Ananias and Saphira

K X M John

05 May 2010

Image from Google (07.07.2011)

At the outset, Father Zachariah said the sad episode of Ananias and Saphira as narrated in Acts 5: 1-11 has been proposed for this present debate. “I trust you have all come prepared for a stimulating discussion. But, before we proceed, let me tell you this is a much misunderstood episode, debated over the centuries by Biblical scholars without arriving at any conclusion. That need not surprise us because matters connected with God are always shrouded in mystery and human minds may not be able to grasp their full significance. But, before we proceed further, may I suggest one of you read out passage 4: 32-37 by way of preface, to be followed by 5: 1-11.”

Secretary Leelamma volunteered. She read from the New American Bible:

4: 32-37. The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power, the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all.

There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.

5: 1-11. A man named Ananias, however, with his wife Saphira, sold a piece of property. He retained for himself, with his wife’s knowledge, some of the purchase price, took the remainder, and put it at the feet of the apostles. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart so that you lied to the Holy Spirit and retained part of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain yours? And when it was sold, was it not still under your control? Why did you contrive this deed? You have lied not to human beings, but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last, and great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men came and wrapped him up, then carried him out and buried him.

After an interval of about three hours, his wife came in, unaware of what had happened. Peter said to her, “Tell me, did you sell the land for this amount?” She said, “Yes, for that amount.” Then Peter said to her, “Why did you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen, the footsteps of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” At once, she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men entered they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.

Prof Peter initiates the discussion.

The “elder statesman” Prof Peter initiated the debate. He said, the couple certainly deserved the punishment for cheating the Holy Spirit. I had read somewhere that this was the “original sin” in the Church. It also had some similarity with Adam’s Original Sin, in that Adam and his wife disobeyed God. The sinners on both the occasions were couples in collusion and not individuals. One minor difference is that it was the woman who initiated the first sin, and the man the second sin. But, in both the cases, they were couple-based sins, thereby incidentally establishing the one-flesh relationship between husband and wife. The story also demonstrates that couples are responsible for each other’s wrongdoing. One cannot disown the sin of the other. Even in civil law, the debts contracted by the husband become the liability of the wife as well.

No! Individuals sin separately

Politician Rosaline agreed that Ananias had committed what we may call today a “malpractice” and conceded his wife’s complicity in it. But she strongly disagreed with Prof Peter’s principle that the wife automatically partook of her husband’s guilt. Husband and wife are one in a very limited sense. Common sense dictates that they are distinct individuals with their own free will. The patriarchs always spoke like Prof Peter because they considered the woman as a mere adjunct to her husband. This is grossly unfair and totally unacceptable.

Rosaline added that politicians and employees always cheated the society in innumerable ways. “Can you show me one employee or one MP or one MLA who has not cheated on his travel expense bills? These were ‘normal’ cheatings in the past, and continue to be ‘normal’ these modern days too. At worst, they are venial sins, not mortal sins. Certainly, they are not sins against the Holy Spirit. Ananias deceived Peter, not the Holy Spirit, unless the power-drunk Peter had equated himself with the Holy Spirit!”

Spirit of Jesus missing in the episode

Prof Stephen said the sad and cruel episode stands out in the New Testament as a sore tooth out of alignment with the regular teeth. The underlying mood and emphasis in the gospels is love and grace and forgiveness, and not punishment and murder. When you read the gospels, you always experience your heart swelling, and your spirit lifted up with divine warmth even where gruesome scenes such as the passion and crucifixion are narrated. In the Acts itself, where Stephen is stoned to death, our hearts get lifted up instead of getting weighed down. The Ananias-Saphira story, on the contrary, pulls us down and is definitely incongruent with the gospel spirit. Are we to understand that once Jesus was gone and the Church began, the divine spirit of Christ was replaced by the cruel autocracy of the Church?

Engineer Antony agreed with the thoughts expressed by Rosaline and Stephen. He said that it was inconceivable that Jesus would behave in the manner Peter did in this case.  Peter had performed some miracles in recent times; and his success had obviously gone to his head; and he thought he had become god-like! He arrogated to himself the power and authority to do anything to anybody. Was it a great crime that Ananias committed? Agreed; his faith had not become strong enough to steady him against doubts about the Church. So he kept aside a portion of the sale proceeds to himself by way of risk management; he thought he should have some private funds in reserve just in case the Church eventually failed to feed him. But, what about Peterhimself? Was he not the man who denied Christ thrice at the crucial moment? And a man with such a vacillating past rolling his murderous eyes at the hapless Ananias and his wife!

