Servants and Selfishness

Read Acts 4: 32-5:11.

Some Bible stories are cheerful and pleasant. This is not one of them. The story of Ananias and Sapphira is a sobering account of the early church. We might read it and see it as a lesson on the dangers of greed and deceitfulness, and certainly, that would be correct. Ananias and Sapphira were undoubtedly greedy, and they were equally deceitful. They chose to sell their property, they chose to give money, and they chose to lie about it. Nothing in that is hard to understand or unfamiliar. The fact that they were so immediately and dramatically called out on their lie and instantaneously judged for it is what makes this passage particularly memorable. They say that if you can’t be a good example, you may instead serve as a horrible warning, and this couple did indeed do that.

Obviously deceit is wrong, and despite what society in general and Wall Street in particular might tell you, greed is not good. I hope we don’t need an entire sermon to get those truths into our heads. As it happens, I preached on the topic of covetousness not long ago, and separating out the difference between greed and covetousness, well, those two are like fingers on the same hand, adjacent fingers at that. That’s not what I would primarily like to focus on this morning.

What is my topic for today? I would like to talk about something that more specific and yet more general. It is a massive and ongoing problem, in the world, in the church, and frankly, in our own hearts. That problem is selfishness.

Selfishness is real and it is ubiquitous. We see it everywhere, we hear it constantly, and we no doubt feel it ourselves all too often. We live in a world that is steeped in selfish behaviours and selfish thoughts, and selfishness is an ingrained way of life for many people. It is a default setting. And while this is undoubtedly a topic that we could spend a great deal of time on, this morning I would specifically like to look at selfishness in contrast to service.

You might be thinking that what we read to start might not really be all that great of an example when it comes to talking about service. Ananias and Sapphira might have been pretending to do their best in serving the church with their donation, but I can’t imagine that too many preachers who wish to encourage and direct their congregation toward a life of service are going to start with Acts chapter 5. Things did not go well for Ananias and Sapphira. The obvious lesson might be something like “Don’t serve God half-heartedly and put on a false front, or you will be struck dead, and fear will fall upon the church” which is not really super encouraging for anyone. Acts 5:1-11 is not the normal place to start talking about being a servant.

We didn’t start with Acts chapter 5, though. We started with the last few verses of chapter 4. When we read the Bible, we read generally by chapter. The chapter breaks are useful, but in many cases they are artificial. There are very few books of the Bible short enough to be a single chapter, and once you reach a certain length there needs to be a way of organizing and finding a particular passage. The book of Acts flows as a long and largely continuous narrative, one scene leads to the next, and that’s what we see here. The first part of Acts chapter 5, which is the story of Ananias and Sapphira, provides an interesting and illuminating contrast when compared with the last segment of chapter 4, where we read about Barnabas. There were others who sold possessions and brought the money to the church, but only Barnabas is mentioned by name. As much as Ananias and Sapphira serve as the stark warning, Barnabas serves as the shining example.

We know a reasonable amount about Barnabas. He is best known as the friend and travelling companion of Paul of Tarsus, one of two men commended from the church at Antioch on a mission trip, commonly called Paul’s first missionary journey, that included Cyprus and parts of Asia Minor. We see him mentioned a number of other times in the book of Acts, as well as in the citations of several of Paul’s letters. It was Barnabas who took Paul in when he came to Jerusalem after his conversion, and later retrieved Paul from Tarsus. It was Barnabas who was sent to look into the conversion of non-Jews taking place in Antioch, and he was one of the main teachers at Antioch for a period.

There are a few things we don’t know for certain, but tradition holds that he was martyred in Cyprus in or about AD 61. There are commentators who believe he may have written the book of Hebrews, which is entirely plausible, the thoughts presented in Hebrews feel like they come from someone who knew Paul well and thought similarly, but the language and structure of Hebrews is very different from all of Paul’s epistles. Between what we know and what we suspect, we have a reasonable idea of what Barnabas was like, better than we have for most people in the early church. Suffice it to say that Barnabas was a man who went where he was sent in God’s service. He was undoubtedly a servant of the Lord.

