The conversation at lunch on Thursday turned to Bill Gates' recent visit to the I. U. campus. A friend across the table reported that he had been offered a free ticket to hear Gates' address. When he declined, the one making the offer could not understand. Here was a free opportunity to see and hear the richest man in the world. "Well, if it's free, why do I need a ticket," my friend reported asking. "Because there is limited space, and they won't let you in without one."
"Let me get this straight," my friend rejoined in words that went something like this: "You want me to drive from the south end of town all the way to the I.U. campus to wait in line so I can sit in a packed auditorium to listen for 30 minutes to someone I have no interest in hearing? Why would I want to do that?" Why indeed! We all know that "money talks," but fortunately, not everyone is always eager to listen!
For most of human history, there has been something called money. People have risked their lives for it, they have fought over it, they've gone to war over it, they've died over it--sometimes because they have not had enough, sometimes because they have tried to gain too much, sometimes because they wanted more of whatever money represented in terms of status and power.
On the one hand, money--or at least what money can buy--is a necessity of life. As Woody Allen says, "Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons" [WITHOUT FEATHERS]. On the other hand, money possesses a special aura, both a symbolic and a spiritual potency. Money often functions not merely as a means, but as an end. People seem to want more of it even when they do not know what to do with what they already have. According to the news reports, Bill Gates' wealth is equal to the combined wealth of 40% of the American people. Such a concentration of wealth is obscene, not to mention dangerous to our democratic way of life.
Money cannot buy everything, but money possesses important social meanings. In his book WHAT MONEY BUYS, sociologist Lee Rainwater observed that "money does not just buy food and clothing and housing and appliances, cars . . . and vacations. The purchase of all these commodities in turn allows the achievement and day-to-day living out of an identity as an at least 'average American.'" "Money buys membership in industrial society" [xi]. As social philosopher Michael Walzer elaborates, "Unless we can spend money and deploy goods at levels beyond what is required for subsistence, unless we have some of the free time and convenience that money can buy, we suffer a loss more serious than poverty itself, a kind of status starvation, a sociological disinheritance" [SPHERES OF JUSTICE, 105]. In other words, money makes it possible for us not merely to survive but to maintain a certain level of social identity and existence and meaning in our lives.
Money also has the power to distort and corrupt. Friday's news included a report on a young woman, now 17 years of age, who has filed suit to be declared an adult so that she can get an accounting of the trust fund that has been established in her name. This young woman was the youngest member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic gold medal gymnastics team, and she believes that her parents have been living off the funds that have been placed in trust for her. Her reasoning seems sound: her parents have not worked since 1996.
Money is particularly dangerous when it is used to purchase status and position and power. Our New Testament text this morning tells the story of a magician named Simon of Samaria who became jealous of the spiritual power that he observed at work in the signs and miracles of Phillip, one of Jesus' closest disciples. Phillip was proclaiming the good news, people were believing, and he was baptizing them in impressive numbers. Simon himself believed and was baptized. But when Peter and John came down from Jerusalem to check up on Phillip's ministry in Samaria, they laid their hands on these new believers who then received the Holy Spirit. The text does not say whether Simon himself received the Holy Spirit, but if he did, that was not enough for him. He wanted to be able to bestow this power himself. So he offered money, saying, "Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit." Peter responds with a rebuke more emphatic than most translations convey: "You and your silver be damned!" Reading the rest of the text, we are led to conclude that Simon will be lucky if he comes out of this encounter without losing his soul.
There are perhaps several points to this story, including the obvious demonstration of a power--the Holy Spirit--that is greater, more appealing, more to be desired, that the power of a magician. But the story also emphasizes that God's gift cannot be obtained with money. Whether it be the Holy Spirit, or divine grace, or spiritual energy, or faith, or forgiveness, or salvation--however we regard God's gift, it is something that money cannot buy. To attempt to buy it would be a grievous sin.