Secretary Leelamma was clearly uncomfortable with the criticism of Apostle Peter. She said we should consider the context in which the episode took place. The prevalent belief was that Christ’s second coming was near at hand and that the faithful should dispose of their possessions and surrender the proceeds into the common kitty for a community life of prayer and supplication till the second coming took place. When Ananias withheld a portion of the proceeds of their properties, he was effectively stealing from the common kitty; he was lying to the Holy Spirit. Peter understood this lie through the Holy Spirit, and the dishonesty and lying deserved severe rebuke from Peter. The punishment of death came from Holy Spirit and not from the Apostle. Peter was only an instrument in the hands of God!

How Jesus would have reacted

Sr. Ann ignored Leelamma. The nun said this passage in the Acts had always puzzled her. But she was not big enough a person to criticise the Apostle. Her successive Superiors had expressed irritation whenever she brought up this subject with them. She only thought this way, “Suppose Jesus was there in place of Peter in this story. How would he have behaved? I am happy to hear now that this thought has occurred to Engineer Antony as well. And, in all probability, many others like him over the centuries would have agonised over the issue in a similar manner.”

“Now, Roy, you are a poet with good imagination. Tell us, what is your perception of the possible reaction from Jesus, had this drama taken place before him instead of Peter?”

“Well, this is a difficult question”, Roy said. “I consider myself absolutely inadequate to enter the shoes of Jesus and invent a hypothetical dialogue in his name. In fact, as we all know too well, none of his detractors could trap him through polemics, because none of them could predict his response. Remember how he handled the dilemmatic question about the issue of payment of tax to Caesar.  Could anyone predict his response? And the way he faced the question about stoning the adulteress to death? We really cannot visualise how Jesus would react to someone who withheld a portion of the sale proceeds to himself or the MP who cheated on his airfare. In any case, it would be silliest of the silly to expect the Holy Spirit to come down from His high heavens in order to kill a clerk who claimed one rupee extra in his medical bill!”

Tony thought of Judas Iscariot in this context. Jesus knew that Judas was about to betray him. But he did not roll his eyes at him. He did not invoke the name of Holy Spirit against Judas. He simply asked him, gracefully, to proceed with what he was about to do.  The resurrected Jesus did not even frown at Peter for his three-time denial during his trial. Instead, he made this timid and impulsive man into a confident leader by fondly trusting him even more and entrusting him with the care of his flock.

Alice Teacher thought about the rich young man who was advised by Jesus to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, and to follow him. When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. And Jesus said with compassion, “how hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

And what happened to the young man who wanted to bury his dead father before joining the mission? Jesus said, “let the dead bury their own dead; you follow me”. But the young man went away, his priority being in burying the dead. And another young man said, “Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house.” Jesus said, “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God”.

“I imagine Jesus’ response to Ananias to be in the same genre. ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ And guess what Ananias might do? He would walk away with a new liberty, like the adulteress whom no one would stone, because there was no one, not even Peter, without sin. Or, he would prostrate before him and say, like Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

Roy quipped, “But, Peter was no Jesus. Even after the great Pentecostal breakthrough, he had not internalised the spirit of love and forgiveness that Jesus had shown throughout his ministry!

Tony interjected, “And he was our first Pope indeed!”

 

Secretary Leelamma was totally opposed to the criticism of Peter. She said it was blasphemous to compare Peter with Jesus. After all, Peter was a human being. Naturally, he had acquired the weaknesses of the community and the environment from which he came. And he treated Ananias in the manner he thought fit. If at all he erred, it should be accounted by such acquired weakness,  instead of denouncing the man.

Besides, the Acts is part of the New Testament. We consider it as the word of God. We should treat the word of God with the respect it deserves.

President James, who preferred listening rather than intervening at every stage, thought it time for him to speak. He said, whatever is in the Scripture were written under inspiration from God. Therefore, we do not doubt the veracity of their contents. But we can’t say that whatever is narrated is morally correct. Peter certainly did overreact to Ananias’s deception. He said Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit; that was Peter’s interpretation. That doesn’t mean Holy Spirit was involved in the episode in any manner.

Certainly, the “sin” that has come down to us as the “original sin” in the Church was not committed by Ananias, but by Peter himself. It was the first recorded sin of the Church against a layperson.

Everyone furtively glanced towards Fr Zachariah. He was unmoved. He nodded that the discussion might continue.

James said it was common knowledge that the Church had committed many atrocities in its 2000-year history. Pope John Paul II had apologised to the world, as also to the victims, for such crimes of the Church against humanity. He apologized to JewsGalileo, women, victims of the InquisitionMuslims slaughtered by the Crusaders and almost everyone who had suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church through the years. The Pope famously stated:

“An excuse is worse and more terrible than a lie, for an excuse is a lie guarded.”

I daresay, a courageous Pope would apologise for Peter’s crime some day as the first crime of the Church, instead of praising it as the word of God. Remember, the Acts is history and not gospel.