The contrast between Barnabas and Ananias and Sapphira is striking indeed. Barnabas is presented as an example of generosity and care for his fellow believer. In the passage we read we are told how Barnabas sold a piece of land, and instead of using the money for his own amusement, or indeed for his own well-being, he brought it and laid it at the apostles’ feet. We don’t know how much it was worth, but one imagines it was a considerable sum. I’m not well versed on what the real estate market was like in Judea 2000 years ago, but land is always worth something. It’s the one thing you know they aren’t making any more of. Whatever it was worth, Barnabas did not keep it, he gave it away. In today’s money would this be the equivalent of $2000? $10,000? $50,000? We have no way of knowing, but it was certainly worth something.

Not only did Barnabas give that money away, he did so with no strings attached. He didn’t set up some sort of a bursary or a support fund to direct money to those who needed it most according to some criteria he established. We see that in the world, and indeed we may see it in Christian organizations as well, that those who have money to donate pick and choose where to send those funds. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, you can’t go throwing money around willy-nilly, but there is an element of selfishness there, even in the charity. To give money but to determine where it goes, who it goes to, or how it is used suggests that even if you have given it up, you still want to have some small measure of control over it. It is possible to be generous, but still selfish. To simply bring the entire proceeds of your property sale and hand it over to the apostles for them to disburse is about the most unselfish thing you can do with your money.

Ananias and Sapphira, they were undoubtedly generous while still being deeply selfish. That’s a troubling thought, but it is true. They also sold land, and again, we do not know what it was worth, but they kept some of the money for themselves.

From a human perspective, that is entirely reasonable. It is normal and fair and expected. If I should sell my house next month, I’m not giving away that money. Actually, the bank is getting a fair amount of it before I ever see it, pretty sure that’s how a mortgage works, but that’s neither here nor there. Ananias and Sapphira had a windfall from their property sale, and they wanted to have their cake and donate it too.

We don’t know what percentage they gave and what they kept. I imagine what they gave was quite a sizeable share, it would have to be in order for it to be plausible that it was the entire price. If you sold a piece of land worth $15,000, and you said that you only got $500 for it, people would either instantly know you were lying or that you were the worst negotiator in the history of real estate. It’s probably safe to say that what they gave was at minimum half of the total amount, and probably more than that. It might have been 90% or more, but it wasn’t everything.

They were under no particular obligation to give everything away. There might have been other people doing that, but as Peter said in verse 4, while it remained, it was yours to do with as you wanted, and when it was sold, the money was in your control. No one compelled him to do this. But Ananias was selfish. He wanted the money, but he also wanted the glory, the recognition that came from generosity. He and his wife wanted others to say “Look at them, they gave so much money to the church. They must be so holy and good and spiritual or whatever else you care to call them.”

If Ananias had brought the money and said “Here is half of what I got from my property sale,” then that probably would have been fine. The money would have gone to good use no doubt, he and Sapphira would have gone about their business and spent their extra cash, and we would not know their names nor would we have this account in the book of Acts. But because of their selfishness, both for money and for recognition and fame, as well as their deceit, they were judged immediately and harshly. They lied not only to men, but to God.

God knows that we are selfish. That is not news to Him. He knows just how weak and frail we are in our bodies and in our minds. If we lie to ourselves and pretend that we are better than we are, that we are not the self-centered creatures that we truly are, that’s one thing. When we lie to God, that is quite another.

God has given us all that we own. We might like to think that we have earned it or won it ourselves by our efforts and our skills or perhaps by our good fortune, but it all comes from God, ultimately. We have brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we will carry nothing out.

Speaking about what God has given, here’s something interesting to note. In chapter 4 when we are told about Barnabas, the meaning of his name is given, which is son of consolation. The name Ananias also has a meaning, of course. It’s derived from the Hebrew name Hananiah, and according to my online Greek lexicon, it means “Whom Jehovah has graciously given.” It’s a remarkable thought that someone who had been blessed with having a valuable possession to sell, and whose name should have served as a constant reminder of how God had been gracious and generous with him, was still selfish and deceitful even with the apostles and with God himself.

Selfishness runs deep, though. Whatever we have, we are so often utterly selfish with it. I see this with my children on a daily basis. They have toys, the boys have cars in particular, and while they all have more of them than they can possibly use all at once, they are constantly fighting over them, they take from one another and complain when someone is not willing to share. It is tiresome, but it is part of human nature. We are selfish. We want what we have, plus a little more.

