Stanley Hauerwas, a theologian and ethicist for many years at Duke University, once served as a weekend financial stewardship consultant for a Baptist congregation in Texas. He explored the unusual story of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), a wealthy couple in the early church who actually drop dead after lying about their net worth.

A wonderfully acerbic man, Hauerwas looked at the group after the Bible study and said (I’m paraphrasing), “Since you’ve invited me here to help brainstorm possible ways to increase Sunday morning offerings, here’s something you might consider, based upon the story we just studied. Every fall invite those who desire to become, or remain, a church member to rise before the congregation and state aloud their name, vocation and annual salary.”

“What do you mean?” asked the Texans, who weren’t so sure about the idea.

“It might go something like this,” Hauerwas replied. “I’m Sally Long, a teacher, and I make $54K per year. … Jim Barnett here, a local attorney, and I earn $186,000 annually. … Dwight Carter’s my name, a custodian, and I take home about $27,000.”

The room got quiet. “But that’s private,” one church leader said. “It’s nobody else’s business, right? A personal matter between the individual and God.”

“Look,” Hauerwas said. “You invited me here to talk about the Bible and money. So let’s get biblical.”

•••

I’m not sure how I feel about Hauerwas’ suggestion, which would either clear the room in the congregations I’ve served or, conversely, perhaps increase attendance that particular Sunday. I do know his idea is an interesting exposition of this story in Acts 5 about a couple who “lie to the Holy Spirit” (5:3) and also lies “to God” (5:4). Although Jesus teaches with jarring regularity about the dangers of wealth, this couple’s sin seems to be deception rather than wealth itself. They pretended they weren’t as rich as they really were.

The story calmly reports the immediate respective burials of the pair, who drop dead three hours apart during an abnormally long meeting about church finances. (Ever sat through one of those?) I wonder if the freshly dug graves just outside the church building served as an effective stewardship tool that fall. Only a very short sermon needed. Merely glancing out the window may have inspired mass tithing.

Please forgive my jocularity concerning this old, rather morbid story.

Part of the theological punch in Acts 5 does indeed address deception concerning our wealth. “Come on, I’m not that rich,” I rationalize. “Lots of people are far wealthier, right?” The truth: If you live in America and own (or rent) a home, you’re a very wealthy and well-off person compared to vast numbers of people in the world trying to scrape by on next to nothing. This isn’t meant to induce guilt, nor is that the intent in Acts 5. But God can use guilt to kindle change.

The spiritual aim of any scriptural teaching about money is to lead a follower of Christ to transparent honesty about what’s “private” and “mine” and “nobody’s business.” The words subtly provide a possible opening for closeted idolatry. Martin Luther’s definition of “a god” is interesting here: “That to which we assign ultimate allegiance.” Sometimes, while staring at the familiar motto on our coinage, it’s easy to get confused about which god I really trust.

The spiritual aim of any scriptural teaching about money is to lead a follower of Christ to transparent honesty about what’s “private” and “mine” and “nobody’s business.”

•••

“Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11). You think?

This is the first time the word “church” appears in Luke-Acts. Even though thousands came to Christ a few chapters earlier at Pentecost, a common identity took a while to develop.

The church is still developing, in truth, as we learn to be gracefully generous from the One who showers the world with his own radical generosity, even his whole life.

 

Frank G. Honeycutt
Frank G. Honeycutt is an ELCA pastor living in Walhalla, S.C. His newest book, 95 Prostheses, is forthcoming later this year from Cascade Books.

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