Saturday, February 18, 2023

“Money is a God Term”--Prestige (Money 2)


Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. And he kept back part of the proceeds.

                                                               (Acts 5:1-2 NKJV)              

According to Kenneth Burke, while he was teaching a course at the University of Chicago, as a visiting professor, the conservative rhetorical scholar Richard Weaver (who was, at the time, a full professor at the University of Chicago) sat in the back of Burke’s classroom, each day, taking notes. In that course, Burke introduced his notion of what he called “God terms.” After Burke concluded his course at Chicago, Weaver published a work describing as his own concepts: “God terms” and “devil terms.” Burke was angry with Weaver, believing that Weaver had stolen his terminology, without crediting Burke. Their feud, developing from this issue, lasted throughout both of their lifetimes. Although I like Weaver (and agree with his Conservatism more than with Burke’s liberalism), I find Burke’s notion of “God terms” to be much more useful (and original) than Weaver’s, so in this blog, I use Burke’s definition of “God terms, not Weaver’s.


In The Complete White Oxen (293), Burke equates “God term” with a “summarizing title.” In The Rhetoric of Religion (2-3), he equates it with “summarizing,” then equates it with a “title of titles” (33). In “Tactics of Motivation,” Chimera 1 (1943): 28, he calls it an “ultimate title.” I take Burke to mean, by all this, that there are certain “terms” that many other terms may be translated into. I think Burke’s best example of such a summarizing or ultimate title of titles is the term “money.” Burke is not suggesting that money is somehow a “God.” It is only a ”God term.” In A Grammar of Motives (355), discussing capitalist systems, Burke comments: “Money would be … [a] ‘God term.’ For a God term designates the ultimate motivation, or substance.” (Capitalists are ultimately motivated by money.) Money is a summarizing title, because virtually anything may be translated into money. “Time Is Money is an aphorism that is claimed to have originated … in ‘Advice to a Young Tradesman,’ an essay by Benjamin Franklin that appeared in George Fisher’s 1748 book, The American Instructor: or Young Man’s Best Companion” (Wikipedia). What this means is: I can buy someone’s time by offering them money, when I hire them to complete a project or to do something for me. In the same sense of using money to buy things, food is money, clothing is money, shelter (a home or apartment) is money, health (even longer life) is money (I buy the services of a doctor or pharmaceutical products), transportation (whether car, gas, airplane, train, bus, etc.) is money, security (and peace of mind) in retirement is money, security (and peace of mind) against criminals (whether robbers, murderers, or rapists, etc.) is money. Some might even suggest that love is money—that it can be bought—although the Beatles’ song disagrees: Money Can’t Buy Me Love!

Obviously, even in Luke’s writings, despite
emphasizing “Blessed are you ‘poor’” (Luke 6:20 NKJV) and “Woe to you who are rich” (Luke 6:24 NKJV) and “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13 NKJV), not every use of money is condemned. For example, Luke 7:37-38 speaks approvingly of:

[A] woman in the city who was a sinner [who], when she knew that Jesus sat at the table … brought an alabaster flask of fragrant oil [which Matthew identifies as a ‘precious ointment’] … and she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil.

Spending money exorbitantly in the service/worship of Jesus is not wrong. (Hence, the Magi who gave exorbitant gifts to Jesus in Bethlehem were acceptable.) In Acts 4:34-35 (NKJV), Luke reports: “all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need.” Therefore, for Luke, the use of money to handle the “needs” of each Christian is an acceptable and positive use of money. In the next blog, we will consider what might constitute actual “needs.” As an example, par excellence, of the early church’s practice of selling real estate and giving the proceeds to the apostles to distribute, Luke mentions Barnabas in Acts 4:36-37 (NKJV):And … Barnabas … a Levite of the country of Cyprus, having land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.” Apparently, this selfless act (at least, in part) produced some “prestige” for Barnabas, since Barnabas shows up in the church history of Acts multiple times, thereafter (9:27; 11:22, 30; 12:25; 13:1, 2, 7, 43, 46, 50; 14:12, 14, 20; 15:2, 12, 22, 25, 35-37, 39). Paul mentions him in his letters (1 Corinthians 9:6; Galatians 2:1, 9, 13; Colossians 4:10). In the previous post, I mentioned that, in Acts 13, Barnabas was Paul’s companion when the two of them encountered the magus Elymas, while they were on a missionary journey together (Acts 13-14). The story of Barnabas’s relationship with Paul begins in Jerusalem in Acts 9:26-27, as Barnabas vouches for Paul’s conversion when the leaders of the church, there, had been afraid of him. Barnabas seems to carry a lot of influence (or prestige), because the church, then, accepts Paul. After that time (Acts 11:22-25), the church at Jerusalem sends Barnabas to the newly developing church in Antioch to establish the church. Barnabas feels he could use the assistance of Paul, so he travels to Tarsus to fetch him and, together, they establish the Antioch church. When a prophecy, later, foretells a coming famine in Israel, the Antioch church sends financial help to Jerusalem, by the hands of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 11:30). In Acts 15, they travel together to Jerusalem to defend their mission work with the Gentiles.

