The picture that emerges about the early Church in the Acts of the Apostles is one of irenic optimism. We are told that all who believed “were of one heart and soul and that no one said that any of the things which he possessed were his own, but they had everything in common”. The early church appeared to practice a coenobitic lifestyle where no one owned anything but everything was owned by all so that “there was not a needy person among them”. Those in the early church who owned property brought the proceeds of what was sold by them individually and laid it at the Apostles’ feet and that distribution was made to each according to their needs.
The relationship between property and its ownership was understood in a totally different way as we now understand it in the Western world. Like all gifts from God, money and property were understood as being used in freedom and in the service of God who gave all things to humanity in the first place. Christian witness required a detachment from possessions and Christian service demanded sharing.
This brings us to Ananias and his wife Sapphira. They sold a piece of property but decided to keep back some of the proceeds when they laid the money at the feet of the apostle. No doubt they wanted to keep a little “something” in reserve. Perhaps they had misgivings as to the sharing of property that they had worked hard for and that the new system may have been seen as being innately unfair to them. Very likely they reasoned that it was their property to be distributed as they wanted and, after all, was it not better to give something for the collective good rather than nothing at all?
Peter in his interrogation of Ananias asked him why Satan had filled his heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land. Peter made the point that they did not have to sell the land, nor were they obliged to dispose of the money in any particular way. However, having committed to the Christian life then by holding part of the money back they had “not lied to men but to God”. In response, Ananias dropped dead and was promptly buried.
Some three hours later Sapphira, ignorant of what had happened to her husband, was approached by Peter. The apostle identified the amount that the property was sold for and asked her “how is it that you have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord?” Sapphira also dropped dead and was buried next to husband.
Let us now examine this curious case a little closer. The first thing that can be said is that both Ananias and Sapphira must have felt some form of compulsion to give and, with that, some sort of resentment towards giving. They certainly were not obliged to give anything but once they had made the decision to give then the promise to do so was in effect made to God. Paul captures this idea clearly when he writes “he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:6-7).
It can also be said, as does St John Chrysostom, that by lying to God they committed sacrilege unto the Lord. This was, as was in this case, a matter of life and death. Lying ruptures any relationship and lying to the Lord our God ruptures it unto death. Hence Ananias and Sapphira, according to St John, purchased their own death.
I think however the problem was that this couple was not committed to Christ. They were neither totally in or totally out. In fact it could be said that they were lukewarm Christians – which of course is how most of us would be classified today. I am reminded of John’s call to the Church of Laodicea in chapter 3 of the Book of Revelation, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth”. These are harsh words. Better if you were totally outside the church than to be lukewarm within. The penalty for being lukewarm is rejection by God.
Indeed, how many times are we reminded of this in the gospel? Does not Christ tell us that “no one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Further, are we not reminded to seek the kingdom at all costs “the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:44). Are we not also told that whatever we do for the least of our brethren we do for Him, and whatever we fail to do for the least of our brethren we failed to do for Him?
So what does this tell us about Christian stewardship? If we accept that all property comes from God and that we hold it during our lives as trustees only then property ceases to have a critical hold over us. We can thus begin to understand what the gospel means when it tells us to be anxious for nothing. Hence what we shall eat or drink or wear pales and is no longer important for God will provide. Thus, if we accept that we hold our property on trust for God it is easier to part company with it as it is not ours in the first place.
Unlike Ananias and Sappira we should recognize that the joy of possession of property permits the even greater joy of giving to those in need as mandated by Christ. Accordingly let us all examine our consciences to see whether or not we are totally committed to Christ and if so whether we are doing all we can to live our life in Christ.