There is a popular genre of television concerned with “What’s it worth?” I guess it all started back with Antiques Roadshow on PBS. People would stand in line for hours with prized possessions to have experts appraise the item for them. Artwork, furniture, baseball cards, toys, and anything gathering dust in an attic might be brought to a convention center where the Antiques Roadshow appraisers would tell them what it was worth. Sometimes owners were surprised by the high estimates, but most often were disappointed to find out something their grandmother treasured was actually fairly ordinary.
Today you can watch American Pickers, Storage Wars, and Pawn Stars to see much the same thing. Hidden away items are found, appraised, bought, and sold with the hope of finding some unknown treasure whose dollar value could change the life of the owner. Some may be fans of Shark Tank, where inventors get to see how much their idea is worth. In each of these shows the appraisers become costars, telling us what something might be worth, what it might be sold for, or what it might bring at an auction.
But not everything can be appraised based on how much money it could bring in. For example, I have a pencil holder on my desk in my office. It has been on my desk since I received it 12 or 13 years ago, and will be there for a long time to come. It is handcrafted, but the artist isn’t well known. To most people, it really isn’t much to look at, but to me it is very valuable. An appraiser would tell me it is not worth any more than the few cents the old soup can from which it is made would be worth to a recycler. The faded construction paper covering it does nothing to add to its value, and the Scotch Tape repairs don’t help either. I’m guessing the Pawn Stars wouldn’t even make me an offer. Then again, I won’t be selling it anyway. As you have probably guessed, this pencil holder was made by my now 17-year-old son when he was about four years old, and given to me as a Father’s Day gift. This old soup can has value far greater than an appraiser would see.
Gifts are often that way. They have far more value than the amount of money for which they could be bought or sold because gifts are not about what is exchanged, so much as they are about relationship between the giver and the receiver.
Ananias and Sapphira
This morning, as we continue our summer sermon series on the book of Acts, we come to what I would categorize as a weird Bible story. You may have heard Pastor Bob and I joke about calling a sermon series Things We Wish Jesus Hadn’t Said. The sequel to that still-to-be-preached series might be Stories We Wish Weren’t in the Bible. For me, Ananias and Sapphira would be included in that series.
On the surface this story appears to be the text from which the stewardship sermon to end all stewardship sermons could be preached. A couple withholds money from God and they drop dead. I can hear the conclusion of the unscrupulous televangelist’s sermon now, “Be sure to give God everything by sending it in to us, or you might die.”
Scratch beneath the surface though, and you find this is not so much an appraisal story about the value of the gift, as it is a story about a relationship. This is a story about what is behind the gift, what the gift says about the relationship of the givers to the receiver. This is a more interesting story than an appraisal. This is a story about lies, corruption, and a relationship.
The story of Ananias and Sapphira begins with the telling of another story. At the end of Acts 4, just before this morning’s text, we read about a righteous man named Joseph, nicknamed “son of encouragement” by the apostles. Joseph sold some property and gave all the proceeds to the church, which we were told a few verses earlier, the church is using to meet the needs of all those who are followers of The Way so that, “There was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34).
Enter Ananias and Sapphira. They too sell a piece of property and lay money at the apostles’ feet expecting to receive accolades similar to Joseph. But something very different happens. Peter talks to Ananias about having represented himself as giving all the money from the sale of the land to the church, when actually he has withheld some. “When Ananias heard these words,” Luke writes, “he fell down and died” (Acts 5:5).
Several hours later Ananias’ wife, Sapphira, comes in to see Peter, not knowing what has happened to Ananias. She is asked about the price they got for the property, an opportunity set the record straight. When she continues the deception, she too “fell down at his feet and died” (Acts 5:10). Weird.
Notice how Ananias and Sapphira do not die upon giving this imperfect gift. So the gift itself is not the issue. The lies are. When confronting Ananias Peter asks rhetorically “While [the property] remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal?” (Acts 5:4). Peter is telling Ananias the property was his to do with as he wished. He wasn’t compelled to sell it and give the proceeds to the church. Peter even seems to imply, he could have done exactly what he did without an issue, except for trying to present the gift as something it wasn’t. One commentary says it this way:
The crime of Ananias was not his retaining part of the price of the land; he might have kept it all, had he pleased; but his endeavouring to impose upon the apostles with an awful lie (Henry)
So this is not a story about an appraisal. This is a story about a lie. But why lie?