With all of this prestige bestowed upon Barnabas, a married couple in Jerusalem (Ananias and Sapphira) attempt to replicate Barnabas’s self-less act of selling real estate and donating the proceeds to the apostles to distribute. But their “motivation” was not identical to Barnabas’s. Recall Burke’s definition of a “God term” in A Grammar of Motives (355): “For a God term designates the ultimate motivation

.” Barnabas’s donation of all of the proceeds of his real estate sale to the church is motivated by a concern to share with his fellow Christians, with no regard to his own financial well-being. That he did not keep back any of the proceeds from his real estate sale is evidenced by the implication in 1 Corinthians 9:6 that Paul and Barnabas, alone among the leaders of the church, find it necessary to “work” for their living, while preaching the Gospel. This self-less motivation of Barnabas in selling real estate and giving away the proceeds is not the motivation
of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11. They sell real estate, and pretend to donate the full proceeds to the apostles, but secretly “keep back” part of the proceeds. What is their motivation? Apparently, it is purely to gain the prestige that Barnabas has. They both deny to the apostles that they kept anything back; thus, they lie to God (5:4); they lie to the Holy Spirit (5:3). Why would they lie about it? The apostles tell them that it would have been acceptable for them to keep the proceeds (5:4), but they lie, no doubt, because they covet the prestige given to Barnabas.

Motivation is often the key to understanding Luke’s emphasis on money. In the previous post, Simon (Magus) is motivated to use his money to buy “power” in the church—the capacity to grant miraculous spiritual gifts. In this post, Ananias and Sapphira are motivated to use their money to buy “prestige” in the church. Is the purchase of anything that supplies prestige a fatal sin? From athletic shoes to jeans to handbags, Americans engage in the purchase of prestigious brands. In 2020, I bought my first “Lincoln” automobile. Prior to this time, I had purchased many new vehicles (plus used vehicles), and then driven them until they wore out, usually putting 300,000 or 400,000 miles on each vehicle before it dropped. My business practice required an exorbitant amount of travel and I “needed” reliable transportation. The new vehicles generally carried the “Ford” trademark, although there were a couple of Chevys, plus a Mercury, a Buick, and an Oldsmobile, along the way. One used vehicle I bought, my wife and I nicknamed the “crunch.” It was a tiny Ford Festiva that had been involved in an accident and was smashed in on all sides, the back, and the top, but, it only had 40,000 miles on the engine and I got it for almost nothing. I replaced the broken window glass with Plexiglass that I fastened to the frame by screws. I used a crowbar to bend the wheel wells out enough to accommodate the free movement of the wheels—but if someone rode in the backseat, the wheel wells would rub on the tires. I filled in the spaces where the doors didn’t quite fit close together with foam insulation. I (and my son Tristan) drove the vehicle until it quit. In other words, I have driven cars that supplied no prestige, whatsoever (the Festiva, for one)! However, in 2020, I retired from full-time teaching at Florida State University, and I found a super deal on a new Lincoln MKZ. $9000.00 off list price! I couldn’t resist it. I sold my Ford that had only 300,000 miles on it and bought the Lincoln. Was I motivated by the “prestige” of owning a Lincoln? Yes, I honestly think I was, even though I was also motivated by the super deal. Have I witnessed increased prestige in they eyes of my neighbors and friends? Yes, I have. Many more compliments! To keep me humble, I park it alongside my 2009 Ford Ranger pickup truck, so no one will think of me as a snob. Did it buy me any new prestige in the church? No, I don’t think so. Did I “need” a vehicle that was reliable (even if it also supplied a little “prestige,” along the way)? Yes, I think I did. As mentioned, my next blog will discuss that issue of “needs” and how Luke interprets Jesus’s teaching, there.

