How many of you remember the old 80’s TV show Simon and Simon? It was about a duo of private investigators (like an inordinate number of 80’s TV shows for some reason.) But the gimmick is that they were brothers…who were different than each other. It was a spin on the old “Odd Couple” motif: one was prim and proper and the other was a bit of a redneck. But, of course, deep down they both wanted the same thing, and they needed each other, and it was only when they worked together that they were able to solve crimes and put the badguys away. Which conveniently happened at the end of each show.
Today’s Scripture passage tells the story of Simon and Simon. A different two Simons, but two Simons nonetheless.
The first is Simon the Magician, or Simon the Great, or Simon Magus, meaning Great. Simon meets one of the members of the early church, Philip. After the death of Stephen, the church is scattered by Saul’s persecution. The next story we read is Phillip travelling to Samaria in order to proclaim the good news of Jesus. There he meets Simon. Simon is well-known in Samaria as a magician, someone with great powers who can perform amazing deeds. He is basically the biggest religious leader in town…until Phillip shows up. Then everything changes for Simon. He is amazed by the story of Jesus. Phillip tells about Jesus’ teachings, and the Kingdom values that he preached. He tells about Jesus’ death and resurrection, the power over even death. And he tells about the Holy Spirit, who gives power and strength to the Church. And the people fall head over heels in love with Jesus. They hear the proclamation by Phillip and buy in 100%. Philip starts baptizing people left and right, and a community of Christ-followers forms. Even Simon the Magician is baptized. Acts uses the language of discipleship: of following. Simon begins to follow Phillip around, believing and following his teachings about Jesus and the Spirit. Everything is going great, right?
Enter Simon, Number Two. Simon Peter. As soon as the big boys down in Jerusalem hear what Phillip is up to up in Samaria, they figure they ought to go check it out. Simon Peter and John head up to see what is happening, to provide support and encouragement to this new congregation. They come up and lay hands on the members of the church, and all of a sudden, the power of the Holy Spirit comes on the church in a powerful way. That’s when things start to go sideways between Simon and Simon. Simon the Magician sees this power that Simon Peter and John have, and want in on that action. Think about the mental model for Simon the Magician. For him, power like this has always been about profit. It is a way to make money. And so, he is ready to invest in what he sees. He knows that if he can buy this kind of power, then his Magician act will increase in spades. He wants that power, and he is willing to pay for it.
Things get ugly. Simon Peter goes to town on Simon the Magician. The Holy Spirit is not for sale. The power of God is free and available for all, not just for a select few. This is not about profit, but about something deeper and more profound. Read again his words:
- “May your silver perish with you.”
- “Your heart is not right before God.”
- “Repent of this wickedness of yours.”
- “For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.”
Whoa. Simon Peter doesn’t pull any punches, does he? His message is clear: this power is not for sale. All of a sudden, this becomes a story of Simon VERSUS Simon.
And so began the story of the evil of Simon Magus. Throughout history, there has been this tradition of associating Simon with all kinds of evil. It was easy for the early Jewish Christians to beat up on Simon the Magician, because he was from Samaria. Remember that Samaria was considered the cultural enemy of the Jews. The disciples told Jesus to walk the long way around in order to avoid it. Jesus told stories about the Samaritans meant to expose their racism and hatred. So, it became easy for early Jewish Christians to see Simon Magus as this symbol of evil and wickedness. Indeed, there has been an ancient tradition of what is sometimes called Simony – named after Simon. It is the act of buying and selling positions in the church, or buying pardons from the Church. It takes from this story of Simon the idea that one can manipulate God and the Church through the use of money.
And that’s bad. We don’t talk much about Simony much anymore. The church doesn’t really sell pardons or indulgences, especially since Martin Luther took the Church to task for basically practicing Simony. And it is rare that positions in the Church are so sought after that people are willing to spend money to buy their way into positions. The nominating committee has been working on finalizing the leadership ballot for next week, and you may be surprised that no one has come to us offering money to let put them on the ballot for any positions.
But that doesn’t mean that we don’t try to manipulate God through the use of money. It is more subtle than it once was, but have we ever been guilty about worrying about whether or not we will make a big giver angry? Or spend more time worrying about how much people give than how they allow the Holy Spirit to work through them? Have we ever thought in the back of our minds that we need to make sure to give to the church, so that we will be blessed, or have our prayers answered by God? Or have we ever thought that the church needs to do what we want it to do, because of how much we give?
We know that it takes money to run the church, but the power of money is insidious sometimes in the ways that it sneaks in and makes us afraid. Makes us greedy. Makes us abandon our priorities in order to allow the power of money to manipulate us. I don’t see it as much in this congregation, but that power is always there. Richard Foster says it this way:
“…money has many of the characteristics of deity. It gives us security, can induce guilt, gives us freedom, gives us power and seems to be omnipresent. Most sinister of all, however, is its bid for omnipotence.”
This is the danger of Simony. The danger of making money more important than how we treat each other, or how we proclaim the Gospel, or how we live out kingdom values. Phillip came to preach the good news of Resurrection, but there have always been “Simon’s” who see a different set of values, a different “good news.”
