But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, 2 and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3 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? 4 While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” 5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. 6 The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. – Acts 5:1-6
When I was 9 or 10 years old I bought my sister a Christmas gift: a set of checkers! She wasn’t really a fan of the game, but I loved it. The gift wasn’t really a gift for her. It was a thinly-veiled gift for me!
Ananias’ motives were not quite as tame as mine (though my sister might not have thought so at the time). Clearly, he (and his wife) had in mind quite the scam – though there was absolutely no reason to pursue it. The trouble with this scheme was not the amount of money given or withheld by Ananias and Sapphira. The problem was not that they wanted to follow the example of Barnabas. The problem was that they conspired to deceive the Holy Spirit by claiming a greater sacrifice than they had given.
This is the danger of wealth’s appeal and greed’s allure. When we have thousands of dollars to give, we can more easily project a greater sacrifice than if we have tens of dollars. The larger amounts also make it possible to project a greater gift: half of $100,000 is still $50,000. How impressive!
The greater danger, however, isn’t just trying to impress God; that cannot be done after all. The greater danger is substituting man’s awe for God’s approval. In other words, if we are more worried or given to a desire for man’s accolades than we are for God’s favor, we have substituted mortals for the immortal, eternal, almighty God.
It is striking to me that the punishment in this case is so swift and severe. Couldn’t these two simply have been given a warning? Why did they have to die? I’m not certain I know the answer to this question, but it certainly is obvious that God acts swiftly and decisively on this occasion. Perhaps that’s because for most Christians money is the chief rival god.
God is a jealous God and will strip away any pretense we might attempt to offer. If all that remains is the righteousness of Christ all is well. If, however, God’s stripping reveals a heart given to the praise of man or the refusal to honor God, death and condemnation await us.