Economies of Death: Thoughts on Ananias and Sapphira

In our adult faith Bible class at church a few months ago  we were in Acts 5, the story of Ananias and Sapphira.

This story is a pretty triggering text for modern, progressive Christians. The idea that God would strike someone dead for lying about holding some money back from the church seems, well, very Old Testament. In the scariest sense.

But here's a thought I'd like to share about this story.

Before that, though, a couple of observations.

First, it's clear that Acts 5 needs to be read in contrast to Acts 4. At the end of Acts 4 we get this vision of the economy of the kingdom:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
It's a radical vision. No one claimed any of their possessions to be their own. They shared everything they had, even selling off property. And the outcome was that there was no needy person among them.

From that picture we immediately step into the story of Ananias and Sapphira, a couple who also sells their property but lies about keeping back a part of the profits for themselves.

Clearly, the story of Ananias and Sapphira is a strong and stiff warning that the economy and community of Acts 4 is only sustainable through transparency and fidelity to the community. In game theoretic terms, the story of Ananias and Sapphira is expressing a deep concern about free riders in the early Christian communities. Given the communal sharing within the early church, free riders seem to have been a pressing concern. Free riders always are in communitarian communities. The economics of Acts 4, throughout history, and across all sorts of communal experiments, Christian and non-Christian, have proven to be about as stable as a soap bubble. And the problem that always kills such communities is free riding.

Given that threat, it's logical that a stern warning is laid down in the story of Ananias and Sapphira.

A second point here concerns collectivistic versus individualistic cultures. Living as we do in an individualistic and libertarian culture, we find the punishment of Ananias and Sapphira to be over the top. Loyalty to the group just isn't a moral priority for us Westerners. But in collectivistic cultures, like the culture of the early church, fidelity to the group is of paramount importance. To sin against the group would, in their eyes, merit the harshest of punishments. 

Third, while it is logical to assume God struck down Ananias and Sapphira, the text is ambiguous on this point. Peter confronts both Ananias and Sapphira about their deception and they both simply die: 
"When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died...At that moment she fell down at his feet and died." This gives us some theological wiggle room in interpreting what happened. Did they die from shock? Did God actively kill them or simply withdraw life from them? We just don't know. My preferred way of looking at this is to frame what happened in strongly theological terms: The story doesn't say Ananias and Sapphira were killed, simply that Ananias and Sapphira stepped out of life and into death. 

Those observations made, here's the main point I'd like to share about this story.

Specifically, lots of progressive Christians have no problem criticizing capitalistic economies as being economies of death. That is, capitalism works for most of us, but if you can't keep up you're thrown to the wolves. On the edges of capitalistic economies people live in very precarious situations, lives of hunger, homelessness, privation, and limited access to health care. People die because they do not have access to wealth.

In Acts 5 we also see people die. But in this case the people who die are not the needy. In Acts 5 the people who die are those who refuse to share with the needy, those who hoard their wealth. 

So, given that contrast, which economy of death should we choose? People are dying either way. Should the needy die? Or those who refuse to share with the needy? 

I get why progressive Christians recoil at Acts 5. They see something that looks wrathful and judgmental in the Bible and they freak out. Progressive Christians can be a pretty fragile bunch when it comes to reading Scripture. They see something in the Bible that doesn't fit into their preferred hermeneutical framework and just stop thinking. But if we took two seconds to think about this story, my hope would be that progressive Christians would come to see something pretty remarkable in the text: the church is putting the responsibility of taking care of the needy upon itself. That's what this story is doing. Pondering that, compare Acts 4 and 5 with how we treat the needy in capitalistic economies. Are the wealthy in capitalistic economies shouldering the burden of making sure there is no needy person among us? And if not, wouldn't we like to see a world where an Acts 5 imagination was the norm?

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