This text from Acts would later give rise to the word "simony," a term used to denote the buying or selling of church office, a behavior now condemned though in times past practiced by the Church. It was apparently a common practice in 1517 when a young monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, the action that has been taken to mark the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Luther objected, in particular to another church practice of his day, the buying and selling of indulgences. Indulgences were means by which church officials claimed that the devout could purchase pardon for sins and the release of beloved souls from Purgatory. The archbishop of Mainz, Albert of Hohenzollern, who had paid a fee for his office and another for a special dispensation from Pope Leo X, was given permission to proclaim indulgences on his territories, with a split of income between himself and Rome. It was this practice, above all, that provoked Martin Luther to wrath [Vergilius Ferm, PICTORIAL HISTORY OF PROTESTANTISM, 27]. In the fifth of his 95 theses Luther declared, "The pope does not wish nor has he the power, to remit any punishments, except those which he of his own will or according to the canons, has imposed." Luther went on to say a number of other things critical of indulgences, but perhaps the most forceful is his 32nd thesis: "Those who suppose that on account of their letters of indulgence they are sure of salvation will be eternally damned along with their teachers." [Clyde L. Manschreck, editor, A HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY, 14, 15].
Today we take it for granted that God's grace and forgiveness are not up for sale. It is hard to fathom the struggle that went on within the Christian Church to establish the conviction that neither the Church nor the State can exercise control in the dispensation of divine grace. Neither through purchase nor inheritance nor by any other means can grace be regulated or coerced. Therefore, the individual believer can do nothing through merit or will or purchase to lay claim to this grace, and in all matters of faith and belief, must be free from coercion and control.
Not so long ago it was still considered a matter of merit within the Reformed churches whether the individual believer could rightly have access to the dispensation of divine grace at the Lord's Table, the Communion. You had to prove worthy in order to partake. Even today there are many points at which some Christians attempt to establish a franchise on God's grace. We struggle over who can be admitted to the Lord's Table, what beliefs are essential to belong to the Christian family, what standards qualify or disqualify for church office. These are not money matters as such, but they should remind us that we often want to exercise control of the "goods" of life in ways that bear little relation to what is at stake. Merit and status have no more to do with God's grace than does money.
If divine grace is the clearest example of something that money cannot buy, there are many other things that money should not be able to buy. In his book, SPHERES OF JUSTICE, Michael Walzer lists a number of these that ought never to be for sale: Human beings; political power and influence; criminal justice; freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly; marriage and procreation rights; love and friendship; prizes and honors of many sorts [a partial listing; cf. pp. 100-103]. In thinking about these "goods" that money cannot, or should not be able, to buy, I realized that these are some of the best things in life. But there are a number of other good things in life that are not on Walzer's list: time, beauty, health, safety, knowledge, clean air and water.
Put all these things together--or make out your own list of the best things in life. Think about all the things that really add enjoyment and meaning and delight to your life. Think about all the things that make your life worth living. What about these "best things in life"--are they free? Many of them are the sorts of things that money cannot buy--but are they free?
There was a time when we might have said that clean air and water are free. But now we recognize that there is a cost to preserve them, or to reclaim them, and to make them available to everyone--a cost that we must continually and increasingly pay. We might have said that beauty is free. Certainly no price can be put on an autumn sunset, or a star-spangled night. No price can be put on the smile of a happy child. But in many places the horizon is not visible, or the sky is not clear, and the beauty of the natural world is obscured. And there are many places where happiness is beyond the reach of children who are starving, or abused, or abandoned. We might once have said that time is free. But in a society where time is money and money is time, where leisure often must be purchased by paying someone else to do the dirty work, time is often precious and hard to come by without paying some price.
The story is told about a man who came home late from work, tired and irritated, to find his 5 year old son waiting for him at the door. "Daddy, may I ask you a question?"
"Yeah, sure, what is it?" the man replied.
"Daddy, how much money do you make an hour?"
"That's none of your business!" the man said angrily. "What makes you say such a thing?"
"I just want to know. Please tell me, how much do you make an hour?" pleaded the little boy.
"If you must know, I make $20.00 an hour."
"Oh," the little boy replied, head bowed. Looking up, he said, "Daddy, may I borrow $10.00 please?"
The father was furious. "If the only reason you wanted to know how much money I make is just so you can borrow some to buy a silly toy or some other nonsense, then you march yourself straight to your room and go to bed. Think about why you're being so selfish. I work long, hard hours everyday and don't have time for such childish games."
