THE REAL AMERICAN IDOL
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
February 28, 2016; 3rd Sunday in Lent, Year C
Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-9

“Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”
Isaiah 55:2

When I was a kid, I remember the pleasures of being sick — not so sick I actually felt bad, but sick enough to spike a degree or two of fever. When that happened, and I could show my mother that silvery line of mercury hovering higher than 98.6, I got to stay home from school.

When I was sitting there at home, on a weekday, with no friends to play with (because they were all in school), the thing to do was watch TV.

It was a different experience than on a Saturday — My usual time for watching daytime TV. There weren’t any cartoons on the weekdays. Mostly, it was one soap opera after another, in which I had zero interest. Ah, but there was another type of program: the game shows.

Far and away, my favorite game show was Let’s Make a Deal, with Monty Hall. Remember that one? (Some of you do.) The winning contestants got to choose what was behind Door Number One, Door Number Two, or Door Number Three.

If they were lucky and chose wisely, they got something really nice: a Hawaiian vacation, a living room set, or even a new car. If they chose poorly — woe be upon them — they got something like a scraggly old billy goat.

Some of the best prizes on Let’s Make a Deal were the shopping sprees. A contestant was turned loose in a room full of merchandise, pushing a shopping cart. Whatever she could grab from the shelves and throw into the cart in one minute was hers!

The very concept of a shopping spree fascinated me. I wouldn’t have defined it in such terms when I was 8 or 10, but what was truly wondrous about it was the momentary suspension of the law of supply and demand.

On any ordinary trip to the store, you got what you paid for. You had to exercise restraint. You were limited by how much money you had on hand, or how much credit you had on that card.

But in a TV shopping spree, all bets were off. Money was irrelevant! It was all about speed and agility — which, even as a chubby kid (which I was), I figured I had on my side. I would have dearly loved for someone to give me a shopping spree in my favorite toy store. I could have pulled down enough matchbox cars and model airplane kits to keep me busy for years.

*****

Curiously enough, there’s a shopping spree in our Old Testament lesson this morning: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

What’s possessed the prophet Isaiah, that he’s offering a shopping spree to God’s chosen people? That could get a little expensive for the heavenly powers, couldn’t it?

The people Isaiah’s writing to are exiles. These people are the elite citizens of the kingdom of Judah, hauled off lock, stock and barrel to the far-off city of Babylon. That’s how the King of Babylon managed his empire. He took all his leading enemies from the conquered lands and resettled them in his capital city, in little ghetto neighborhoods. (That old policy, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” could have been invented by the Babylonians.)

The Judean exiles weren’t in prison there, exactly. They were free to come and go within the walls of the imperial city. They were permitted to set up small businesses or take up a trade. Their leaders were sometimes invited to feast with the King in his banqueting-hall.

But it wasn’t the same. Even a gilded cage is still a cage. None of them starved, but they weren’t well-off, either. Always the Babylonians had subtle ways of reminding them they were second-class citizens at best.

So, when Isaiah, that great prophet of hope, spins for them his mad yarn of “buying wine and milk without money and without price,” it sounded pretty good to those ears.

*****

Here’s what’s remarkable about Isaiah’s vision. He’s not just promising them that one day they’ll leave poverty behind, that they’ll get back what they’ve lost. He’s promising them something entirely new. All the usual economic laws will be suspended. Without money! Without price! Abundance for all, by the grace of God!

In his book, Who Switched the Price Tags?, Tony Campolo tells a story from his youth, growing up in Philadelphia. Just as it is here, the night before Halloween is known in Philadelphia as Mischief Night — and we all know what goes on. One year, Tony and his best friend devised the perfect Mischief Night prank. They never carried it out, but they sure had a lot of fun thinking about it.

The prank was to break into the local five-and-ten store. They didn’t plan to take anything. All they wanted to do was change the price tags on as many items as they could. They could just imagine what would happen the next morning, when the staff opened up and the customers started arriving. Transistor radios would be selling for a quarter and bobby pins for five dollars each. What delicious chaos that would be! What delightful anarchy!

Tony makes the point that someone evil in our world — the devil — “has broken into our lives and changed the price tags on things.” And you and I, my friends, are living in the chaos resulting from this prank. There’s tremendous confusion among us, about which things in our world have real value, and which are just shimmering trinkets. And so, more often than not, we go running off in search of things that, in God’s great spiritual economy , are worth nothing.

God’s values, the prophet teaches, are fundamentally different from ours:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (55:8-9)

God’s way is to offer “wine and milk without money and without price.”

*****

This passage is a warning about misplaced worship: what the Bible refers to, elsewhere, as idolatry.

Now, that very word “idolatry” sounds quaint and old-fashioned, I know. The stories of the Old Testament are replete with idols — from the golden calf of the wilderness wanderings to the clay fertility goddesses of the Canaanite people. In the New Testament, Paul addresses the problem of “food offered to idols” in the pagan temples, and we know from our church history how so many early Christians went to the lions in the Coliseum because they refused to bow the knee to the great statue of the Emperor in the public square. But haven’t we left all that stuff behind us, long ago?