And yet, is there perhaps something more to the story of Simon Magus than the sin of simony? The Two-Way thought so. This is the group that meets every Wednesday night – open to whomever wants to come – and talks about the passage for the sermon. This week, I read this passage, and they began to ask some profound questions. Why is Simon Peter coming down so hard on Simon Magus? Isn’t this the logical conclusion of a new believer, trying to figure out what the faith looks like? Wasn’t Simon Peter coming down a little harsh on Simon Magus?
Maybe so, but think about why Simon Peter said what he said. On one hand, he probably looks at Simon Magus and sees someone a little bit like himself. Headstrong, a little self-centered, someone who wants the credit for himself. Remember that Simon Peter was the same guy who jumped out of the boat, assuming that he could walk on water; who pulled Jesus aside and rebuked him for declaring that he would be killed; who wouldn’t let Jesus wash his feet, and told him that there was no way that he would deny him. I think that Simon Peter looked at Simon Magus and saw a former version of himself – cocky, selfish, bull-headed. And his heart went out to him. And yet, Simon Peter was stuck. He couldn’t simply forget about this incredibly dangerous use of money, to attempt to buy favor or power from God. He had to be clear about what Simon Magus was doing wrong here, about the danger of what we came to call Simony. Again, it was the Two-Way that made another important connection – to the story of Ananias and Sapphira. A few chapters earlier, we read the story of this couple who sold their property, but failed to give the money from the sale to the community. They lied and kept some of the money for themselves. In the same way, Simon Peter’s rebuke was harsh. In that case, they were struck dead in the middle of their lies. The connection here is important. In both stories, the individual chose the good of themselves over the good of the community. The good of ME over the good of WE. Which is exactly what Simon Magus was trying to do. In a way, the money was incidental. The sin was the selfishness, manipulation, and the arrogance of thinking that the power of God was a commodity that “I can control.”
But the Two Way is right. Look again the words that Simon Peter tells Simon Magus: “repent of this wickedness,” he says in vs. 22. “There is a way back,” Simon Peter tells him. “The arrogance that leads you to try and turn the Holy Spirit in a commodity does not have to be the life you lead. There is a better way.” Of course, Simon Peter might have been thinking back on his own failures and thinking, “believe me…I learned the hard way!” Simon Peter puts his arm around Simon Magus and disciples him to a better way: the way of community, of shared ministry, of shared submission to the power of the Holy Spirit, of trusting God and each other. That is the life that the Holy Spirit brings. That is the life that Simon Peter wanted Simon Magus to lead. And as the passage ends, we hear the last words Simon utters in Scripture: “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.” I’d like to think that the words of Simon Peter hit home for him, that this was true repentance, that Simon joined the church in Samaria and became a changed man. Maybe instead of the story of Simon VS Simon, this is the story of Simon discipling Simon.
I’d like to think so, for our sake. For how many of us are a little guilty of Simony? Here we are, in one of the richest countries in the world, and maybe Richard Foster’s words hold true for us. That money has this power over us. That we think that the essence of God is somehow for sale, or at least for rent? That we give more attention to those with money than those without. But I’d like to think that there is some good news in the story for us!
Foster warns us of what he calls the dark side of money. But he also invites us to celebrate what he calls the light side of money. He invites us to reject what some have called Simony, embracing instead a spirit of thanksgiving:
“With glad and generous hearts, let us give without seeking power. We do not need to control, to manage, or to influence. Freely we have received, freely we give. In Acts we see the generous giving of the early church that broke the cycle of tyranny by which benefactors directed terms to the poor and the powerless. Money was used by the early church, not as an instrument of control, but as an instrument of love. All the subtle tricks were gone.”
May we follow the freedom of the light side of money, as Foster suggests! May we spend more time thinking about WE than ME! May we choose the good of the community instead of always thinking about ourselves. May we choose the poor and the powerless and not the tyrants. May we receive freely and give freely. I hope and pray that Simon Magus learned a lesson that changed his life from Simon Peter that day. I hope and pray that we learn the same lesson.
In fact, what if we imagine that together? The Bible doesn’t tell us anymore about Simon Magus, so maybe our holy imagination might. What if Simon Peter and Simon Magus became this amazing team in the church in Samaria. Simon Peter offers the authority; Simon Magus offers the local leadership. Both of them remind the people what true repentance looks like, what it looks like to worry less about our ego and our reputation and more about the power of the Holy Spirit in our midst. Together, Simon and Simon remind the people of this new congregation what God’s power is all about. Together, they lead folks to the we…and not the me. Together, they become a duo against the forces of evil. Simon and Simon. But instead of Simon Magus known for his early missteps, he becomes known for his life AFTER repentance…after the Holy Spirit moved in amazing ways. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Church eventually made Simon Magus a saint. A saint with a checkered past, for sure. But aren’t they all? Aren’t we all hoping to live more out of our repentance than out of our selfishness. Our of our WE than our ME? Today, may the story of the Spirit, who makes us all whole, become retold once more.