It happens just about every Christmas. I return to Frank Capra’s Its a Wonderful Life only to discover new meaning, new insights that I hadn’t found the year before.
One scene in particular haunts me. In this scene, George Bailey, seemingly without the financial resources to provide for his family and community, stands on the edge of a bridge, looking into the water below and – thinking of his life insurance policy – declares:
I’m worth more dead than alive.
Every person who has ever been a major income provider, someone whom others rely on for financial support, knows this feeling. It is the sense that we have no worth to others beyond that which we can deposit for them in a bank account or pay toward the balance of a credit card. That our value is our usefulness to others, and nothing more. Every relationship, every conversation, seems suspiciously to come down to one thing: what can you do for me? Even when people are asking about your well being, there is a sense that the inquiry is only a cloak for another, more self-serving agenda. There is no sense that anyone cares for you simply for who you are.
I think that’s why George Bailey’s story, cheesy though the end may be by 21st Century standards, threatens to draw tears from me almost every year. The despair that came for Bailey as he considered his own death was not well founded. In spite of all appearances, particularly when the pressure was on for him to come through, people did care about him for things other than what he could provide.
But not every provider gets a Wonderful Life ending. I’ve seen the alternative ending first hand. It is more closely akin to that which I imagine Mr. Potter – Bailey’s nemesis – would one day face. I imagine that Potter probably grew old and died, surrounded by bickering family members who constantly positioned themselves for access to the wealth that had accumulated through his life. Money for Potter would become a tool for spite – a means of reward and punishment for those who were willing to put up with his increasingly cranky, eccentric personality in exchange for an opportunity to inherit his wealth. Potter would one day die with wealth and he would be surrounded by people, the very things that you might expect would make him happy. But, in reality, he would be miserable and unloved.
The difference, of course, is that Bailey has invested his life, his talent, his wealth, his whole self, into other people. He hasn’t used money as tool for domination and manipulation but as a way of expressing his love for others. He may not be able to see it at critical junctures in his journey, but he is ultimately going to find that those investments will return the kinds of rewards that Potter cannot even imagine.
Bailey shares something in common with an infamous tax collector that once encountered Jesus. You may recall Zaccheaus as a diminutive man who had to climb a tree to see Jesus, but I am coming to remember him for what he would later declare to the Rabbi from Nazareth:
Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.
Jesus’ response to this declaration speaks volumes to me. Today, Jesus says, salvation has come to this house.
Salvation has come.
Salvation, for Zaccheaus, hasn’t come in some abstract sense that his sins have been forgiven. It hasn’t come because of some pious act that demonstrated a new-found loyalty to Jesus.
Salvation has come to Zacchaeus because he has discovered the secret of life. He has discovered that money can only bring joy when it is given away. It has come because all of those who cross his path from this day forward will themselves get a taste of what God’s new world can look like. It has come because Zaccheaus, too, has discovered what it means to live a Wonderful Life.
During this Christmas season, may Salvation come into your life. May you never despair over your worth-lessness. And may you come to find true joy – joy that is not found in what you accumulate, but in what you give away.