“You have lied to the Holy Spirit” (read Acts 5:1–11)
In the Bible, after the account of Eden, the earthly paradise, there is one about the lie that reduces the garden into a desert and introduces evil and death into the world (Genesis 3:1ff). Here also, after the idyll of the first community and as if in contrast with Barnabas’ gesture (Acts 5:32–37), there is the lie of a couple who are very much attached to god Mammon. Ananias and Sapphira, trying to serve both God and money, go against the lifestyle inaugurated by Jesus.
This account is like a lightning out of the blue sky. Sapphira means “beautiful” and Ananias “God has compassion.” Yes, God indeed has compassion for His Church full of so many children similar to them! It seems excessive, even truculent to make two people die because of a simple lie. If Jesus died on the cross for sinners, their death is certainly not a divine punishment. Otherwise, we all would have died! Who has not pronounced at least one lie?
The account, however, warns us about lying. I like to think that the two died of a broken heart because of the pain of seeing that their deception had been discovered and understanding its gravity. It is better to die than to lie. A lie is like a deadly poison to any relationship. I wish to God that everyone who lies would die of shame!
The sin of Ananias and Sapphira was not to have given only a part of what they possessed. They were free to give even nothing. Their sin was to lie knowing that they were lying: it was a lie against the Spirit, life of the community. If the true word is communication, communion and life, the false word is entrapment, division and death. The account, a case of “fiscal cheating,” puts in evidence how a lie, often lightheartedly uttered, is lethal.
The text, rich in suggestions, unmasks the evil. At its origin, there is always a lie which makes it appear as “good, beautiful and desirable” (Genesis 3:6) whereas, in reality, it is bad, ugly and undesirable. Its wage, in fact, is death (Romans 6:23). “The tongue of the deceitful is their ruin” (Proverbs 17:20), because “its power is life and death” (Proverbs 18;21). “Many have fallen by the edge of the sword, but many more have fallen by the tongue” (Sirach 28:18). “If anyone makes no mistakes in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also… The tongue is a little member and boasts of great things… The tongue is a fire. The tongue is a whole wicked world in itself among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. Every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:2–8).
At the light of these observations by James, today, we must keep in mind the potential of the word, multiplied to the nth power by the mass media.
It is meaningful that here, for the first time, the word “Church” appears. Lie is typical of religious hypocrisy. With it, Ananias and Sapphira want to appear better than what they are: they desire to show off and foster their career within the community. Already before them, James and John wanted to occupy the first places, against Peter and in competition with the others (Mark 10:35–45, 9:33–37).
The Church is never perfect: money and hypocrisy are her “original sin,” which always endangers her like and more than everybody else. “Evil” is not outside. Our craving for possession, domination and appearance wears religious garments. The worst evil is the very one which is performed with good intention. When one decides to do good, then temptations start (Cf. Sirach 2;1). It was like this with the people of Israel when they came out of Egypt and entered the Promised Land; it was like this with Jesus, from His baptism to the cross, and it will be like this with us.