Ah, Sapphira…Sapphira…your story causes me grief, even after all these years. It’s all about telling the truth. Your husband lied. But you didn’t have to. You could have spoken up, done the right thing–and lived.
Sometimes Bible stories are harsh, and this is one. Found in Acts 5:1-11, Sapphira’s story takes place after the death of Jesus, when the Christian community in Jerusalem was just beginning. Sapphira and her husband, Ananais, were new to the group. Imagine what those first months and years must have been like, living among those who had traveled, lived, and prayed with Jesus. Perhaps there was finally laughter, after so much sadness.
Certainly there was a new kind of sharing. Giving freely to those who had little, no one went hungry or homeless, says Luke, the author of Acts. Material possessions no longer belonged just to one person, or to a family. Believers gave freely, yet those who gave were not forced to sell everything.
Into this new group came Sapphira and Ananias. Perhaps they had heard of the generosity of Barnabas, Paul’s traveling companion, who had sold his land holdings and laid all of the money at the disciples’ feet. Such gifts made possible the extraordinary work of this community—to share God’s Good News.
Like Barnabas, Sapphira and Ananias also sold their property. They were excited, ready to go, ready to join, ready, ready…or so it seemed. Yet unlike Barnabas, they kept some of the money back.
And that, in itself, was not the problem. But they lied. They wanted credit for what they had not done. “With his wife’s knowledge,” says Luke, “he kept back some of the proceeds and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”
Somehow Peter knew the truth. When Ananais came home one day, Peter asked, “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land?”
Perhaps they wanted to give some of the proceeds to a son or daughter. Perhaps they had an elderly parent for which they were caring. And that, too, would have been alright.
But Peter knew that the couple had said they were giving the full proceeds of the land to the community. It wasn’t true. The couple lied to the group regarding the sale price, and kept some money back for themselves. It could have been one percent, it could have been ten or fifty percent. It doesn’t matter. With their lie, deceit entered the community.
Peter: “How did Satan tempt you this way, Ananias? Why did you lie about the price of the field? The land was yours to do with as you wanted; so was the money. You didn’t have to give any of it to us, but should have been honest!”Upon hearing these words, Ananias fell down dead. Carried out by the young men, of the house, he was quickly buried.About three hours later, Sapphira came home. As far as she knew, her husband was still alive.
Peter: “Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.”
Sapphira: “Yes, that’s right! That was the price.”
And in this early deceptive act, Peter recognized the work of the old Adversary, Satan–sneaking back into the Garden to undermine God’s new work.
In their quest to belong, Sapphira and Ananias demonstrate an age-old point. Whereas all people of faith are constantly tempted, it is often the newer believers who are more vulnerable to spiritual warfare. They might have benefitted from teachings such as these: “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.” (1 Peter 5:8-9)
Sapphira had a chance to redeem herself: she could have told the truth when asked. Yet the only thing she went on record for was a lie. She put her relationship with Ananias before her relationship with God, and in that choice she lost all. Granted, she apparently did not know her husband had died. For all we know, she may have feared a beating if she answered wrong. But the truth is the truth. Life in Christian community calls us to tell the truth. Living as the Body of Christ demands honesty and the most upright of characters.
And apparently that message came across loud and strong, for after Sapphira’s death, Luke wrote, “By this time the whole church and, in fact, everyone who heard of these things had a healthy respect for God. They knew God was not to be trifled with.” (Acts 5:11)
Big elephant-in-the-room question here: Did God strike down Sapphira and Anannias? The inference is certainly there…that’s is why Acts reports believers “having a healthy respect for God” after the falling down dead experience. Clearly, something on which to reflect.
What might we learn from the Sapphira/Ananias conundrum?
- Be truthful.
- Stay transparent in business dealings.
- Give so that others may live.
- Remember that people new to a faith community might need extra support.
- Consider the classic Bible verse (Matthew 6:24): “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other.”
Finally, there’s something here about the revolutionary aspect of speaking truth within our life in faith communities. It’s tough. There are times we’d rather not tell the whole truth. We’d rather speak partial truths. But God calls us to be truthful with our whole selves, speaking the truth in love–all of it.Can’t get much more straightforward than that.
May Annais and Sapphira rest now in peace–full heavenly peace.
Text adapted from Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter, published by Forward Movement, 2014