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.