Part of the reason seems to be jealousy over Joseph’s gift. Having seen what Joseph had done, Ananias and Sapphira want in on the action. So they devise this plan to make it appear they have done something they haven’t. This changes their gift. They are no longer giving out of love for God or to support the church and the incredible work it is doing. The ulterior motive corrupts the gift into something they are ultimately doing to benefit themselves.
Ananias and Sapphira want to be seen as big shots in the church. Joseph’s gift was remarkable. It must have gotten people talking. Maybe he received some recognition of his generosity from the apostles, or maybe the people were patting him on the back. Whatever the case, Ananias and Sapphira were jealous, and wanted some of that attention for themselves.
The practice of comparing our relationship with God to someone else’s is as dangerous today as it was then. It never ends well. Maybe you have done it. I know I have.
I have heard speakers at conferences and read books by authors who appear to be a “Super-Christians.” They share stories of how their faith sustained them through a particular trial, or how they were able to do something magnificent for someone else out of their love for Jesus. While listening to or reading their story, I find myself quietly evaluating my own story. “Wow, I wish I had that kind of faith,” I think while I recall all my doubts, shortcomings, and the embarrassing things I know about my journey with God.
I once heard someone explain this problem of comparing stories this way: We are comparing what we know about ourselves (our doubts, fears, and shortcomings) to what we don’t know about the speaker (their doubts, fears, and shortcomings which are not part of the story).
I can do that with people I know as well, people in this room. I know some with a gift for prayer. You can spend hours before God in conversation. I wish I had that gift. Others have such servants’ hearts. You tirelessly give your time and energy for the good of others – making food, giving rides, talking on the phone. Some have the gift of encouragement. You always seem to have an uplifting word to say to me and others when we need it most. Others have the gift of hospitality. You do not let anyone remain a stranger for long. You have easy-going conversations that make the other feel welcomed right away. Oh how I wish I had that gift, and that one, and that one.
I could go around this room, comparing what I know about myself – the times I’ve struggled to pray, been lazy, haven’t known what to say, or been quiet and ask, What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I have those gifts you have? Or, in a really weak moment, I could do what Ananias and Sapphira do, and devise a plan to make me look like I deserve a Super-Christian cape too.
If we allow those thoughts to sink in, our motives can be corrupted. Ananias and Sapphira gave a wonderful gift to the church. It must have been a huge sum of money. But it was not given in response to their love for God, or to participate as they felt called in the wonderful work the apostles were doing taking care of the poor. While it would have done all that, this gift was a gift about what Ananias and Sapphira might gain by giving it.
Before I get too hard on Ananias and Sapphira, I too need to confess there are times when I go there, and I would guess you do too. Times when I fantasize about the recognition I might receive. Maybe that is what Peter means when he talks about Satan filling Ananias’ heart to lie. I pray for those to be taken from me, but they sometimes pop up, and my work becomes about me.
Many years ago, I took a youth group to an Audio Adrenaline, a high energy Christian rock band at the height of their popularity. They were playing at a club called the Electric Factory in Philadelphia. That night I saw someone who understood what it means to work for Jesus rather than oneself.
Mark Stuart, the then lead singer of the band, was squatting in a very cool rockstar pose at the front of the stage belting out one of their hits. A young man right in front of him began to point at him. It was a “You’re the man!” kind of thing. Stuart, still in cool rockstar pose, pointed back at the man, then slowly lifted his hand and eyes upward. The young man followed his lead, and soon the two were both pointing skyward. The message was clear – Stuart was not about Stuart, Audio Adrenaline, the CDs they might sell, or even the music. He instead chose to deflect the praise he was receiving to Jesus. He was in it for the right reasons.
Ananias and Sapphira on the other hand, made it all about them. Their gift did not to point to Jesus, but to themselves. Their gift, filled with lies and corruption, spoke volumes about their relationship with God.
To flesh this out, I need to go a little Bible-nerdy on you for a moment. Bear with me.
When you read the Bible in larger chunks, which I encourage you to do, you begin to notice patterns which help us understand the mind of the author. For example, in this section of Acts, the author Luke, throws in a couple of details that appear to be unnecessary, and could easily go unnoticed until you begin to ask why in the world he included them.
Pastor Bob mentioned the first one in last Sunday’s sermon. Peter and James heal an old man while they are entering the Temple one day. At the conclusion of the story, after the formerly lame man dances and Peter gives a sermon, Luke tells us the “old man” was more than 40 years old (Acts 4:22). Ancient, I know. But why give us his age? It seems an unnecessary detail.