One aspect of selfishness that we may not often think about is how it weighs you down. When you are concerned primarily with your own needs and desires, with their fulfillment, you are not likely to reach a happy conclusion. My children have lots of toy cars, but they want more. I know people who have lots of money, who have expensive vehicles, but they want more. Selfishness does not bring satisfaction. It binds you to the pursuit of your selfish desires, even when that leads to your destruction.

Look at what happened to Ananias and Sapphira. They were in the church, yes, they may even have been believers, although we are not told so specifically in the passage, but despite appearances, they were consumed with selfishness. It led abruptly and unexpectedly to their deaths.

Barnabas on the other hand, his choice to sell his land and give away the money, not only was that unselfish, it was also freeing. He was not tied down and burdened with so many earthly responsibilities that he was unable to serve the Lord. He travelled extensively in his service, he travelled to Antioch, to Cyprus, to Asia Minor, and this was in a day and time when travel was slow and not without risk. Barnabas spent years on the road and away from home, preaching the gospel to those who opposed the message, teaching those who did believe. We know more of the specific misfortunes and dangers that befell Paul, should we imagine that those which Barnabas encountered were any different? Even if he did not suffer the same beatings, shipwrecks, and imprisonments that Paul did, he no doubt endured many hardships. He upended his life in order to be a servant.

There are few who are willing to do this, to discard their existing lives, take up the cross, and follow Christ. As example of one who was not, let’s look at the young man who came to Christ, best known at the rich young ruler, I’ll read a few verses from Matthew 20 to refresh your memory of his story. 16 And, behold, one came and said unto him, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? 17 And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. 18 He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, 19 Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 20 The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? 21 Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. 22 But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.

It’s a familiar story, or at least it should be, we see it repeated in three of the gospels. This seemingly small incident illustrates some important truths. We think of this story as a lesson on greed and on misplaced priorities, and those are certainly correct, but it is also a lesson on selfishness.

The young man here, in Luke he is referred to as a ruler, he was concerned only with himself. Listen to his questions. What good thing shall I do to get eternal life? What do I lack? He said that he had kept the commandments from his youth up, and perhaps he did, perhaps his actions were exemplary, but his heart was tied up with his own concerns, and especially with his belongings. He went away sorrowful, we are told, because he had great possessions. Luke says specifically that he was very rich.

I imagine that this was man who had tried to fill the emptiness inside with money and things, but found no contentment there. He had done his best to obey the commandments, but still lacked peace. He had it all, but he still felt like he was missing something. He wanted eternal life, that was important to him, but not more important than his wealth. Certainly not more important than his fellow man. His actions and his sorrow at Christ’s answer revealed that.

We don’t know what became of the rich young ruler. Perhaps the day came when he realized that he didn’t own his possessions so much as they owned him, that his selfishness was holding him back, was slowly but surely leading to his doom. Perhaps he changed. But perhaps he was instead like the rich man in the parable we could read in Luke chapter 12, of the man who had such great harvests that he decided to tear down his barns and build bigger. I’ll read a couple of verses from there, 18 And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. 20 But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? 21 So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.

All the food, all the money, all the resources in the world are not worth as much as your soul. You can get more stuff, you can make more money, but you cannot get another soul. You can’t find one, or steal one, or pick one up at Walmart. And all you have in this life means nothing the moment you pass into eternity.

Did the rich young ruler end up like the man in that parable? Did he die with all his goods and money, but at the cost of eternal life? We don’t know his fate, but we do know this – in they end, he got whatever it was that he truly wanted. When we met him, he was selfish, no doubt he pursued whatever it was that he ultimately desired. If that was eternal life and serving God, that’s wonderful. That’s the best choice he could have made, that anyone could have made.

But I fear that he, like so many others, was held back by his selfishness, and that he perished in his sins.

We think of selfishness as being primarily concerned with money and goods and possessions, but there is far more to it than that. Selfishness is the root cause of so much pain, so much strife, so much sin. Yes, it is selfish desires that drive people to steal, to cheat, to lie, to do all manner of evil in order to advance themselves, to profit and gain. It is selfish desires that cause people to engage in all manner of unseemly behaviour because of the enjoyment that it may bring in the short term, despite the harm and damage it will cause. I don’t think we need to go into a laundry list of all the ways that can happen, you no doubt can fill that in without much effort.

