Back in my days as a theological student in the Dublin of the mid-1980s, I remember a story that would have seemed horrifying for many Christians.
Members of a particular religious order were living in a very poor part of Dublin, struggling to work in a community beset by all the problems that went with the poverty of the 1980s. Their work was difficult, mostly unseen, and almost entirely a thankless task. They finished each day tired and often depressed at the experiences of the day.
As members of an order, they had little by way of personal possessions and there was never more than the few pounds required to buy the weekly shopping in the house. However, there was a particularly aggressive and violent man in the local community who was convinced that the house was a place where he could cadge money for drink. He called time and again to the door, each time with some story about how he needed money to buy something vital. The time of day meant nothing to him, he would go and hammer on the door whenever he took the whim to do so.
Late one night, the inhabitants of the house were asleep and the man came calling at the door. Drunk, he hammered persistently at the door demanding that it be answered. It had been a particularly stressful day and no-one could put up with the man any longer.
A large member of the household went down the stairs, switched out every light in the house, opened the front door and hit the man with an almighty upper cut, knocking him out cold. He then phoned the local Garda station and said that there was a man on the doorstep who appeared paralytic drunk.
According to the story, the man never called at the house again.
I was never sure if the story was completely true, but having seen priests who had played Gaelic games or rugby, I never doubted that it was possible.
It was a story that always made me feel uneasy: this was not the way of Jesus. Yet there are parts of the New Testament that don’t often come to the fore, there are parts that don’t really fit in with the popular perception of what being a Christian is like. One of the lesser-known stories is that of Ananias and Sapphira. Here it is from Acts of the Apostles Chapter 5:
Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.
Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.”
When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him.
About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”
Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”
At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
I remember being troubled by this piece of Old Testament justice and asked a biblical scholar about it. His response was simple – people have been free to choose, they have been free to tell the truth, they have chosen otherwise and, presumably, if I believed in free will, I would accept that actions have consequences: consequences that may include an upper cut.