Now a certain man named Simon had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, “This man is the power of God that is called Great.” And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place.
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.” Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.”
Now after Peter and John had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, proclaiming the good news to many villages of the Samaritans.
Simon is a fascinating character, isn’t he? Is Simon’s conversion genuine? Does Philip condemn him for wanting to purchase the right to distribute the Holy Spirit, or merely warn him? Is Simon’s request for prayer sincere or some form of protective self-interest?
This is the gospel spreading “from Jerusalem, through all Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth” (1:8). The Holy Spirit is sweeping the most unlikely and alarming people into God’s embrace through Jesus. This is the beginning of “grace-run- amok” Good News for the whole world – and the challenge to the church then and now is, “Are your hearts open enough to keep up?”
There is no need to assume that Simon’s conversion was any less real than Philip’s other hearers. The key has got to be Simon’s relationship with the spiritual powers.
Philip proclaims Jesus as the Messiah – “God’s Liberator”. The Messiah’s job was to free the people from all the powers and forces that kept them in chains. They wouldn’t distinguish between Roman occupation, demon possession, illness or disability – and neither does Jesus in the gospel stories. Philip’s ministry in Samaria mimics Jesus’ in Galilee, and gets the same dramatic, joyful response.
What Simon has not realised is that there is a connection between religion, economic exploitation, and power. Luke’s gospel is full of stories of Jesus being angry at the way in which religion is used to exercise power over the poor and vulnerable. And here, when Simon is confronted by the Holy Spirit, he sees immediately a way of getting wealthy and powerful.
Peter calls it “gall of bitterness and chains of wickedness”. Jesus talks about Mammon (rather than money). It’s the addictive power that chokes compassion and makes it apparently okay to live at the expense of others. It is able to pervert the very best in us – including our faith. It is a remarkable spiritual power, and it is the very opposite of the Holy Spirit.
Could Simon’s prayer request be a desperate recognition of his own captive helplessness? Would we recognize it in ourselves?
There are many who pray far more desperately for the coming of your Kingdom than I do. They beg you for daily bread because they go to bed hungry. They pray to be delivered from oppression and exploitation. They long for people who look and behave like you – who see their desperation and are moved to tears of compassion or a burning anger that will not let them rest while things stay as they are.
Fill me with your Holy Spirit, I pray, that my own heart will overflow with your compassion, that I will find the courage to stand up against injustice, that I will make a Jesus-shaped difference to my world.
Grant, by your grace, that I will be the answer to the prayers of the very least and proclaim with my life as well as my mouth that Jesus is the Messiah.
Lawrence Moore is a church mission and discipleship consultant, and attends Worsley Road United Reformed Church in Salford