[Ed. Note – I just can’t stop publishing this. It first appeared on my personal blog about 3 years ago. I re-did it last year on Synchronicity. Here it is again.]
Bailey is not a hero – not in the cinematic sense. Though the film is set in the aftermath of World War II, he never sees combat because of a hearing impairment. And although Bailey aspires to one day leave the now iconic town of Bedford Falls to design bridges and skyscrapers, the gravitational pull of his moral obligations to family and community never permit him to achieve escape velocity. To borrow a colloquialism, his life has happened while he was making other plans.
Then, disaster strikes. Bailey’s Uncle loses track of $8,000 in cash on the same day that a bank examiner is scheduled to audit Bailey’s small savings and loan. Realizing that the predicament could send him to prison, Bailey loses it. Angry and intoxicated, he crashes his car into a tree. Then, glancing at the $15,000 life insurance policy in his coat, he stands on top of a bridge, contemplating a head-long plunge into the icy river below.
Bailey later says something that haunts me more and more with each viewing. Vocalizing the motivation for ending his life, he says:
I’m worth more dead than alive.
Bailey’s sense of worth has been reduced to the sum total of what he can provide to others. His death – which would yield $15,000 to family, friends, and community – can offer far more than he will ever be able to generate from prison.
Every person who has ever been a provider for others knows this feeling of despair. It doesn’t matter what it is that we give to others – income, emotional support, physical care, or something else entirely. We sometimes get the sense that we have emptied ourselves, sacrificing our own needs and dreams in the process, and that – even then – what we have done simply and still isn’t enough. Our value, we think, is in our usefulness to others, and nothing more – and when that usefulness seems insufficient, we wonder if we have any value at all.
I think that’s why George Bailey’s story, though a little cheesy by 21st Century standards, is still compelling over a half century later. 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.
Of course, not every provider gets a Wonderful Life ending. Some endings are much, much darker.
Take Mr. Potter, Bailey’s nemisis, for example. I imagine that, as Mr. Potter neared death, he was surrounded by bickering family members who constantly positioned themselves for access to the wealth that had accumulated through his life. During his twilight years, money for Potter would become a tool for spite – his legacy literally serving as a means of reward and punishment for those who were willing to put up with his increasingly cranky, eccentric personality. 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 means for domination and manipulation but as a way of expressing love. He may not be able to see it at particular junctures, 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…from giving things away? From becoming a Hobbit-like version of George Bailey? How so?
The answer, I think, is this.
For Zaccheaus, salvation hasn’t come in the abstract sense that his sins have been forgiven, nor has it come merely because of some pious declaration that demonstrates a new-found loyalty to Jesus. Salvation has come to Zacchaeus because he has discovered the secret of life – the kind of life that is real, eternal, and infused with Spirit of God. Salvation has come because he now knows that money can only bring joy when it is given away. In fact, it has come to all of the recipients of his generosity, people who will themselves be inspired by a small glimpse of God’s new world.
Salvation has come to Zaccheaus because he, 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 discover the kind of joy that can only come from a life that gives as freely as it receives.