Acts 5:1-10 reads like this:
But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; 2 with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. 3‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? 4 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!’ 5Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard of it. 6 The young men came and wrapped up his body, then carried him out and buried him. 7 After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. 8Peter said to her, ‘Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.’ And she said, ‘Yes, that was the price.’ 9 Then Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ 10Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, so they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 And great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.
This story is troubling for many Christians. It is troubling to think that God would kill you if you steal from the church but would not kill others who commit ever greater sins. For the most part the interpretations I heard in my life focus on why these two deserved to die - they deserved it because they lied and stole. This interpretation goes on to talk about how important it is to not lie and steal and turns this text into a moral lesson like an Aesop Fable, all the while downplaying the idea that God killed two people.
So I would like to submit an interpretation of the story that might help us make sense of this text.
First of all it is helpful to understand that prior to this story there is a story about the early church and the great community that existed. No one was without and everyone had their needs met. This was a community that had found a way to eradicate the potential for envy and coveting things from their neighbors. In a community where there is no envy or covetous behaviour then you have a community that is able to avoid what is called mimetic rivalry.
Mimetic rivalry is a term from Rene Girard which is essentially the idea that we desire things because other people desire things. Mimetic rivalry leads to tension and unresolved tension leads to what Girard calls "scandal". Scandals need to be resolved and humans have learned that if we can scapegoat a victim the scandal will go away. While a scapegoat may abate the scandal the scapegoat cannot remove the cause of the scandal - mimetic rivalry - and so soon there is another scandal and that requires another scapegoat. This cycle of peace, tension, scandal, scapegoat, peace is what Girard identifies as Satan. Satan can only exist if we scapegoat others. Which is why when Jesus tells his disciples to forgive without limits, Jesus is showing us a way to banish the Satan from our world.
Now back to Acts.
Notice in the story that it does not say that God killed either of these two people. There is a character in the story that has a reputation in fact can only exist on the blood of victims - Satan.
Could it be that Satan is struggling for survival in this new community. Because there is no mimetic rivalry in the community Satan is at a loss for how to create scapegoats. The cycle of Satan is dying and, in a final clever bit, Satan comes up with an idea - kill someone. The person Satan kills is the one who, like all victims, everyone believes is guilty of some wrong. In this case the justification is the victim is a liar. Just as the authorities thought they were right to think of Jesus as a trouble making heretic so to the early Church saw Ananias as a trouble making liar. The struggling Satan gasps for a breath and gets energy from the tension in the group. Satan pulls the trigger and kills Ananias in order to impose the cycle of Satan on the group an try to convince the group that scapegoating is the way to live.
When Ananias dies, the community is seized with fear because they know that Satan has gotten a toe hold in the community. So in order to address this unwelcomed guest of Satan, the community takes the body of Ananias away quickly so that the power of scapegoating does not spread among the Church.
Satan is frustrated. So Satan kills another.
The community is stuck with fear and wonder as they begin to realize how powerful the cycle of Satan is. How easy it is to be okay with the killing of someone who we think did something wrong. How easy it is for us all to be blind to the cycle of Satan to the point that we begin to think that it was God who killed the people who stole in the early church.