bad news in the Book of Acts.
I want to underscore this fact. In this terrifying story, tragedy makes its first interruption of Pentecostal history, proving that yes, Christians can apostasize, and yes, the Holy Spirit can be ignored, and yes, Grace is completely resistible (the whole notion of irresistible Grace is meaningless, if not insane and inane, when reading the entirety of the Book of Acts).
Now, before you ever had read the Book of Acts, what would you have expected to have been the occasion of the first apostasy? The first tragic turn? The first historiographic appearance of the tares among the wheat?
I, for one, would have guessed something like an abortion, or an adulterous union. Perhaps a homosexual peccadillo. A jejune shacking up. A blasphemy, or maybe just the simple and ubiquitous practice of attending Liturgy only when convenient.
Obviously, that is not the case.
The first “fall from grace” in Church history is not communism, either (much to the chagrin of my old McCarthyite chums).
The first apostasy is, to be sure, economical.
But it was economical in a perfectly familiar and self-protective sort of way: for unspecified reasons, Ananias “kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it” (Acts 5.2). The reasons may have been justified, even. Perhaps it was a medical bill that needed paid, or a tax lien that needed relieved.
Perhaps it was just fiduciary prudence on the part of the couple, just your basic planning for the future. For the proverbial rainy day. Retirement planning, just following the green line.
Notwithstanding, the expectation was that the entire proceeds from the sale of a “possession” (also unspecified) should have been given to the Church -- that is, “laid at the apostles’ feet.”
Of course we know what happened next. Upon hearing that his deception was known to God and to the Apostles, Ananias “fell down and breathed his last” (Acts 5.5) and, just three hours later, so did his wife.
Ananias had withheld his gift. He failed to give the whole offering.
The Study Bible is quick here, again, to associate its interpretation with most interpreters: “Ananias and Sapphira are accountable for allowing Satan to fill their hearts with lies, and for breaking the trust and integrity of the Church …”
That is certainly true.
But there is something else. Something that we’d rather not talk about.
There is too -- and it emerges clearly from this sad story -- the terrible possibility that God will not accept every offering. It is possible -- no, it is likely -- that God will judge the quality of the offering by its moral history.
We should associate the tale of Ananias and Sapphira with a number of other stories in Holy Writ. We should remember the widow’s mite, that God receives as patently richer than the pot-o’-gold presented nonchalantly by the well-heeled (Mark 12.41-44). We should remember, too, the largesse of the Israelites in their offerings of their “first fruits” from a “willing heart” for the construction of the Tabernacle (Exodus 35.5).
Also, we think too of the desperate and wildly “existential” offering of the widow to the Prophet Elias in 3 Kingdoms 17. I have a fond reminiscence connected to this story. In a protestant seminary setting, many years ago, my confreres and I were nattering over the important pastoral concern of “stewardship” (whatever the hell that word means). My professor -- a well-meaning and portly magister of many things administrative and church growth-y -- exegeted this exceedingly disturbing passage as a proof-text for “We should get the people in the pews to give more money!”
I raised my hand and asked, sweetly, “But doesn’t stewardship in the Bible go both ways? The people gave completely, from a willing heart, to the Church: and then the Church gave completely, from a willing heart, to anyone who had a need. After all, this poor lady got her little boy back, all the way from the dead. Don’t you think that if a true member of the fellowship of the Church falls into financial duress, that the Church should turn around and help him out?”
I’ll tell you this: one of the many reasons I am where I am today and not where I was, is simply because this man huffed and puffed and combusted not a few grams in wending his way through a not-too-intellectual defense on just why we should not, and thus do not, return favors of largesse.
The early church distinguished itself with fund drives, maybe even bingo -- but not for capital campaigns. Rather, the old-fashioned goals in these drives were for the humbler and more elemental aims of manumission -- of purchasing the emancipation of fellow Christians … and of starvation relief -- of providing food for the basic survival of Christians across the sea and neighbors closer to home.
But this is an old issue. I want to go a little deeper, because there are larger fish to fry.
Permit me to return to the missing note in much of the interpretation of Ananias and Sapphira.
