Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.
Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”
When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of those who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”
At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
Earlier this summer CNN reported about a motorcycle accident that ended in death and controversy. A motorcyclist rode without a helmet in a ride to protest mandatory helmet laws. He represented his local chapter of American Bikers Aimed Towards Education (ABATE). He was thrown over his handlebars in an accident and later died at the hospital. Experts analyzed the data from the crash and determined that he would have survived if he had been wearing a helmet.
ABATE members mourned the tragic loss, but praised the man’s determination to stand up for personal freedoms, saying he “rode for freedom and risked his all for freedom.” Members of the Governors Highway Safety Association called the incident tragic and sad, encouraging all motorcyclists to wear helmets. There were strong feelings on both sides.
But no one expressed surprise.
Somehow, no matter how tragic or sudden a death is, if it makes logical sense, we can sleep at night. When my 85-year-old grandparents passed away, we mourned, but we did not blame God for the loss. When a celebrity succumbs to the deadly grip of drugs, we cry, we lay out flowers, but we do not ask, “why?” When a convicted felon receives the death penalty for murder, we may or may not question the sentence, but when the lethal injection begins, we just shake our heads and shrug and say, “Sad world we live in.”
But there are other deaths that cause our heads to spin, our hearts to stop beating, and our faith to begin to swirl down the drain of suffering. When a young person is stricken with a terminal illness. When someone is murdered. When people die in war zones. When children starve to death. Then we reach up to the sky and pound our chests and scream at the all-knowing Parent in the sky and say, WHY? Don’t you love us? Don’t you have a plan?
Ananias and Sapphira is a death story that does not seem logical to me. They lie to God and the church and they are struck down in some sort of anti-miracle of Peter. Sapphira’s death is even premeditated. Your husband died, now you’re gonna die. What? Are you serious? There are many other examples of sin in the Bible where the sinner does not fall down dead. There are plenty of examples in present day where the sinners do not fall down dead. There are a few examples in my life today where I have sinned and not fallen down dead. So, why Ananias and Sapphira? Where was grace for them? Why didn’t they get a second chance? Why couldn’t they just confess, believe, and be saved?
There is a reason why this is one of the most difficult passages in scripture. It seems like Peter got ticked, he called down God’s wrath, and God cooperated with his plan. And if you study this passage, you don’t get much closer to a logical explanation. We don’t have many details. It might be easier to understand if Ananias lied to God AND he was a pedophile. Or maybe Sapphira kicked dogs and cooked cats while Ananias painted racist propaganda. That would make the story more palatable. Then we would just keep on reading Acts with great peace and encouragement. I’m not that bad. Hooray for me.
The part of the story that gets under our skin is the fact that we are exactly like Ananias and Sapphira. We hold back things from God. We lie to God and the church, saying that we have nothing left to give. But we feel a sense of peace about our reluctance because we believe that God’s grace will cover our shortcomings. We will keep on living, attending church, giving what feels right, and then we’ll die a natural death.
Then we read our story in Acts and it doesn’t end that way. The church confronts us and we die. What do we do with that?
It reminds me of the scene in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where Ebenezer Scrooge is peering over the edge of his own grave. He begs the third spirit for another chance to change his life. We peer over the edge of the graves of Ananias and Sapphira. We get spooked. We say, “Um, not me, Lord.” And we pull out our checkbooks, just to be sure. Is that the appropriate response to this gruesome story? Is it a fairy tale to get us to mind our manners?
Some commentators suggest that Ananias and Sapphira sought glory and recognition without real sacrifice. That’s why they were killed. But I do that too. I am not satisfied with that answer.
Some commentators suggest that Luke contrasts Barnabas and his sacrificial giving with the selfishness of Ananias and Sapphira in order to teach the church that Barnabas’s generous gifts brought consolation to the church, while the selfish gift of Ananias and Sapphira brought fear. That still doesn’t make their deaths any more logical to me.
Some say that this is a parallel story to other Original Sin stories, such as the fall of Adam and Eve, the golden calf at Mount Sinai, and the stoning death of Achan. These stories interrupt parts of the narrative where things are idyllic, God is present, and the community is healthy. The sin comes in, death follows, and Eden vanishes.
That perspective may give the stories more literary heft. They may make more sense in the long perspective, but nothing can make them feel logical or even fair. No amount of biblical scholarship can explain away every tough story of God’s wrath. If it could, then God would be called “Science” because God would always be predictable. God would make sense all the time. We could set our watches by the miracles.
God is faithful, God is loving, God is just; but God is not predictable.
So what do we do with a God that doesn’t always make sense? What do we do with a God who will not heal a friend I prayed for last week, but will strike down a church-attending couple?
When Job asks this question, God says: who are you to question my awesome ways?
This answer is sufficient and it should be sufficient. And for some believers, this is enough to stop asking why. Trust God, whose ways are higher than our ways.
But when it seems like God ways are wrong, illogical, ill-timed, or even unloving, I do not go to Job 40-41. The idea that God can crush me doesn’t minister to me in my time of faith crisis.
Instead, I go to John 11.
There is this beautiful moment where Jesus has lost his dear friend, Lazarus. The death seems senseless. People there ask our question, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37). Two thousand years ago, Jesus’s friends asked our question. “Couldn’t you have done something about this?” The fact that people in the presence of Jesus could have the same question knocks me off my chair. I am comforted by this simple fact alone, but it gets better.
Jesus is weeping. His friends are weeping. And that is where we find ourselves — outside the tomb, weeping with Jesus, saying, “Why didn’t you do something? If only you had come sooner…”
In that moment, Lazarus’s sisters, Mary and Martha, ask the question. They stand at tomb and shake their heads and ask, “Why?” This death makes no logical sense. It is in that moment that I find comfort. That is where we are, on the precipice of a miracle, on the outer reaches of “all things new,” at the banks of “prosper you and not harm you.” That is where we wait for God to move.
He tells us that things will be okay. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
And we say, “Yes, Lord. We believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
The astounding part of that place is that even though Jesus knows about the victorious resurrection that is coming, he still pauses to weep with the sisters and friends. And he weeps with us.
And he weeps for Ananias and Sapphira.