Nevertheless, it is clear, even in New Testament times, that money was used to obtain prestige (even privilege) in the church. James 2:1-4 (NKJV) cautions:

My brethren, do not hold the faith … with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

James, being Jesus’s brother, might have held some added insight into what Jesus may have meant by his “Blessed are the poor” beatitude. In the situation James describes, the rich do not even need to sell their property and give it away to receive prestige, even though Luke emphasizes the superiority of the prestige for those (like Barnabas) who do so (with the proper motivation). Perhaps, Matthew’s version of the beatitude (“Blessed are the poor in spirit”) correctly indicates that those who may have money should not flaunt it (gold rings, fine apparel) or accept deference because of the size of their bank accounts. They should exercise a “spirit” of being poor, even if they are not. They should not be motivated by the prestige of having money or of giving money away. We should check our motives.

Thursday, January 5, 2023

The Other Magi—Simon and Elymas (Money 1)


Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem.”

                                                                (Matt 2:1 NASV)       

Now a man named Simon had previously been practicing magic in the city and astonishing the people of Samaria.

(Acts 8:9 NASV)

Elymas the magician (for so his name is translated) was opposing them

(Acts 13:8 NASV)


Tomorrow (January 6th) is Three Kings Day. Have you ever noticed that Matthew is the only gospel that provides an account of the Magi at Jesus’s birth (Matt 2:1-12). The number three became attached to the group, since they brought three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In light of these gifts, they were, apparently, rich guys. However, we do not actually know the exact number of the Magi; Matthew never informs us of that, but that’s not the point of this post. I’m beginning a series of posts on Luke’s teaching about Christians and money. For Luke, there are several monetary landmines Christians need to avoid, if they wish to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. While Luke’s infancy narrative does not mention the Magi at Jesus’s birth, Luke mentions another magus (singular of magi), as he writes in Acts 13:8 (NASV): “But Elymas the magician (for so his name is translated) was opposing them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith.” The Greek word translated “magician” in 13:8 is the same word—magi—as in the birth narrative in Matt 2:1-12—magus/μάγος. While Luke does not use the term magus/μάγος to describe Simon (often referred to elsewhere as “Simon Magus,” in Acts 8:9-25, he uses the cognate noun mageia/μαγεία in Acts 8:11 to refer to Simon’s “magical arts.” He is also called “Simon the Sorcerer.” Elymas and Simon, the magi, both appear to be “rich guys,” as were the Magi in Matthew’s account, but they are presented (only by Luke) in negative contexts.


As I mention in my article in the KB Journal, “Epideictic oratory [which I argue is the genre of the gospels] … strengthens the disposition toward action by increasing adherence to the values it lauds.”  Matthew has no problem lauding the “rich guys”—the Magi.  Luke, however, does not even mention them, and, instead, lauds the “humble” (poor man’s) view of Jesus’ birth. In Luke 1:48, before Jesus is born, Mary comments on her own “low estate.” In 1:52-53 (CEB), she exalts God: He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.” Luke 2:7 says that Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. Since God saved the first-born sons of the Israelites, Exodus 13 demands that the first-born males (even of livestock) be redeemed by a sacrifice.  The first-born male donkey, for example, was to be redeemed by the sacrifice of a lamb. When Jesus was redeemed (being Mary’s first-born son) in Jerusalem, Luke 2:24 reports that Joseph and Mary offered up two turtle doves or two young pigeons, as the price of his redemption—a poor man’s redemption price. Matthew includes none of these humble origins of Jesus.


Why is this true? As I mentioned in a previous post, Luke lauds the value of EXTREME IMPOVERISHMENT.  By comparing the Beatitudes in Luke with the Beatitudes as Matthew presents them, we see that Luke lauds poverty more than does Matthew.  Luke’s beatitude “Blessed are you who are poor” becomes Matthew’s “poor in spirit.”  Luke’s “Blessed are you who are hungry now” becomes Matthew’s “hunger after righteousness.”  Luke follows-up his Beatitude with the statements, “Woe to you who are rich . . . woe to you who are full now.”  Matthew does not. Luke is the only gospel to provide the Good Samaritan parable.  Acts (also written by Luke) tells of Christians like Barnabas who sold their possessions and brought the money to the apostles.


