Yoder-Short: The two who dropped dead

Oct 8, 2018 by

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A group of teens started listing why they disliked certain Bible stories. It began with Job and ended with Ananias and Sapphira. “What kind of God kills people for lying?”

Certain biblical passages make us squirm. What do we do with these stories? We don’t, like Thomas Jefferson, physically snip out texts and fashion a Bible that fits our worldview. Still, we tend to gloss over uncomfortable passages.

Jane Yoder-Short


Thankfully, our Anabaptist roots remind us we’re in this venture of understanding together. Anabaptism also instructs us to use Jesus as the lens for viewing squirmy stories. In 1534, Bernhard Rothmann taught that an interpretation is reliable if it leads to behavior that conforms to Christ. If such behavior is missing, Scripture has not been understood. Ulrich Stadler declared the written word “is like a sign on an inn which witnesses to the wine in the cellar. But the sign is not the wine.”

We don’t need to be afraid of engaging with the Bible, our much-loved wine-pointing sign. Together we wrestle, seeking God’s Spirit and guidance. Within a loving community, both teens and adults can raise the tricky questions generated by troubling stories.

That said, let’s tackle the Ananias and Sapphira incident.

What can we learn from the story of two people dropping dead? Where is the God of mercy? Where is forgiveness?

This uneasy story comes just after the beautiful description of the early church where all things are held in common. Things seem to be going smoothly. Then greed emerges. We can identify with a smooth-running church interrupted by messiness.

For another layer of the story, let’s think about the cultural differences between then and now. We live in a world where truth seems flexible. In the ancient Middle Eastern culture, perjury was serious. Vows and oaths were important parts of cash transactions. It was common to say some form of “may I die if this is not true.”

An additional layer for Jewish hearers is the connection with Achan, an Israelite who fought in the battle of Jericho. The Israelites were not to keep any war spoils. No one was to benefit financially from war. Achan took a beautiful robe, some gold and silver and hid them in his tent.

Both the Achan and Ananias cases are about deceit, greed, insulting God’s holiness — and judgment. Achan was stoned. For Ananias and Sapphira there is no stoning. It seems like the sign has shifted to guide the church away from taking punishment into its own hands.

The relationship between Peter’s rebukes and the following deaths is unclear. We may not understand the quick deaths, but we understand how dishonesty damages community. We understand the power of money.

We can see ourselves in Ananias and Sapphira. We want to be accepted. We want to appear generous. We want to be part of an authentic congregation, but sometimes it seems too costly.
Wrestling with difficult texts can lead to fresh insights. There is no need to avoid teens and their straightforward questions. There is no need to avoid messy Bible stories. Maybe, like Jacob wrestling, we come away limping — longing for less-messy stories and an easier way to be faithful.

We all see rather dimly, even when we think we’re wearing our Jesus lens. Let’s keep trusting that together our curiosity can lead to renewed faith and understanding.

Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.

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