• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

What’s It Worth to You?

A friend of mine, Ralph Winter, has produced a wide range of movies, and many of them share a common trait: a character with super powers. Ralph produced “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four”—’nuff said. He also helped put out “I, Robot,” featuring Will Smith’s cyborg, and “Hackers,” featuring Angelina Jolie’s computer whiz. Now he’s off to New Zealand to produce the sequel to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Not having super powers myself, I’ve been envious of all those who do.

(Well, almost all. I’m not interested in being made of bricks just to become strong like “The Thing.”)

Another friend of mine, Tom Morris, has spoken to huge audiences of businesspeople for a couple of decades now. Tom has written a variety of popular books on leadership (such as If Aristotle Ran General Motors) and his main theme, True Success. Tom is a Yale-trained philosopher, formerly a professor at Notre Dame, and the man has a lot of tools in his toolkit. But he has remarked ruefully, “They’re happy to pay me to tell them how to be ‘successful,’ even if I bend that definition strongly toward classical and Christian definitions. But no one wants to pay me to talk about ethics.”

A man named Simon used to impress people in ancient Samaria by his super powers. He could do some sort of magic, which brought him large audiences for whatever he had to say. But then Philip comes along and wows the crowd with actual exorcisms and healings of people with life-long debilities. The audience shifts its attention, and its spiritual loyalty, to Philip and his message about Jesus.

Interestingly, Simon doesn’t fight the newcomer, but switches to his side. He both “believes” and is baptized (Acts 8:13), and he apprentices himself to Philip.

Then Peter and John arrive from Jerusalem, and things get ramped up…a lot. The apostles pray for these new believers and lay hands on them, and they all receive the Holy Spirit.

Now Simon is overcome by what he sees and apparently relapses to his old power-mongering ways. He offers the apostles money to teach him how to do this Trick of Tricks, this Wonder of Wonders. After all, that’s what one does in the guild, right? Fair is fair.

(And poor Simon: forever after his name is linked to the cynical purchasing of church offices: simony.)

Peter rebukes him harshly for thinking that the economy of the Kingdom of God is like the economy of magic. There is no market in which power can be commodified and sold. There is only (the one, personal) God to whom one prays and from whom one receives gifts at God’s good pleasure.

Okay, that’s the usual interpretative line in this passage. Fair enough. But what struck me today was that Simon was so impressed by what he saw that he was willing to pay for it. Probably a lot.

And what did he see? The baptism of the Holy Spirit. Something apparently so powerful and so attractive that it dwarfed what he had seen before, and he had seen plenty.

I was “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37) as I think of how desultory is my typical pursuit of the Holy Spirit. I might—and that’s on good days—spend…some time: reading the Bible, praying, that sort of thing. I might even spend…some money on a good devotional book, and then read it.

But what am I really willing to spend, to give up, to sacrifice for this Pearl of Great Price, for this Wonder of Wonders, the very presence of God within me and the privilege of praying that others will enjoy God too?

Of all the things I value in my life, is this the one I’d be willing to trade a lot for? To be so excited that I’d maybe even forget myself and babble on in some misguided bargaining with God to get it?

Stupid, sinful Simon.

At least, though, he seemed to know what mattered.

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