Hence, we come to a differentiation between Magi in Matthew and Luke. Dispensing with the good Magi who brought gifts to the baby Jesus and the bad magus Elymas who opposed Paul and Barnabas, and whom Paul temporarily blinded for that opposition, we turn for an understanding of Luke to the one who is called in history “Simon Magus.” Much legendary material was produced in the second century concerning Simon, which I do not trust. Looking only at the biblical account in Acts 8:9-24, we find the account, written by Luke.

To summarize the account: the apostles Peter and John came to Samaria after the deacon (from Jerusalem) Philip had evangelized and converted the first Samaritans to Christianity. Philip had baptized the new Christians, but none of them had received a charismatic gift—a miraculous gift of the Spirit, such as Philip and Peter and John had. (Philip, apparently, had no ability to confer these gifts of the Spirit to anyone. Then, the apostles Peter and John laid hands on some of the new Samaritan Christians and those who had received the laying on of hands of apostles received miraculous charismatic gifts (8:13). “Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands” these spiritual gifts were conferred, so he offered to buy this ability to confer spiritual gifts on people from the apostles (8:18-19). Peter blasted him (8:20 NKJV): “Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money!” Peter told him to repent, and apparently, he did. End of story.

In addition to offering another indication of Luke’s attitude toward money, this passage is the clearest evidence that modern-day spiritual gifts are non-existent. Spiritual gifts can only be conferred by the laying on of apostles’ hands.  Since there are no apostles alive, today, there are no spiritual gifts, today. While I don’t always agree with Calvinists, I do agree with John Calvin who wrote: “It pleased the Lord that those visible and admirable gifts of the Holy Spirit, which he then poured out upon his people, should be administered and distributed by his apostles by the laying on of hands . . . since that gift has ceased to be conferred, to what end is the laying on of hands? . . . Assuredly . . . those miraculous powers and manifest operations, which were distributed by the laying on of hands, have ceased. They were only for a time” (Inst. 4.19.6). 

I turn, now, to the monetary implications of Luke’s message, with some trepidation. For a decade of my life, I earned a living as a financial planner—primarily, as a life insurance agent. I sought to persuade mostly young college graduates that they should plan for their financial future, especially for the prospects of unexpected illness, disability, or death, plus the more expected needs of retirement. I recommended products that I also purchased for myself, my wife, and my children. I still have these products in force, on my family, forty years later. I wrote a book regarding my persuasion methods and my products that has been used (with a few upgraded editions) as a college text at multiple universities. The current title of the book is Making Offers They Can’t Refuse: The Twenty-One Sales in a Sale, 3rd ed. My trepidation comes as I begin this series on Luke’s theology of money. Jesus says, in Luke 18:25 (NKJV), “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Matthew 19:24 and Mark 10:25 record the same saying of Jesus, but with different Greek words for “the eye of a needle.” (Interestingly, the three gospels used three different Greek words for “eye,” but that’s insignificant since Jesus spoke in Aramaic and, hence, all Greek is translation.) What is significant, however, is that being “rich” is everywhere presented as being an extreme barrier to entering the Kingdom of God.

I might be wading into a mine field by considering the monetary teachings of Luke. Perhaps, I will step on landmines that could be devastating to myself, as well as my readers, but, wade we must! For the next several posts, we will consider Luke’s monetary teachings, one-by-one, starting here with Simon Magus. Contrary to those who later coined the term “simony,” meaning “to buy a religious office,” Simon was not attempting to purchase any ecclesiastical office. He just wanted power and he believed that everything was for sale. Once he determined who held the source of miraculous power—the apostles—he was willing to offer “the big bucks” in exchange for some of that power. Kind of a quid pro quo.

I cringe when I have witnessed church boards and ministers who were unwilling to confront the sinful behavior of certain members of the church, on the grounds that they are “such good givers.” I worry that multi-million-dollar church building programs, with the attendant debt, create scenarios in which the church owes its soul to the congregational wealthy. What happens if the rich in the church get offended and pull the plug? What happens if the “wealthy woke” decide that the church should accept abortion or homosexuality or living together before marriage or adultery or transgenderism among its members? (Not accepting these behaviors does not mean we should not love the sinners, by the way.) Are the wealthy, in those instances, not exerting a Simon-like attempt at buying power?

The Magi who visited the baby Jesus may have been wealthy, but they sought no quid pro quo from the baby or Mary or Joseph. Their purpose in giving was to worship, not to purchase power or influence. Lest we be tempted to expect some quid pro quo from our giving, we should be on constant vigil to avoid stepping on the Simon Magus landmine in our financial dealings with God. Next, we consider the landmine of buying prestige.