God criticizes all gifts. He judges every penny and dollar for its moral history.
It should be obvious, by now, that God is in the business of taking only “whole” gifts. The widow’s mite was more than sufficient because it was all she had. The widow, at the request of Elias, baked her last loaf of bread, with death loping up as the famine wolf on tomorrow’s horizon.
God takes only whole offerings.
He did not take Cain’s gift. He did not reject Cain’s offering because He arbitrarily preferred Abel’s, nor did He find leg of lamb more to His liking than a xerophagic sacrifice of cereal. The lamb did prefigure the immolation at Golgotha: but this archetypal relationship was not Cain’s fault.
The fault of Cain, as the Apostle Jude averred, lay in his “way” of life -- the “way of Cain” is the way of running “greedily in the error of Balaam for profit,” and perishing “in the rebellion of Korah” (Jude 11). Although Scripture does not say so much, one can detect the presence of avarice, cynicism, spite and pride. And more than a little acedia.
Nevermind that. What matters here, for sake of the argument, is the fact that God judges the giver, and examines the quality of the gift.
You cannot fool God with artificiality, or with shoddy goods. You cannot hide the history of possession. Money is never morally neutral, much as we wish in the science-fiction we call "economics." People and possessions cannot be represented by (or exchanged for) dollars -- a practice that is worse than moving the property markers of widows and orphans.
God will know whether the offering is whole, or only the part (which is one reason why our tiresome tithing pronouncements are a shambles). God will know whether the offering was produced by usury, the oppression of widows and children, the manipulation of property lines, the denial of first-fruits to God and the building of larger barns to squirrel them away from Divine notice (avarice always does make you stupid).
God will know whether your gifts, or your possessions, accrue from the hardships of others.
And to complicate things further, I should mention here that the business of “offering gifts” is comprehensive in the Church. There is no such thing as a specific “offertory” in the Apostolic Tradition, when the president of the assembly can say, safely, “Now we will have the presentation of His tithes and our offerings.”
In the culture of apostolicity, every moment and all of life is an offering: “We offer unto Thee Thine Own of Thine Own, in behalf of all and for all.” Nothing less that the whole is acceptable. Everything we are, and everything we have, is an offering.
And if we offer gifts with a spotted, “Ananiacal” history, He will reject them -- whether or not they are misrepresented. He will reject us … well, I don’t know that for sure: I rather hope not. But the outcome of an Ananiacal offering will never be good.
But if you think about it, the outcome is well known already, and its conditions have become overtly familiar.
There is always a response, in time, to Ananiacal and self-withholding living. It seems that that Creation, as a whole, finds repellent any action that is contrary to the Self-donating character of the Holy Trinity.
We have wondered for some time -- at least, we should have been wondering -- about the nose-diving state of affairs in the American religious community, especially the Christian Church, and even the Orthodox Church. I will not list the facts here or the signs: you have your own lists and your own reasons that suggest the outward symptoms of the trouble we’re in.
Diagnoses have been offered aplenty. Abortion, or complacency regarding abortion, is usually mentioned. The laxity of sexual mores is another frequent mention. My past favorite has been the diminution of doctrine. Or the failure to attend faithfully the services and prayers of the Church, and the preference for being entertained.
These are all valid in some way, and you can read about their contribution to degeneracy in other places.
But I have suggested another diagnosis today. I have suggested that we have become “unequally yoked” with the world not only in the usual habits of immorality, but more profoundly in the much-less-mentioned habit of economic immorality.
Yes, we must always do better at being generous. But this is not what I have said here. We have become too close to the economic engines of consumption, debt, and bondservanthood. We have become so friendly with the rich and powerful of this world that we are shy about saying anything that might offend them.
