Today’s story of the punishment of Ananias and Sapphira is a tough read. The two sell their property to donate the proceeds to the Church but hold some back for themselves. The first impression the story leaves you with is that if you don’t give everything you own to the Church you’ll day. Well there is still a lot of people walking around so that can’t be the right meaning. What then is the proper way to understand this story?
The first thing to understand is that the short passage at the end of the previous chapter is related to this story. Remember, the chapters in the bible are later additions. Sometimes they are placed poorly. This is one of those times. The previous chapter ended:
Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles ‘feet.
The key here is that this person Joseph is a levite, that means he was part of the Jewish priesthood. Under Old Testament rules, he would have been entitled to retain a tenth for his own use but Joseph gives everything. This not only shows that the old testament rules are no longer in effect but the total commitment that is necessary to be a Christian. No doubt Joseph would have been praised for this act. Ananias and Sapphira are trying to obtain similar recognition but are not willing to give a similar commitment.
Peter’s response to Ananias and Sapphira is remarkable if you think about it. To Ananias:
But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? … You have not lied to man but to God.”
And to Sapphira:
But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord?
Peter’s statements are a reflection of how closely God is united to his Church. Ananias and Sapphira lie to Peter but it has the same import as lying to God. Now in one sense that is true of every lie. However, other lies are not punished in a like manner. There are no stories in scripture where a person tells a lie to another “regular” person and drops dead. Ananias and Sapphria lie to Peter and are withholding the truth from the Church. It is because of who the offense is made to that the weight of the offense is so great. This story establishes that the Church is God’s representative on earth (a point that will later be confirmed by Paul).
Next we see the Apostles continuing their ministry. In particular, they have been given the power to heal the sick. No doubt that this gift is given to them in part because God wants to inspire conversions and reassure them as they go forward. What’s amazing if the even Peter’s shadow is capable of healing the sick:
And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them.
Interestingly, we are not told that any of the other Apostles mere presence is capable of doing this. This ability of Pope’s to cure people by merely being near them continues to this day and both Pope Emeritus Benedict and Pope Francis as said to have cured people of demonic possessions by just being near people.