Not a chance. The idols that tempt us today are far more subtle than gaudy gilded statues of gods or emperors — but they’re still very much a part of our world.

The contemporary definition of idolatry I like best is the one that goes like this: “Idolatry is worshiping anything that ought to be used, or using anything that ought to be worshiped.”

Chief among them is the idol known as money. We all know it. Oftentimes, when leading Inquirers Groups for new members, I take a look at some of our historic confessions of faith. When we come to a passage that mentions idolatry, I ask the group if they can list for me a few modern idols. I can guarantee you, in any given Inquirers Group, money’s always at the top of that list.

We know it’s an idol. But still we thirst for it.

It’s not that the money itself is somehow tainted, or there’s some evil energy woven into the cloth fibers of a twenty-dollar bill. The Bible quote from First Timothy, after all, says it’s “the love of money” that’s “the root of all kinds of evil,” not the money itself.

Money is neutral. It’s a highly useful tool. The trouble comes when you or I begin to look to it as something that can save us — which it can never do. The job of savior is already filled — and by that I mean not by Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton, Jackson, Grant or Franklin (and not by that unnamed woman they may soon put on the ten-dollar bill, either, whoever that may turn out to be).

Even more than money itself, there’s a potent tendency to seek a tawdry sort of salvation in the financial market. Listen to any of the Presidential candidates in the current parade, and you’ll find they’re all promising to do something to strengthen the economy: because that’s going to save us. They each have their different plans for doing so — or at least talk as though they do — but the goal is the same: conjure up a bull market once again, and America will cheerfully bow down and worship!

The great eighteenth-century Scottish economist Adam Smith came up a notable phrase that captures how the economy works. In his classic work, The Wealth of Nations,” Smith refers to “the invisible hand of the market.” His point is that, even when individuals are making financial decisions purely to advance their own selfish interests, a benevolent market somehow provides a guiding hand that brings some measure of good to all people. It sounds, according to this theory, like the market is some sort of sentient being: an economic deity, who’s constantly tweaking and rebalancing, to keep the economy from spinning off into chaos.

Given how many times the Hebrew scriptures, especially the Book of Psalms, speak of “the hand of the Lord,” I find the concept of the invisible hand of the market pretty creepy — if not downright idolatrous.

“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help,” says Psalm 146. “When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” (Dare we add to that list bankers, brokers and economists, hedge-fund managers and captains of industry? They are of course in no special category — as flawed and fallible as any other human being.)

“Happy are those,” the psalm continues, “whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever…” (Psalm 146:3-6)

*****

Most of you know my mother has recently died. It so happens that her will names me executor of her estate, so — on behalf of my two brothers — it’s fallen to me to kick off the legal process known as probate.

I’ve never had cause to do such a thing before — my brother Jim, the attorney, was executor of our father’s estate. Believe me, it’s a real education. When I say that, I’m not referring just to the ins and outs of the law. The sort of learning I’m talking about is of a more philosophical sort.

The work of executing an estate is all about changing the ownership of things. Various bank accounts and investments that were in the name of Shirley M. Wilton are, even as we speak, being transferred into the name, “Estate of Shirley M. Wilton.” Eventually, it will be my job to see that those assets are distributed according to the terms of her will. It’s a process some of you know well, if you’ve ever been called upon to perform this service.

The philosophical lesson I’m learning — or, learning again — is the fundamental truth of the proverb, “You can’t take it with you.” They say you never do you see a hearse pulling a U-Haul. We’re all of us going to come to the place, one day, where every dollar of wealth, every achievement or award, every human relationship will fall by the wayside. Such treasures will no longer have any value to us. We enter this world naked and we leave it naked.

How energetically we try to fool ourselves into thinking this is not the case! How foolishly we try to pretend that we are somehow immortal! How much power do we ascribe to that false deity the market, whose invisible hand we honor in this world, but who has no power whatsoever, nor even any existence in the world to come!

The voice of the prophet comes to us, then, as a voice from another world — which, in fact, it is. One day, when you and I land on that far shore, thirsty and weary, having abandoned our treasures to those who come after, his is the cry we will hear:

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters….
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”

It will be a completely new economy, far different than any we have known on this earth.

But here’s the thing. Our Lord Jesus Christ spent much of his energy, here on this earth, proclaiming a simple message: that the reign of God is not something that exists in the far-off, distant future, but is already breaking into this world we know. Maybe, just maybe, as the truth of Isaiah’s prophetic vision dawns upon us in the here and now, you and I will find the courage to loosen our grip on some of the treasures to which we hold so tenaciously. Maybe, just maybe, we will allow ourselves to be guided not by the invisible hand of the market, but by that other invisible hand: the generous hand of the gentle shepherd, who causes us to lie down in green pastures, who leads us beside still waters, who restores our souls.

Let us pray.
Riches we heed not, O generous Lord,
nor the empty praise of a striving world
You and you alone are our inheritance.
Always, O Lord, may we placy you first in our hearts
High king of heaven, our treasure thou art. Amen.

Copyright © 2016 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.