We avoid the topic of usury and the practice of opportunistic and exploitive interest. We become skittish about condemning the practices of “payday” loans that undeniably oppress the poor. We are too embarrassed to mention that colleges and universities willingly afflict the young with ruinous, bankrupting debt -- the loans of which cannot even be alleviated through bankruptcy settlement. When the stock market falls, we send up blame aplenty, but we send it in the direction of the poor, who -- we wag our fingers -- shouldn’t have taken out all those subprime mortgages. We denounce the simplest perceptions of environmental care as a bunch of leftwing cheaptricks, mainly to stroke -- like Pandarus -- our Fifth Avenue "friends." We stand by, like rubber-neckers at a gruesome traffic accident, watching the construction of deathtraps like casinos and bingo parlors and lotteries in about every single state of the Union: never mind that profit is being gouged, mostly from those who can afford it the least, mainly because in these places, at least, the lights are pretty and the food is nice.
We participate willingly in the myth of consumerism. We have elected Wall Street, really and truly, to be our king.
And we turn around, and seek the highest rate of interest for our own institutional investments, rarely wondering whether these funds perpetuate the very exploitive practices that the Fathers were never hesitant to condemn. We turn around and divert funds to properties and larger companies, and end up stoking the flames that make the rich get rich and the poor get poorer: and we’ll stand dumbstruck and stupid when the social order finally turns awry.
In a particularly poignant passage from a very helpful book entitled Reading Patristic Texts on Social Ethics (eds. Leemans, Matz & Verstraeten, 2011), Brenda Llewellyn Ihssen quotes Bishop Commodianus, a mid-third century hierarch from North Africa:
Do you not believe that the Lord sees these things from heaven? … you wish to bestow charity that you may purge yourself as being evil, with that which is evil. The Almighty absolutely rejects such works as these. You have given that which has been wrung from tears … O wicked one, you deceive yourself, but no one else. [p140]
I have long wondered why Christians, especially conservative ones, resist with all their might the mere mention of the economic -- or rather, the “dirty money” -- dimension of morality. Am I right in suspecting that we have used ascetic spirituality and our beautiful mysticism to bury the painful -- to the poor and to us, the lender side -- issues of economic privilege?
The Fathers, who were no ascetical slouches, did no such burying.
St. Gregory of Nyssa offered this:
What is the difference between getting someone else’s property by seizing it through covert housebreaking or taking possession of the goods of a passer-by by murdering him, and acquiring what is not one’s own by extracting interest? [Homily 4, quoted in and translated by Ihssen, p138].
St. Gregory the Theologian suggested a terrifying dynamic: “there are those who obey the ordinances, whose behaviours result in spring showers; and there are those who stand outside the ordinances, whose behaviours bring about natural disasters” (Ihssen, p135).
Take a moment to chew on that last phrase: "whose behaviours bring about natural disasters." I meant, seriously, what I said above about there being something in Creation that cannot abide an action contrary to Trinitarian donation.
We may be, today, less that what we should be mainly because our behavior "brings about disaster." Maybe there is a wider, deeper interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11.30-32 than just a warning against getting in the communion line nonchalantly. Maybe the "reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep" is also because of economic disunion. "For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged."
Indeed, St. James lends a helping hand when it comes to "judging ourselves" economically:
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for your miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver are corroded, and their corrosion will be a witness against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have heaped up treasure in the last days. Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. You lived on the earth in pleasure and luxury; you have fattened your hearts as in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have murdered the just: and he does not even resist you. (James 5.1-6)
I can only imagine here the rich, at this point, protesting and saying: "But our hands are tied! We were only paying out the prevailing rates! And, mind you, they were undocumented." James, if you must know, would not have been impressed by these rebuttals, and he would not have smiled at the rather cursory annotation (i.e., a single phrase for six whole verses), "The terrible fate of the unjust rich is that their wealth will condemn them."
James did not qualify "rich" with "unjust."
Don’t mistake me. I do not hesitate to complain about abortion or sexual transgression.
But I suggest to you that we should complain as the prophets, and the Fathers, complain. They were never averse to calling out economic wrong. The prophets said more about economic sin than sexual sin. James (and Gregory and Chrysostom and a bunch of other Fathers) let the rich have it, because, in fact and too much, they "had it all."
We need to learn how to give "whole offerings" again. The practice of "withholding" for rainy days and planning for survival is toxic.
And, I also suggest, for a better day in our own place and time, we need to walk less closely with the usurers.
God takes only whole offerings. He does not bless anything less.
We need to be a whole lot less Ananiacal.