Little white lies? (part 2)

The Ten Commandments. They’re not simply moral rules to be adopted on an individual basis. They were given by God to his people, to those whom he had already miraculously rescued from slavery, to those who in gratitude would pledge to worship and obey the one true God, and God alone (Exod 20:2-5).

It’s noteworthy that the last two commandments — the climax, as it were — introduce the language of “neighbor”:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. (Exod 20:16-17, NRSV)

It’s as if all the commandments could be summed up like this: I am God. I have shown myself to be faithful to you, and therefore want you to be faithful to me. And that means that as my people, you must not break faith with each other. No wonder Jesus could boil the intent of the commandments down to two: love God with everything you’ve got, and love your neighbor as yourself. The two are inseparable.

Bearing false witness and covetousness are not just private violations of some individual moral code. They are born of idolatry and erode the foundations of community.

And that’s why, especially in the earliest days of the church that was pledged to follow Jesus, the sin of Ananias and Sapphira had to be taken very seriously indeed.

As I’ve suggested before, Ananias and Sapphira’s sin in Acts 5 was not merely that they told a lie (whether a little white one or not). Their sin, like that of Achan in Joshua 7, was a blind covetousness. They envied the recognition Barnabas received for his generosity. They schemed to get similar recognition for themselves, but at a discount. Their short-sighted moral calculus blinded them to how God saw their actions.

Like the prophets of old, Peter confronts them with their hypocrisy. To Ananias, he says:

Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God! (Acts 5:3-4, NRSV)

I’m reminded of the story of creation in Genesis 1 and 2. All that God creates is pronounced “good,” even “very good.” But God then declares that it is not good that the man he created be alone. So God creates woman. The man takes one look at her and says — if I may paraphrase — Wow. So begins the human family, human community.

And suddenly (cue ominous music), into that idyllic picture comes Satan.

To this point in the book of Acts we’ve had the miracle of the Ascension, the miracle of Pentecost, and the miraculous healing of a lame beggar. Even the unity of the believers is presented as a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit. The beginning of persecution introduces an ominous note in chapter 4. And now, in chapter 5, Satan walks on stage.

If we take Acts together with Luke’s gospel, though, this isn’t Satan’s first appearance. There was someone else whose covetous blindness Satan took advantage of: Judas Iscariot, the betrayer (Luke 22:3-5). His story too ended in death and disaster.

How could Ananias and Sapphira forget the clear hand of God in the creation of the community of which they were a part? How could they not fear God? Because they had given in to covetous desire and thereby let Satan blind them to the truth of what they were doing. Perhaps they thought they were just jockeying for social position, telling a harmless white lie. But the Holy Spirit was present in that community. They weren’t simply lying to people. They were lying to a holy God.

Listen also to what Peter says later to Sapphira, after she misses her opportunity to tell the truth: “How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test?” (Acts 5:9). At minimum, we can say that putting God to the test is expressly forbidden in Deuteronomy 6:16.

But look at the context of that prohibition. Moses has convened the people. They stand at a crucial point in their collective history: they are preparing to end their years of wandering and enter the Promised Land. So Moses reminds them of the commandments that undergird their identity as a people. Listen up, Israel. There is one and only one God. Love him with all your heart and soul. Teach your children to do the same, every chance you get. And when you finally take possession of the land, don’t forget how you got there. Don’t forget who brought you there. Fear God, and God alone. Don’t put him to the test (Deut 6:4-16).

Ananias and Sapphira’s covetousness and deceit were the antithesis of everything for which the early community stood. It had to be dealt with decisively, in a way that would restore a proper fear of God.

Such a disastrous event was rare in biblical days. It is rarer today. No one fears that competing for recognition in the church will result in someone dropping dead. No one fears telling little white lies.

But the question remains: do we, as individuals and as a community, fear God the way we should? And what is the cost if we don’t?