A few chapters later, as Stephen tells the Gospel story, he says this when talking about Moses, “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his relatives, the Israelites” (Acts 7:23). Then a few verses later Stephen says, “Now when forty years had passed, an angel appeared to [Moses] in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, in the flame of a burning bush” (Acts 7:30). Then a few verses after that, this: “He led them out, having performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for forty years” (Acts 7:36). In the words of Buffalo Springfield, “There’s something happening here.”
Luke has the Exodus story on his mind as he shares these stories about the man being healed in Acts 4 who is more than 40 years old, the story of Stephen in Acts 7 & 8, and the stories of the church in between, including the story of Ananias and Sapphira here in Acts 5.
The early church saw a parallel between God’s formation of the people of Israel as his people through Moses and the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, and God’s reconstitution of Israel through the person of Jesus and a new Exodus from the slavery to sin and death. In Jesus God’s people are being re-formed, renewed, and re-called as they had been originally through Moses. They are being set apart to fulfill the call of Abraham to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3).
Now, in the Exodus story, as the people move from Egypt to the Promised Land, the Israelites are often told not to keep anything from the people they conquer. God reportedly tells the people to go into the land and kill everyone, burn everything, and to take no plunder – troubling stories when read literally, but there is a greater point to them.
The issue is not about annihilating the people living in those cities as a show of power. Rather, God doesn’t want the people to become diluted by assimilating into these other cultures. He wants them to trust him completely, and to desire him and him alone. He is their God, and they are his people.
Ananias and Sapphira then serve as the Acts example of the people in the Exodus keeping some of the plunder. Rather than taking land, they sell it, but the principle is the same. Joseph is the positive example. He trusts God, which is why he is able to give all the proceeds from the sale to the church. Ananias and Sapphira are more about the money and themselves than God, and they pay a high price for it.
So this story about lies and corruption, is really at its heart a story about one’s relationship with God and our ability to trust him. The question for Ananias, Sapphira and us is, do we trust Jesus with everything, or do we hold a little back in case the God-thing doesn’t work out? Do we trust God to be faithful, or do we suspect we only have ourselves to rely on?
Money & Wesley
I’ve tried to downplay the money angle this morning, because I fear bad theology manipulating this story into something it is not – a money-grab by the church. But this is a story about money. It is a story about value, real value beyond the appraiser’s eye. This story challenges our view of money.
The best money sermon I know was preached 140 years ago by John Wesley. Titled “The Use of Money,” the message contains his often summarized rules for handling money: (1) gain all you can; (2) save all you can; so you can (3) give all you can. You may notice Wesley is quite liberal with his use of the word all in these rules. This is true throughout this sermon, using the word about 75 times. In the sermon, Wesley argues against tithing. In the penultimate paragraph he writes:
“Render unto God,” not a tenth [the tithe], not a third, not half, but all that is God’s (Wesley 356).
Wesley is saying we cannot give God 10% and then do whatever we like with the other 90%. He makes remarks about the ills of spending money toward gluttony and drunkenness, but also about the danger of spending money on expensive clothing, needless ornaments, superfluous furniture, paintings, gilding, books, and “elegant rather than useful gardens” (Wesley).
Wesley preached that all of our money should be used to God’s glory, which includes taking care of our families. We ought to be good stewards of that with which we have been blessed. Ananias and Sapphira were not ready to go there yet. Ah, it is so easy for things like money and jealousy to get between us and God.
When the United Methodist Hymnal was revised in 1989 the song we will sing at the close of worship at the 8:30 and 11:00 quickly became one of my favorites. There aren’t many hymns whose number I know, but I know “Nothing Between” is # 373. The words of the chorus serve as a prayer we need on our lips when we are tempted with the sin of Ananias and Sapphira:
Nothing between my soul and the Savior,
So that His blessed face may be seen;
Nothing preventing the least of His favor,
Keep the way clear! Let nothing between.
Ananias and Sapphira allowed things to get between them and Jesus. Joseph and his gift, the money they received from the sale of their property, and their lack of trust all stood between them and their savior. Their gift of significant dollar value, was tarnished.
By contrast, I have this pencil holder on my desk that has great value to me. It has little monetary value, its just a soup can and construction paper, but is valuable because it is a sign of a relationship. May our gifts to God reflect our relationship with him. And may there be nothing between our soul and our savior. Amen.
Henry, Matthew. “Acts 5:1-11.” Matthew Henry’s Precise Commentary. Christ Notes, n.d. Web. 07 June 2013. <http://www.christnotes.org/commentary.php?com=mhc>.
Wesley, John, Albert Cook Outler, and Richard P. Heitzenrater. “The Use of Money.” John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology. Nashville: Abingdon, 1991. 348-57. Print.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.