“But, are you, by any chance, suggesting that the episode should be expunged from the Acts of the Apostles?” asked Roy. Some of the members were palpably aghast. But James instantly assured them that he was not at all hinting any such thing. The episode must be a true story, like the story of the incest of Jude with his daughter-in-law Tamar. I am referring to Jude, son of Jacob and brother of Joseph and Benjamin in the book of Genesis. The progeny from this incestuous union, as we all know, became ancestor of David and of Jesus. Likewise, Ruth hid under the bed of the unsuspecting Boaz and stealthily got onto his bed after he went to sleep; they thus became the great grandparents of David. We never think of expunging such stories just because they are not edifying to anyone involved. And no one treats Jude’s incest, or Ruth’s adventure, as a good thing inspired by God, to be emulated by the faithful. And what Peter did to Ananias was something that should be retained in the scripture but as an act to be unequivocally deprecated. I firmly consider Peter’s act as the beginning of the Church’s cruelty to the laity.

At this stage, Fr Zachariah thought he should intervene. He said, “so long as you are dissecting the scripture in a positive and understanding spirit, I would welcome such discourses. I am not interrupting the debate here, because, I notice, your intentions are honourable. But let me attempt a course-correction at this stage and give some clarification about the relation between the clergy and the laity. The Church and the laity are not two different entities. The Church includes the laity as well. We are all part of the mystical body of Christ. That means, we are all on the same side. The relationship is not adversarial but complementary. Therefore, it is strictly not correct to state that the Church has been cruel to the laity; admittedly, there have been aberrations in the relationship, for which Pope John Paul II had offered the Church’s apology. I agree, Peter in this story was harsh with Ananias and his wife; but that should not be seen from a Church-versus-laity angle.

Engineer Antony agreed with the Rev Fr in principle. But, in practice, he said, the clergy in places like Kerala are ill-treating and insulting the laity all the time. They behave like medieval feudal lords, all the time lording it on the laity. I have come across cases in which priests have conspicuously insulted several respectable laypersons in an uncouth manner. As a result, there is an anti-clerical groundswell in the Catholic world. Therefore, when we laypersons read the Ananias story, we perceive it as an instance of cruelty of the Church against the laity.

Prof Thomas, a guest at the meeting, observed that when Pope John Paul II went round the world apologising for the innumerable mistakes the Church had committed, he (Prof Thomas) had expected the local Church also to emulate his example and own up its crimes against some of its eminent laypersons. He specifically referred to the famous Prof M P Paul of yesteryears, who taught at St Thomas College, Thrissur. Prof Paul had reportedly blown whistle against some financial irregularities in the College, and became persona non grata of the management. He was dismissed from the College and was indicted by the Church. When he died, he was denied of Christian burial. His family and friends buried his body in a private plot in Thiruvananthapuram. “I have read somewhere, even his brother, a monsignor, was denied permission by the Church to partake in the burial!”

The present generation of Kerala bishops could have said mea culpa following the example of the Pope, and exhumed his remains and re-buried them in the Church cemetery with dignity and honour, thereby reinstating him. Had the Church done that, its own stock, its own prestige, its own very image would have soared heavenward.

But, such noble thoughts seldom occur to our short-sighted and hot-headed and grossly politicised clergy, nor do they listen to sensible suggestions from the laity.

President James wondered why the loquacious Baby Auntie was so conspicuously silent today. The eighty-year-old Auntie had just returned from her son’s place in New Zealand, and was attending the meeting after her six-month holiday. She said, she had not come prepared on the subject. She had casually read the passage long ago, but had had no occasion to apply her mind to it in any serious way. What remained in her mind was not a positive impression about Apostle Peter. Still, the trend of today’s discussion was causing her unease. She would rather be content with the listener’s role today.

Dr Susan and Prof Matilda came in late. They said they too had done some homework. They both felt that the story was rather unsettling. Peter could better have forgiven the dishonesty of the couple. Obviously, their faith was not complete. No one was perfect in God’s eyes. A pardon from the Apostle would have opened their eyes. Peter emerges from the story like a hardened patriarch, an unbridled autocrat! He spread fear throughout the Christian community in his charge. His behaviour stood out in stark contrast with that of Jesus.

President James thereupon turned to Advocate Dimmy. He sought for her thoughts on the topic.

Legal dimensions of Peter’s crime

Advocate Dimmy said, if Fr. Zachariah would permit, she would speak strictly as a legal consultant, and not in the role of a faithful. The Rev Fr agreed. She began:

“Let me state the points in an orderly manner.

