Family: “We are involved with a start-up ministry and have made a public pledge based on the sale of a property. Is there any way we can get credit for the full sale price but not put the entire amount in the gift? We want to make the list of major donors but hold back part of the proceeds.”
Advisor: “I think we can do that. We’ll just set up some instruments that are a bit complicated but create the impression you’ve given the full amount. We can hide the rest in a trust or claim some expenses that will be invisible to everyone but you. No problem.”
This conversation sounds like a few I have heard between families and financial advisors – and it also fits Ananias and Sapphira.
We’ve read the story and heard the annual sermons on the actual account of this unfortunate couple in the Book of Acts. It’s become something of a regular on stewardship Sunday, but we need to read it more often than that – at least I do because the temptation to hold back and rationalize my giving is always there.
How did Peter know the couple was holding back?
I think Peter simply smelled it.
Scripture often describes the fragrance of our lives. The Apostle Paul says we are “to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other the fragrance of life.”
The strongest odors are those most associated with decay, decomposition and death. Our noses recognize them almost immediately. What we withhold begins to rot and our lives begin to stink when we are holding back. That is what Peter smelled. Something had begun to die inside Ananias and Sapphira.
We may try to smell like Barnabas but it doesn’t work. Everyone eventually knows. We may try to cover up the whiff of decay with spiritual disinfectant but it’s useless. The stench of holding back overpowers whatever perfume we try to douse it with.
It’s well and good to say, “I need to take care of that” and never get around to it. It’s easy to get focused on the satisfaction of accumulation or just giving enough to try and pass ourselves off as Barnabas but still find a way to justify what we choose to hold back.
For Ananias and Sapphira, it seemed sudden and dramatic, but I think it was the last part of a long process. Their hearts had changed owners over the course of time. They were not demon possessed. They were self-possessed. And that danger is still real, isn’t it? The deceitfulness of riches makes us want to have the respect and esteem of Barnabas without the integrity required.
Andrew MacLaren said, “Dedicated and unselfish believers often have the admiration and appreciation of other Christians. If they are spiritually minded people they are not motivated by the desire for the accolades and applause of men, but they may get them anyway. They (Ananias and Sapphira) wanted more than acceptance; they wanted acclaim. They wanted to be more than just members of the Body; they wanted to be prominent members of the Body. They wanted the praise of men.”
I’ve taken a hard look this week at my own foot-dragging or even outright holding back on some of my best intentions. How much letting go of what we are holding back do we need to do this week? What commitments have been made that we have either put off or avoided fulfilling? Do we need to check our own motivations in giving?
There is an amount we are holding back – and it doesn’t matter if it is $20 or a few hundred or even thousands of dollars – and it’s making our lives stink. If you are holding back or giving to receive applause, I want you to set it right this week. Let’s come clean.