“What’s in your wallet?” Do you know that one? Can you see it? The commercial?
Of course you can, good branding works its magic on us, whether we like it or not. Which is why I have such a love-hate relationship with, “Under the Influence,” that Saturday morning CBC show. I’m not sure if you’re up at 6:30am on the weekends to catch it. I’m usually making coffee and doing the dishes though, so it’s perfect. I remember when the show first aired 10 years ago. It captivated me immediately! “Hi, I’m Terry O’Reilly,” said the host in his distinctive and deliberate voice, “and you’re, under the influence.”
He went on in detail to deconstruct the behind the scenes machinations of the advertising world, and what it is that puts us under the influence of society’s saturation in commercial advertising. And, in his new book, he even argues that it is the dominant influence of our culture today. How could he know us so well, and understand how to influence us – the guys Canadian after all?! But each Saturday morning, I couldn’t wait for the next story in the art of advertising. I felt like I knew exactly, the influence, Terry O’Reilly was talking about, and he was illuminating it like never before. I knew they were doing this! And I’m so glad I’m not under the influence!
But slowly it sunk in, to me, that not only was Terry delving into the who, what and why of advertising, but was in some sense weaving and reinforcing the spell, increasing the influence, that drew me unconsciously and unwittingly, to fit in to the consumer life-style. Not only did the show cleverly entertain, as it revealed parts of the backstory about the very influential Mad Men of Madison Avenue, but at the same time, I was also was being hustled into the very place I felt so uncomfortable inhabiting and thought I could avoid. Because the show is so smartly done, so entertaining, even informative, my defenses and critical edge, usually so reliable in keeping me, at least at arm’s length, from believing I live in the consumer world, were being broken down.
The Mad Men of Jesus’ time were great hustlers too. The elite leaders of the Pharisaic Party in Jerusalem were not as good at it, as their brothers, the Herodians – and neither, in point of fact, got along with the other very well. But, at the top, the Pharisees and Herodians were united in one thing – their fear of Jesus, and his loose cannon, truth-telling, at their expense.
In Terry O’Reilly’s new book, “The Age of Persuasion: How Marketing Ate Our Culture,” he calls the Mad Men of advertising, ants in a colony, except, not ants that work together, but ants all in competition with all the other ants, for, a small, but significant piece, of our imaginations. The same goes for the opposing parties of Jerusalem leaders, which is why it’s unusual how they team up this time. But the leaders of the Pharisees have been unsuccessful at trapping Jesus by themselves. So this time they called on the political bad boys, who everyone agreed, had long ago, sold out to Herod – thus the name, Herodians(!) – and were rendering allegiance, not to YHWH, the LORD, but to Rome, in exchange for political favors. And so having little or no scruples, they were a good choice, thought the Pharisees, to “entrap Jesus.”
“Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality,” they say. When Jesus calls them hypocrites, he’s referring to that half-sincere setup. “Hypocrite,” my bible notes say, “refers to actors who play a part. Hypocrisy involves a public role of [looking] compassion[ate] but not [having] genuine concern.” Think, Bill Clinton’s, “I feel your pain,” and then turning around and signing the NAFTA Free Trade Agreement!
And finally, the entrapment question comes: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” It is a brilliant trap. The Temple Tax, as it was called, was a tax imposed by Rome to embarrass the Jews in their colonized subservience. Every Israeli citizen had to pay it, or face the consequences. And for leaders like Jesus, to pay it, could make him look like he was putting Caesar before God – not to mention it would violate his own aphorism: “no one can serve two masters, God and Wealth.” Surely this will force Jesus’ hand – the perfect trap! He’ll either subject himself to Roman retribution, or lose authority among his followers, either way, he’ll be out of our hair, thought the Jerusalem leaders.
Jesus, of course, will, find a way out. Asking to be shown a Denarius, the amount of the tax owed, a coin equal to a day’s wage, Jesus concludes: “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Boom! Jesus beats the trap, just like that. How smart! Why didn’t I think of that! But, then again, what does he actually mean? What precisely is Jesus getting at?
Some people see his wise retort as proof that God and politics should be kept strictly separate – tax laws should have absolutely nothing to do with one’s beliefs. Others say that this story proves that religion is a matter of the heart, private, and so Jesus doesn’t really care about what you do with your money. And still others have suggested it means that we have a Christian duty to support the government, without question, no matter what. All three of these interpretations are dubious says Homiletics Professor, Lance Pape.
What do you think Jesus meant? What’s in your wallet?
When Jesus responds to the question of entrapment, he first asks them to pull out the coin used in the Temple Tax, and they easily produced the denarius from their wallets. And bringing it to Jesus, he held it up asking them to identify whose image and title was inscribed on it. This in itself is suggestive. Jesus, likely doesn’t have any money in his wallet. And, all the Jews, pretty much despised the Temple tax. But the Herodians have no trouble producing the coin, they have just suggested, is tainted. In effect, Jesus asks them, “what’s in your wallet?”
And so, that’s our question today too, on this 4th of 4 Sundays, as we consider the Stewardship theme of ‘Fearless First Responders’ – what’s in your wallet? Who do you give your money to? What do you do with the wealth you have, the wealth we believe comes first and foremost, from our Creator God, maker of all things?
Through their ads, Capital One wants us to believe we’ll have more buying power with their card, we’ll have more rewards, and less fees, and so, we’ll just have more, for ourselves! And what Jesus is saying? What image does our wealth bear?
I too once thought you could keep money and God separate, that somehow we could know when to render to each, without conflict. But now I actually think that that is impossible. Wealth, and our allegiance to God are so intertwined – that now seems naïve to me. Yet, each decision is important. And where we choose to spend our daily wage, is always, an expression of our values and beliefs.
When you fill out your Sealed Financial Pledge and your Time and Talent forms today, this is an expression of your values too. Even though everything comes from God, obviously, you cannot give everything you have, back to the church, that’s not the expectation I want you to take away. But only in so far as this church, Unity Lutheran, is an assembly that is carrying out the mission of the living God in our community and world, are you under any compunction to give your tithes, and give your offerings more generously in the coming year. If Unity Lutheran Church is the place through which you find and connect with God, if the people here represent a people of faith active in love, than I’m asking you to be ‘Fearless First Responders’ in pledging your offering and giving back.
What’s in your wallet? Probably not nearly enough! We can always wish for more, right! But Jesus goes beyond the competition of cards and coins – asking us the ultimate question of – whose image do we bear? Our faith teaches us that God has provided all that we need, that the creation in which we find ourselves, all originates from God. There is nothing in our wallet that is powerful enough to create out of nothing. The culture of consumerism, however influential it is, cannot do that. We are fearless and gracious stewards, called to be good managers of all we have been given. We don’t work just to fill our wallets. We have work and wallets, that we may carefully manage the entirety of God’s creation.
What’s in your wallet?!