Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Price of a Lie

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means ‘son of encouragement’). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. ‘Ananias,’ 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? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!’ Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him.
After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, ‘Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.’ And she said, ‘Yes, that was the price.’ Then Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things. -- Acts 4:32 - 5:11
Sometimes when I read a lesson from scripture I am kind of left shaking my head. My rational mind tries to tell me that this can’t happen in real life, any more than the possibility of a man being swallowed by a whale and returning alive or a boy whacking a giant in the forehead with a single rock propelled from a slingshot. I’m supposed to take these as lessons in what God can do with ordinary human beings but I also have to look at them as creative non-fiction sometimes. They contain truth, just maybe gussied up a bit to make them seem greater or more wonderful or even more awe-inspiring. To me, the story of Ananias and Sapphira is one of those stories. There’s truth in it, but is all of it what we used to call “gospel truth” back home, meaning that it really happened just as it said?
The story really has two parts. In the first part we are introduced to a man named Joseph whom the apostles had renamed Barnabas. Barnabas represented the good guy. In the spirit of koinonia, he had sold a piece of land and brought the entire proceeds to lay at the feet of the apostles to be used for the benefit of the poor. It was a great gesture and certainly didn’t hurt his standing in the community at all. It showed his dedication to following the teachings of Jesus. Such dedication would have looked good on a résumé and probably helped to establish him in a position of trust with Paul as a traveling companion a bit later.

The second part, of course, has to contain the bad guys to balance out Barnabas as the good one. Ananias also brought a bag of money to be given to the apostles, ostensibly also the total proceeds from the sale of a piece of land. Ananias reminds me of the stereotypical snake oil salesman, the kind that tries to sell ice makers to people living in the Arctic. He was being slick. He told the assembly that this was the total proceeds when in actuality a chunk of it had been stashed away at Ananias’s house. It may have been for a rainy day, to cover some debts or maybe just for pure greed but all we are told is that he didn’t give what he said he had. Peter, whether based on inside knowledge, acute discernment, or maybe even a tweet from God, called Ananias on that lie and Ananias fell down dead. Did he die of shock and shame that someone knew of his falsehood and had exposed him before the entire assembly? Or did God strike him down for lying to the Holy Spirit? However it happened, his body was quickly wrapped up in trundled out to be buried immediately and without ceremony as befitted one who had lost all honor.

Then Sapphira, Ananias’s wife, showed up, wondering where her husband was because he hadn’t come home for lunch or perhaps tea as expected. Peter put the question to her also about the amount of money and whether it was the total amount of the sale as Ananias had claimed. She corroborated Ananias’ story and, lo and behold, she too fell down dead. She was also bundled out unceremoniously, without the wrapping as men were not allowed to perform that duty on a woman’s corpse. Presumably , though, she joined Ananias in his unmarked resting place. It must’ve been quite a lesson for the community about the value and necessity of being truthful.

As much as this lesson is about truthfulness and claiming no more honor than is truly due, and also about the importance of following Jesus’ lessons about caring for the poor and the members of one’s community, it is a lesson about community itself. Being in community implies an ability to trust one another and to be honest and transparent in one’s dealings with them. Most of all it is a lesson summed up by part of a verse from Numbers, “ sure your sins will find you out” (32:23d). A lot of very important people through the ages have found that out the hard and very embarrassing way.

The story of Ananias’ lie underlines what lies can do to a person, even if God doesn’t directly intervene. A person can lie to another person or even a whole group of people but if the lie is big enough and told to enough people, especially the wrong people, the truth will eventually show up and everything the person attempted to gain through the lie will come back to haunt them. Besides, being a good liar means a person has to have a really good memory; it’s harder to remember a lie than to remember what really happened. They have to remember which version of the truth they told to which person and after a while it gets tricky and very easy to goof up, even if there’s no apostle Peter around to call them on it immediately after the lie is told.

Maybe the story of Ananias and Sapphira is a cautionary tale if not an actual event. There’s an old saying that “You can fool some of the people some of the time” but there’s usually going to be someone somewhere that can spot the falsity and bring it to light. A person can even lie to themselves to the point where the line becomes a reality That can be quite harmful to them by forcing them to work harder to maintain the lie and to ignore other things that need attention. I wonder, though, is it really possible to lie to God, or perhaps the sin is believing one can even do that? Whichever it is, it can create a dead place in the soul, a place that shuts God and grace out. That is probably the greatest tragedy that comes from untruthfulness or dishonesty.

Ananias probably would have been okay had he just said that his gift was a portion of the proceeds of the sale. He would have been telling the truth, and, even though it didn’t show the generosity that Barnabas’ gift did, it still showed his commitment to the community as well as compassion for the less fortunate. Perhaps the lesson I need to learn from this story is that “Honesty is the best policy”, to quote Ben Franklin. That doesn’t mean I have to tell a friend that her dress is ugly or that he needs to go on a diet. I don’t think brutality in honesty is something God really requires. I do believe, however, that I am supposed to be honest in my dealings with people and not try to be something I’m not. I need to remember that if I lie to myself I am also lying to God.

Current culture says I need to be “authentic.” Culture or not, it would probably serve me better in the long run with God and my neighbor to just be honest rather than to try to pretend to be something I’m not or embellish my achievements to make myself feel bigger or more important. Perhaps the application of a bit of spiritual wart-remover is more in order than cosmetic surgery. Above all, though, I need to remember that God sees and knows everything already, so I may as well tell the truth and avoid the possibility of an early demise. But I shouldn’t do it just for that reason. I should do it because it is the right thing – for me and for any community in which I am part. That’s what God wants, so that’s reason enough.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 22, 2013.



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