Sunday, April 1, 2018

Acts 4.32-35: The Rest of the Story

The followers of Jesus held all things in common. That's the phrase that most often gets lifted out of Acts 4:32-35 (Easter 2B). It's an image that has inspired intentional Christian communities since the moment the words were written. Living together in peace and harmony. Sharing all you have. Why can't Christians today get along like that?

The writer of Acts (and the Renaissance artists who illustrated this text) might lead you to ask, "Why couldn't Christians then get along like that?" Because in the very next section of the Acts text we get a full example of people who didn't share everything they had. Ananias and Sapphira sold a field and didn't share all of the proceeds with their community. It did not end well for Ananias. And Raphael and Masaccio want to make sure that you know that part of the story. So they pair the ideal and the reality in their art.
(Left). Masaccio. Distribution of Alms and the Death of Ananias. 1426-1427. Florence: Brancacci Chapel, S. Maria del Carmine. (Right) Raphael. Cartoon for the Death of Ananias. 1515-1516. London: Victoria and Albert Museum.
Massacio has Peter passing along funds to a mother holding her infant child. Literally he hands the money over Ananias' body. Raphael separates the two actions. Ananias dies in the lower right corner while monies are being distributed at the left of the canvas. At the far right is Sapphira (in a green gown) counting the coins that are her share of the profit. She pays no attention to what is happening to Ananias.

In both works the body on the ground is that of Ananias, whose death is told in Acts 5:1-6. In between the idealist account of everyone sharing is a two-verse reference to a Jesus follower named Barnabas who sold a field and did lay the proceeds at the feet of the disciples. It did happen within the community of believers. But not all the time. Hence the presence of a prostrate Ananias in these two compositions illustrating the distribution of alms.

At once the images are reminders of the need to share the gifts we have been given and a vivid warning about what happens if we don't. That must have taken off at least a little of the early Christian community's idealistic shine.

For thoughts about Thomas (John 20:19-31), click here, here, or here.
This week on Art&Faith Matters Facebook, a quote in search of a source. (But it really works with the Acts passage.)

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