The various interpretations of the story of the couple, Ananias and Sapphira in the Acts of the Apostles often give an exaggerated version of their sin of keeping possessions for themselves. The episode is also paves way for the false picturization of God as the “one who kills the people who are insincere and unjust instantly.” How should we understand the story of these two believers who are marked as the signs for all others who “cheat” God? Is it a sin to have private property at the same time one is ready to share a part of it with others? Was it because of their insincerity or for not offering everything?
The Acts of the Apostles is noted for the colourful picture that often presents about the existence of the early Christian community which was united with “one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32). The fellowship (koinonia) and love (agape) of the Church in Jerusalem was such a powerful testimony to God’s working in their midst. The statement that “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34) in a way tells us about the inner dynamics of the community which possessed everything in common and lived the great ideal of mutual sharing. The two “summary statements” (2:42-47 and 4:32-35) in the Acts of the Apostles is regarded as a kind of idealized depiction of the believing community. There are examples of the people who “sold their land and houses and brought the proceeds and laid at the feet of the apostles (4:34-35). But at the same time there were also insincere members trying to creep into the movement without assimilating the real spirit of it.
From the narrative (Acts 5:1-11), we understand that the couple, Ananias and Sapphira were equally involved in the selling of the property and in the decision to hold back a part of it for themselves. It was nothing like a mistake happened by one partner and the other joining to support the other. Both were fully involved in creating and enacting this plot. The query of Peter is very clear in this regard: “How is that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test?” The partnership in deceiving the Christian movement is very vivid here. Moreover, they both lied when they were asked about the proceeds. According to Peter they lied not to the apostles but to God and the Holy Spirit. It was this insincerity or failure in truth was their greatest sin. It would not have been a sin for Ananias and Sapphira to hold onto that property and not sell it. Likewise, it would not have been a sin if they had sold the property and kept part of the money for themselves and only given part of it to be distributed to the needy. What was sinful was that they gave the money to the apostles in the same way as those who gave the entire price of the land to meet the needs, and thus everyone would have thought that they too had given the entire price of the land to meet the needs. The sin was in the hypocritical deception itself. They fell into the sin of pretence, of hypocrisy, of deception, of insincerity. It was indeed a breach of their Christian commitment.
What is to be noted here is that Peter is not punishing or putting them into death in the name of God, but they “fell down and died.” It may not be easy to explain this “sudden death” from a scientific point of view. At the same time, it seems reasonable to suspect that one reason for God’s swift judgment here is to guard the holiness of his people and their growing community.
Highlighting Ananias and Saphira’s deceit and greed that stands in contrast to the sincerity and generosity of the community of believers, Luke made it clear that the community envisaged by Jesus is the one that gives importance for faithfulness and righteousness based on love more than anything else. Anyone who breaches such value system is not worthy to be a member of that community. Ananias and Sapphira were tempting the Holy Spirit by deceiving everyone into thinking that in fact they were likewise giving the full price of their piece of land in order to meet peoples’ needs.
The greatest fault from the part of the couple was not that they kept back a part from their property but, that they parted the ways with God. God’s way is always the way of truthfulness and faithfulness. Half-hearted commitments and divided motives do not match the ways of God. We, in the Church have to strive to not allow hypocrisy or insincerity into our lives. Our motive for what we do is actually as important as our actions. Many an outwardly good deed can be in reality a very evil act if we tend to be “pre-determined” hypocrites. Transparency and accountability before God and people are the hallmarks of the Christian life-style and commitment than any amount of offerings or pious actions. Our call as the members of Christian community is not for part-time engagement or for compartmentalized commitment but to love God with “the whole heart, whole soul, whole mind and whole strength” and to be the witnesses of the “whole truth.”