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.