Sapphira and the Big Lie
“Sapphira and the Big Lie” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Hi there. My name is Sapphira. I am just an ordinary person — maybe a bit quieter than some. I can’t imagine anything I could do in my life which would make people remember my name 100 years from now. My husband Ananias likes to say that he didn’t pick a flashy flower, but he got the best one of the bunch. That’s sweet.
Ananias is a fine man, but neither of us is out to set the world on fire. We want to raise our three children, have a comfortable life and be able to provide for ourselves when we’re too old to work. The same things everyone wants, at least all our friends. Or at least until recently. We’re Jewish, like all the people we know here in Jerusalem. It’s no big deal; we keep the law as best we can. We eat kosher and keep Sabbath go to synagogue most of the time. Of course our faith is part of our culture, but we’re not fanatics. We don’t go overboard or anything. We’re just regular people.
Then, about six months ago, something happened that really shook up the city: followers of Jesus the Nazarene — the teacher who the Romans crucified at Passover — his followers started preaching in Jerusalem. It caused quite a stir; people from all different nations claimed that they heard the message in their own language. I don’t know about that . . . I wasn’t there and I didn’t hear it, so I can’t say. What I do know is that the whole city was talking about it — all my friends were acting like they were actually there and saw it happen, when I know that some of them weren’t. There was even talk of a miracle by the Beautiful Gate: a lame man who had begged at the Temple for years. Of course the leaders of the movement were arrested. There was no way the Temple elite were going to put up with the followers of Jesus claiming that he had risen from the dead and was the Messiah.
But here’s the thing: those arrests just poured oil on the flames of passion about Jesus and his new movement. The leaders were released and kept teaching, and hundreds of people were listening. Maybe thousands. Everybody was talking about it. Ananias and I went to some of the meetings. It was almost impossible not to get caught up in the excitement about what was happening. These people really believed that their prophet was the Messiah, but it wasn’t just about believing, they were doing stuff, too. There have always been poor people in Jerusalem — not just the lame and the blind, but widows and orphans. Frankly, I’m glad that my husband is healthy and we have enough to take care of ourselves, so it’s really not my problem. I can’t take care of myself and other people, too. But these Jesus-followers, they made a commitment to care for the widows and orphans — and not just the Jewish widows and orphans — anybody who they could save from begging on the street and starving to death. They put all their property and resources together so that none of them was in need, and there was enough to share with others.
It was weird, but kind of inspiring, too. It seemed like sharing with others was changing people’s lives. Not just the people who were getting assistance, but also the people who were giving stuff away. It made Ananias and me want to do something that would change our lives, too. We might be ordinary people, but maybe we could do something extraordinary.
Ananias and I talked about it for a couple weeks. There were people like us who were selling property or houses that they owned, and then taking the proceeds and laying them at the leaders’ feet. It was a good cause, and those people got a lot of attention for what they did. Ananias has owned a piece of property outside the city for years: maybe we could sell it and take the money to the leaders and we would get a lot of attention, and it would change our lives, too. But here’s the thing — we were kind of counting on that money ourselves. I mean, maybe we don’t need it all, but we have kids to take care of and we like to travel, and you know, things kind of add up. That was our nest egg; our little insurance policy if Roman taxation gets even worse.
So here’s what we decided to do: we sold the property and got the money, but we’re not going to give it all to the leaders. We’ll tell them that this is the entire amount, but we’ll keep some of it back for ourselves. No one will know, and I don’t see how they can complain when they’re getting 90% of the money. Well, maybe 80%. More than half, anyway.
Ananias and I have talked it through and made sure we agree on the number we’re going to say was the total. In fact, Ananias just left a couple hours ago to present the “total.” I’m pretty sure his gift will get a lot of attention. I’m so glad we figured out a way to do good for others and still do pretty well for ourselves. I think if this new movement is going to keep going, people are going to have to stop sacrificing their own resources. I know there are needy people out there, but hey, there have always been poor people, right? Is other people’s bad luck my problem? I don’t think so. The more I have thought about this, the more convinced I am that Ananias and I are doing the right thing. I’m eager to hear what the leaders said to Ananias; I’m sure this gift will change our lives.
Good morning. Well. Compared to a historically evil ruler like Herod the Great, who was our Jerk of the Bible last week, Sapphira isn’t that bad, right? She’s just an ordinary person — no better or worse than most of us. Which raises the question, can ordinary people be jerks? Oh yes, in my experience almost everybody — including me — is a jerk from time to time. Some people more than others. So this raises a more difficult question: will God strike us dead for being a jerk? We’re all still here, so if it happens, at least it doesn’t happen every time; it only takes once, though.
I believe, and the text from Acts 5 supports this, that Sapphira and Ananias’s downfall was not how much money they did or didn’t give to the apostles in Jerusalem. They could have sold any property for any amount and given whatever portion they wanted to the followers of Jesus. Their sin was lying to God, and their collusion proves that it was intentional and calculated. Jerks. Still, being immediately struck dead seems kind of harsh, doesn’t it? Matthew 12:31 says “Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” Mark 3:28-29 says something similar ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’ The idea of eternal sin is a bit unsettling, to say the least. What about the grace of Christ? Here’s how I understand this: the grace of Christ is for those who believe and confess their sin. If you have deluded yourself so thoroughly that you curse and scorn the source of grace, how can you receive it? In the Mark passage, blasphemies against the Holy Spirit are in the context of demon possession. If you speak of the Holy Spirit the way the demons do, then the Holy Spirit cannot help you.
As I noted earlier, I think the power of Sapphira’s story is that she is an ordinary person. You don’t have to be a king or a ruler to be a jerk. Ordinary people can tell big lies, and the biggest lie we tell ourselves is, “It doesn’t really matter — nobody is going to get hurt by this. I need to lie in order to take care of myself.” Those lies make us jerks, but they are also the sins which separate us from God. When we consistently put ourselves in the place where God should be, this is what I want becomes this is what I need becomes this is what I deserve, and it’s what’s best for everybody. And pretty soon we have convinced ourselves that wrong is right. And that, sisters and brothers, is a bad place to be.
Sapphira and Ananias didn’t get a chance to repent. Luke, the author of Acts, surely had a flair for the dramatic: when Peter asks Sapphira how much she and her husband got for the property they sold and she gives him the same answer which Ananias did, her fate is sealed. Peter says, “Look, the feet of those who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out” Can’t you just see a couple sets of dirty sandals standing there? and immediately Sapphira falls dead at Peter’s feet. It is a memorable scene. If we think we’re fooling God, we are fooling ourselves. And if we fool ourselves for long enough, we may not be able to find our way back to God and to the grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. I wish you the grace of Christ, and pray that you will not lie to yourself or to the Holy Spirit. Don’t be a jerk. Amen