The little boy quietly went to his room and shut the door. The man sat down and started to get even madder about the little boy's questioning. How dare him ask such questions only to get some money. After an hour or so, the man calmed down, and started to think he may have been a little hard on his son. Maybe there was something he really needed to buy with that $10.00, and he really didn't ask for money very often. The man went to the little boy's room and opened the door. "Are you asleep, son?" he asked.
"No daddy, I'm awake," replied the boy.
"I've been thinking, maybe I was too hard on you earlier," said the man. "It's been a long day and I took my aggravation out on you. Here's that $10.00 you asked for."
The little boy sat straight up, beaming. "Oh, thank you daddy!" he yelled. Then, reaching under his pillow, he pulled out some more crumpled bills. The man, seeing the boy already had money, started to get angry again. The little boy slowly counted out his money, then looked up at the man.
"Why did you want more money if you already had some?" the father grumbled.
"Because I didn't have enough, but now I do," the little boy replied. "Daddy, I have $20.00 now. Can I buy an hour of your time?"
The best things in life are not free. They all bear some cost. As Christians we sometimes speak of the free grace of God. It may be free to us, but it is not free. It may be offered without price. It is not something money can buy. The Christian story is a story about how costly grace is. God so loved the world that God gave the Son, Jesus Christ. This brief Gospel word summarizes the compassion and anguish and suffering whereby God has made love real to us in our circumstance and time. The grace of Jesus Christ that we sometimes so casually mention in our services of worship was made possible by a life of steadfast devotion and ultimate sacrifice. No, there is no way that we can buy Divine grace. It is not and never has been for sale. But that does not mean that it has been made available to us without any cost.
Compassion? You know how painful it can be to feel for another, to share the burdens and demands of a fellow human being. Love? You know that does not come easy, especially toward those who do not love in equal measure in return. Forgiveness? What a cost there in setting aside all our feelings of hurt and resentment and bitterness and fear in order to forgive! It is wonderful to be the recipient of compassion and love and forgiveness, but we need to remember that these never come without a cost to someone. The late Mother Teresa spent her days caring for the poor and the sick and the dying in the streets of Calcutta. She once said, "I try to give to the poor people for love what the rich could get for money. No. I wouldn't touch a leper for a thousand pounds, yet I willingly cure him for the love of God." There are some things that only love can buy.
Harry Emerson Fosdick began one of his sermons by citing a Spanish proverb: "Take what you want, take it and pay for it." The point of his sermon was not that everything is for the taking. The point was that everything has its price. "We do not pay for everything--that's true--but it has all been paid for" [ON BEING FIT TO LIVE WITH, 59]. The best things in life--the kindnesses of friends, the moments spent with a child, the freedoms of our public life, the rewards of accomplishment, the enjoyment of a beautiful piece of music, the knowledge of history or science, the wisdom of philosophy and religion, the delights of well-cooked food, nor even the glorious creation about us--none of this comes entirely free. It all has been purchased at some price.
The best things in life require choices, and sacrifices. In order to have some things, we must give up others. The accomplished musician must yield time to practice. The devoted spouse must yield individual pursuits and preferences to the demands of attentiveness and mutual commitment. The responsible citizen must yield the carefree zone of private amusements to the acquisition and exercise of political knowledge in public participation and decision-making. The Christian servant must yield the comforts of personal security, serenity, and respectability to the challenges of faithfulness and integrity and higher endeavor. The true scholar must yield the pleasures of social activity and diversion to the intensive and solitary labors of research and composition.
Money can buy a lot of things. It can make possible a lot more. But most of the best things require some other price to be paid as well. If the best things in life seem to come to us free, it is only because we receive them as the gifts of others, or as the gift of God. But every act of graciousness, every life-sustaining benefaction, every source of joy and delight in our existence, has at some point exacted some price, imposed some demand, expended some resource of energy and grace. So, in all things wonderful and precious, in all things excellent and good, in all that makes life worth living, the only appropriate attitude is gratitude and praise. And the only appropriate response is our renewed devotion to being and doing and giving our best. AMEN.