  • Peter rebukes Ananias. Fair enough for his errant behaviour. As a miracle worker, he effectively drives mortal fear into the heart of the man by invoking the name of Holy Spirit. This was harsh. Ananias dies on the spot. A case of homicide, undoubtedly. Not intentional, yet culpable. Peter could be booked under present-day law.
  • Peter did not show any remorse. He did not send information to his wife about her husband’s death.  Rigorous post mortem exam might not have been common in those days. Yet, he should have waited for Saphira’s return, convinced her of what happened, and apologised to her for his harsh treatment of her husband. Peter did not do any such thing. The judiciary would take a serious note of this. The homicidal act becomes deliberate in the eyes of the judiciary.
  • Worse, without awaiting her return, he arranged to wrap up his body and bury it on his own assumed authority. In today’s conditions, Peter would be charged with covering up the evidence, and of denying the wife’s right to decide upon the burial of her husband. In this process, he could also be charged with an attempt at preventing her from seeking redress through the court.
  • The second part was still more heinous. The unwary Saphira approaches Peter. She is shocked to hear of what had happened. The fuming Peter rolls his angry eyeballs at her. He ominously challenges her, and threatens that the footsteps of those who had buried her husband are approaching. They would bury her too. No repentance on the part of Peter. He is breathing threats of murder. Again he invokes the Holy Spirit. This is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Saphira collapses and gives up her ghost.
  • And Peter immediately arranges for her burial too.
  • And a great fear pervaded the community. Fear of God? Or, fear of the murderer Peter?

The lawyer concluded by stating that, today, Peter would be equated with the much-hated god-men surfacing every now and then in countries like India; his murder of the couple would be reckoned as a rarest of the rare homicides, inviting capital punishment. Even Presidential clemency would be doubtful.

Also, Peter invoked the Holy Spirit in committing the double murder. That, I presume, is condemnable under the Canon Law as well!

“Now …, as apprehended by me …, you all look shell-shocked. But, what I said is what any lawyer would say. That is the legal position.”

“This is certainly a hard saying”, said Leelamma. I never thought the episode would have such nuances.

Conclusion

Rev Fr Zachariah thought it time to conclude. He asked President James to summarise the discussion.

President James said, Apostle Peter became the chief of the Church after the ascension of Christ and after the Pentecost. The Church decided to have a life of commune till the second coming, which was thought near at hand. One by one, the members sold their earthly possessions and brought the proceeds to the Apostles, and contributed them to the common pool. One couple, Ananias and Saphira secretly withheld a portion of the sale proceeds for themselves. Peter instantly noticed guilt in his eyes and questioned him about the funds. His blood pressure soared and he died of cardiac arrest. Peter arranged for his burial without informing his wife Saphira. Unaware of the incident, she came to Peter soon after. And she too met with similar fate. Both of them lied to Peter. And the Apostle invoked the name of Holy Spirit, thereby dropping atom bombs to kill the two mosquitoes.

Undoubtedly, the couple were dishonest and they lied. After all it was their money, and Peter could have handled the situation differently, with grace, saving everyone’s face. But he overreacted. He brought to bear the harshest psychological pressure upon them by invoking the name of Holy Spirit. Peter had successfully performed certain miracles those days, and his moral and psychological authority on the faithful was complete. Hence, no wonder, the couple choked to death. It was murder most foul. Peter would be liable to capital punishment under modern law. He also overstepped his authority in invoking the Holy Spirit in such a trivial matter. Ananias lied to Peter and not to the Holy Spirit. Peter, in the circumstances, blasphemed against the Holy Spirit, too.

Some say, Christianity disappeared with the ascension of Christ; and, with Peter, Churchanity was born. Laypersons began to be insulted and ill-treated. An opinion was expressed at this meeting that Peter’s cruelty to the Ananias couple deserved a formal apology of the Church. That would settle the case once for all. The Acts is Church history and Luke had recorded the events as he saw and understood them under inspiration; hence the Ananias-Saphira story must be true. That doesn’t mean that it was morally, ethically and theologically validated.”

Sr. Ann said, she didn’t expect the discussions to take such deep dimensions as these, but agreed that Peter could have behaved gently.

The Rev Fr was somewhat dismayed by the harsh words heard at the discussion, although he was one with Sr. Ann in agreeing that Peter could have handled the situation differently. “I have tried to examine the subject based on ancient writings and new. Everywhere the emphasis has been on the couple’s dishonesty. I have seen writings of “scholars” justifying the punishment by bringing in terms like theology, theological violence, eschatology, ontology, hermeneutics, ecclesiology, exegesis, etc, thereby confounding the common sense of the common man. Such heavy jargons do not mask poverty of reason. And I personally believe, it was no occasion for invoking the name of Holy Spirit.”

“It is gratifyi9ng that modern laity are not anti-religious; but I see an anti-cleric undercurrent. Maybe, the behaviour of some among the clergy contributes to such attitudes. But, so long as your faith in Christ is intact, I don’t mind our discussions assuming anti-clerical dimensions at times. Also, occasional anti-cleric expressions might help you get rid of some of your resentment against them.”

The meeting ended with the blessing of Fr Zachariah.

K X M John

05 May 2010

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