We are also selfish with our time. I said earlier that land, such as Barnabas sold, is one thing they aren’t making more of, well, time is another. We only get so much time, 24 hours in a day, every day, and we can use that as we will. We can spend it prudently, or we can squander it foolishly. Either one can be selfish, as it happens. We can very carefully and precisely use our time all for ourselves, to make ourselves better off, not giving a moment to anyone else, and certainly not to God. Or we can neglect wise use of our time entirely, and not benefit anyone at all.

As a parent I’m mindful of this, and frankly, I’m guilty of this. My children wish to spend time with me when I get home from work and supper is over. I might selfishly want to just sit down on the couch and rest, while they want to pester me with questions or get me outside to play. And while there are times I might be too tired to play, it’s true, there are times when I’m not, but instead am merely lazy, and end up doing nothing. That’s time I could have invested wisely, but instead chose to waste it selfishly.

In Luke chapter 14, I won’t have you turn there, Christ shared a parable about a wedding feast where the invited guests did not wish to come. While that is primarily about how Israel was largely unconcerned with following Christ, and it could be easily extended to any religious person who is not willing to actually serve the Lord when the time comes to do any work, it is an example of selfishness with time. The invited guests made all sorts of excuses why they do not want to go. I’ve bought land, or I’ve bought oxen, or I’ve recently gotten married, as if land and oxen have urgent timetables, or newlyweds are not able to attend banquets, or some other foolishness. Those people in that parable are not real, but the example they provide is. It’s probably all too familiar.

We are so often selfish with our time, as we are with our money and our stuff. The time we spend on ourselves, like the things we have heaped up for ourselves, that’s not going to be of any value when we reach eternity. Once we die, it is gone, and will no longer matter, apart from the fact that we could have used it better.

I could spend the last few minutes providing examples of those in scripture who were selfish, and how it brought them to destruction, but I don’t think that’s really helpful. If you don’t know that already, more examples are not likely to help. Instead, let’s turn to the gospel of Matthew, chapter 20, to read a few verses from there.

25 But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. 26 But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; 27 And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: 28 Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

What we read immediately follows an incident where two of the disciples, James and John to be exact, had come to the Lord with their mother to ask, to selfishly ask, I should add, that they be allowed to sit at His right hand and left hand in His kingdom. An incredibly selfish and presumptuous thing to ask, and the other disciples, as you can imagine, were not impressed. The passage says they were moved with indignation.

We all like to have the pre-eminence. Much as we are selfish with our money and our time, we are also selfish with glory and recognition and power. We grab unto those things and hang on for dear life. The disciples, who had spent the last couple of years listening to and hopefully learning from Christ’s teachings, they might have walked away from their old lives, they might have done many generous acts of service at this point, but still the selfishness lurked within. There is nothing more human than selfishness.

Every day we should be thankful that Christ was not selfish. He gave of himself, He gave and He gave, until He finally gave up His life on the cross to save us from our sins. There is nothing more unselfish that anyone could ever do, that anyone has ever done, or will do. He gave His life a ransom for many.

This morning, I could tell you to stop being selfish. I could tell you that Christ came to minister to us, and so we should minister to one another, following the example He laid out. Those would be good things to tell you. Those would be good things to do. But I think we all know that already.

I’m not going to tell you to stop being selfish. That’s not going to work. I might as well tell the fish in my aquarium to stop swimming. Deep down, we all know that we are selfish, and that we will remain that way throughout this life.

I will tell you this. An effective servant cannot behave in a selfish manner.

We may be selfish, but perhaps we can be less selfish in our actions. We can be less focused on ourselves, and be more concerned with the people around us. We can do things that bring us no benefit, but help others. That we can do.

We are told so many times in scripture to think of others, to esteem them more highly than ourselves. In the verses we read a moment ago Christ said and repeated that to be great among His people, one must be a servant. It runs against every selfish instinct in our bodies, but it is true.

I know I’m selfish. That is my default setting. But my Saviour is so completely unselfish that He gave His life to die for me. If I can be just a little bit more like Him, that’s something. With his help, I can be.

It is wise to follow Christ’s example, as Barnabas did. Because the other option is to end on the same path as Ananias and Sapphira, or to go away sorrowful, because our possessions are worth more to us than our souls.