I remember sitting in my first ever office as a youth pastor to two small churches in rural Kansas. Fresh out of college I had no real idea about what to expect in ministry. Preparing for that night’s lessons, the church treasurer stepped into my office and handed me my first paycheck. An exciting sense of accomplishment swept over me, only to be followed by fear.
“Now, don’t forget to take your taxes out of that so you don’t go to jail.” She chuckled.
“Uhhh. Excuse me?” I replied
“You’re considered self-employed. You have to do your own taxes now.” With that, she left my office, my paycheck, and me alone to sit in fear.
Thankfully, there was an accountant in town that could help this troubled young soul. In four years of undergraduate training to go into ministry, never once did the conversation come up that I would be self-employed and need to do my own taxes. I took courses in ministry, evangelism, teaching, preaching, and theology, but not one practical course that would be a daily part of my life on how to prepare taxes.
The first meeting with the accountant was like drinking from a firehose. Did I want to pull out too little for quarterly taxes, invest it, and then pay out at the end of the year? Did I want to pay in too much and get a refund and the end of the year?
The questions, some twenty pages in length, seemed like they would never end. Finally, I just pulled out my check stub and said, “Here. This is what I make. Tell me how much to pay and whom to pay it to so I don’t go to jail.”
The problem was sorted out, and I’m happy to say I’ve never been to jail (though if I’m honest, it scared me enough and I sometimes wonder if I ever underpaid on accident. If you’re reading this and a part of the Kansas State government or the Federal Government and I owe you, I’m sorry).
I walked into a situation afraid. What was mine? What now belonged to somebody else? Am I giving enough or should I give more? What are the consequences?
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 the men 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. Acts 5:1-11
This is a rather troubling passage. Two early church leaders appear before Peter with a gift for the church and wind up dead. What’s going on?
Ananias and Sapphira made a critical error in their understanding of God’s politics and way of life. They operated much like I did when it came to paying taxes: there is my portion and there is the governments portion and the two don’t mix. Their belief was that if they gave something then that ought to be good enough. Their failure, was in their heart. They wanted the praise that Joseph got without the requirement. They wanted the adulation and adoring fans, without the sacrifice.
For Ananias and Sapphira, their greatest failure was to heed the words of Jesus, who like the Pharisees before them never understood what God was looking for.
Jesus warns: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.“
God’s radical economy of the church cannot and should not operate like the systems and policies of this world. When it does, it is sinful.
The great downfall of Ananias and Sapphira was to look first after themselves, to have their generosity praised, all while holding something back. They saw the praise given to Joseph and wanted that for themselves. They cared less about God’s mission, God’s people, and justice than they did about themselves. In God’s visible represtation of the church to the world, others must always be considered abover ourselves. They failed to practice the Great Commandment and leave a rather stark example of what happens when that is neglected.
The reminder for the church today is often the same. Churches can be guilty of the “Ananias and Sapphira complex;” caring first for themselves and not their community, the lost they claim to love, or the disenfranchised that have no other place to turn. They thought that they could, like so many others both past and present, effectively buy their way into the kingdom. Give a little money, get a church educational wing named after you, and be praised for your generosity and service. But God’s radical economy of the church cannot and should not operate like the systems and policies of this world. When it does, it is sinful.
Signing up to follow God and join him in mission does not mean that life can carry on as it always has. His values, perspectives, beliefs, and actions often run contrary to our own. His acts of generosity and lavishness even challenge and blur the lines of what his followers can call their own. Our government tries to manage and control through many different tactics. There are areas that are clearly ‘government property’ and ‘private property.’ For the Jesus follower, no such distinction exists. When we hold back what we have, we not only hold back from those that God has called us to serve and love, we hold back what God himself has given us and set ourselves up with no need for a Savior.