Belief without faith?

Fans of the BBC’s excellent 1995 production of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice will surely recognize this face: the oily, smarmy clergyman Mr. Collins.

Austen was a keen critic of many of the social practices of her day, including the relationship between the classes, and of course, the assumptions about love and marriage. But she also parodied what it meant to be clergy.  In the Church of England of that time, it was possible to be in charge of a parish without being a person of true faith, or of compassion for one’s flock.

Then why would anyone do it? Two words: job security. Clergy made a decent living, and their appointment was for life. And not surprisingly, the appointment process was open to greed and corruption, leading to the practice of simony, or the buying and selling of church offices.

“Simony.” What a strange word, you might say. Where did it come from?

From Acts 8, and the story of Simon the Magician.

Woven into Luke’s tale of the conversion of many people in a particular (but unnamed) Samaritan city is a subplot involving a local sorcerer named Simon. His magic had earned him a devoted following, and people seemed to believe that his powers were of divine origin (Acts 8:10). 

Then along came Philip, who preached the gospel of Jesus and performed miraculous signs: he healed the lame and cast demons out of the possessed. Simon had never seen anything like it. Like the Samaritans around him, he believed and was baptized. Then he stuck close to Philip, entranced by one sign after another. 

So far, so good. Or so it seemed.

As we saw in the previous post, Peter and John were sent from Jerusalem to see what was happening. They laid hands on these new believers and prayed, and the Samaritans received the Holy Spirit.

When Simon saw this, he cried out, “Me too!  I want to be filled with the Holy Spirit!”

Actually, not so much.

Maybe that’s what he should have said. But instead, he tried to bribe the apostles: “Give me this authority too so that anyone on whom I lay my hands will receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:19, CEB). This was a guy who was used to amazing people with his power. He believed what Philip said about Jesus, but apparently was not ready to let go of his lust for popularity and influence. He had not repented of the world in which money bought power. And he wanted that power to serve his own purposes rather than God’s.

Peter’s response was characteristically forceful. Polite, literal translations have Peter saying, “May your silver perish with you” (NRSV, NASB), but I suspect the Common English Bible does a better job of getting the tone right: “May your money be condemned to hell along with you because you believed you could buy God’s gift with money!” (Acts 8:20). When I think of Peter as a rough-around-the-edges fisherman, I imagine that what he said was even more colorful than that. 

Peter told Simon that his heart wasn’t right with God, and that he needed to repent of the wickedness and bitterness that had him chained (Acts 8:21-23). This, to a man who had “believed” and been baptized.

The terrified Simon begged them to pray for him. But that’s not necessarily because his heart hadn’t turned to God; he was just afraid of what might happen to him as a consequence of his indiscretion.

That’s the last we hear of him.

Luke tells us that the apostles went back to Jerusalem, proclaiming the gospel in other Samaritan villages as they went. As for Simon, some early traditions have him as the founder of the Simonites, a Christian sect (no, not a rock band) with Gnostic leanings. If that’s true, it seems he never did quite repent.

Simon’s story is instructive. The physical act and outward sign of baptism is no guarantee of a person’s inner conviction.

As Jesus’ arguments with the scribes and Pharisees continually showed, there can be selfish, egoistic reasons for any act of piety. Whether or not people truly believe, whether they have a faith that matters, will show in their priorities, in how they live, in how they treat others.

That’s where the real magic lies.