As I reflected on our passage for today, the phrase “What’s in your wallet?” kept running through my mind. You’ve probably seen the commercials that made this question famous. They were for Capital One credit cards, and the ones I liked best were the ones with actress Jennifer Garner in them. Jennifer would show up in all kinds of situations like a wedding, a library, a courtroom, the penalty box at a hockey game—all to let everyone know about the unlimited double miles they could get on every purchase every day. Then, she would turn to the camera and ask all of us viewers, “What’s in your wallet?”
I didn’t have any luck finding the history behind these very successful ads. But, I did find an essay that speculated about why Capital One might have chosen this theme. This is what the writer proposed: “The stuff in our wallet represents financial security, purchase power, and prosperity. The question ‘What’s in your wallet?’ is a clever way of planting doubt in our minds about whether or not we have the right stuff to get all the satisfaction we are looking for in life. It prompts us to wonder if we are getting all that we think we deserve. Is there more out there that we don’t yet have? Do we have what it takes to be successful? Of course, the intent of the ad campaign is to make us think that only this particular card will make us satisfied, secure, and significant. And if we don’t feel secure about having the right things in our wallet, perhaps we need to reevaluate its contents.”
Those are essentially the same questions the Teacher, Qohelet, Ecclesiastes, in the character of the inquisitive—and acquisitive—king, is trying to answer. Human beings long for financial security, but we also long to be secure in our relationships and our place in the world. other ways. We want power—the power to get the things we want or need, but also the power to understand and control the world around us. We want prosperity—economic prosperity, sure, but we also want to prosper socially and emotionally and spiritually.
As we satisfy these needs and wants, we, too, wonder if what we have is all there is. We wonder about how to have more satisfying lives. Is there more for us to gain? Do we have what it takes to obtain that more? When we don’t have satisfactory answers to those questions, it’s time to examine the contents of our spiritual wallets.
The king in Ecclesiastes sets out to do just that. In Chapter 1, he pulled out the wisdom card but found that it was not the solution he was seeking. You might even say he ended up worse off than when he started, judging from his words in verse 18: “For in much wisdom there is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.”
In this week’s passage, he pulls out the “sensual pleasures” card. Strictly for research purposes, of course, the king plunges into the ancient equivalent of consumerism on steroids. He leaves no sensual stone unturned. He sums up his efforts in verse 10: “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure in all my toil, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.” If he had been able to get those unlimited miles that Capital One promised, he’d never have had to pay for another airline ticket ever again.
But, in spite of the enjoyment he got from all those building projects and lush playgrounds and slaves to do all the dirty work, and entertainers and concubines to fill his idle hours, he comes to a discouraging conclusion. Enjoying the good life doesn’t do any more to make sense of life than wisdom does. Like pursuing meaning through wisdom, pursuing meaning through pleasure is all vanity, a chasing after wind. There’s nothing to be gained by it.
And, even worse, the teacher adds, this is as good as it gets. There’s nothing more to look forward to. Life after death wasn’t part of the ancient Judaism that Ecclesiastes would have known. That would come later. It was believed that the only way to live on after you died was to be remembered by the people you left behind. But, the Teacher shares another dispiriting conclusion in verse 16: there is no remembrance of either the wise or the foolish pleasure-seekers. You work, and you sweat, and your worries keep you up at night, but in the end, you can’t take anything with you, and everything you’ve acquired will go to someone else, who may or may not deserve it. And so, he says in verse 17, “I hated life, because what is done under the sun is grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.”
If that all weren’t bad enough, here’s the worst news yet. According to the Teacher, this is God’s plan! Finding enjoyment in our food and drink and work is all we’ve got. But, God wants to keep us on a short leash, so God hands out that enjoyment as a reward to those who please God. As the author warns us in verse 26, if you don’t please God, you are out of luck.
O, Qohelet! What you have in your wallet will never offer you the answers you seek. It will never offer you the security you crave. It will never give you the power you need to lead a life full of meaning. It will never make you truly prosperous, in the biblical sense of the word, because prosperity is so much more than having a wallet full of the right credit cards and enough money to pay the bills when they come due.
Prospering means growing and flourishing. It means being good, and being well, and being joyful. It means being happy, as John Wesley describes it: happy knowing that we are the beloved of God, happy in our constant communion with the Father and his Son, happy when our own spirits confirm that we are interacting with the world in simplicity and godly sincerity, happy in all that the Spirit is doing in us and in the Spirit’s testimony to us that God is indeed pleased with us. Prosperity means being happy in the knowledge that this life, as wonderful as it is, is not all there is.
Hearing this, the Teacher would likely ask, “If I can’t get that with wisdom, and I can’t get it with pleasure, how do I find this kind of life—a life I can love instead of hate? A life where both my work and my play have meaning beyond pleasure?” He’s not the only one who wants answers to those questions. We live in a world full of people who want those answers. We may even be among those people, whether we admit or not.
Jesus was surrounded by people who wanted these answers, too. And, the good news is that Jesus has those answers. As a crowd gathered around him on a mountain, he explained where true blessedness in life lies. He spoke of love and forgiveness. He spoke of building our lives on a rock-solid foundation. He warned against living for the high opinion of others and the power to tell other people how to live their lives. He cautioned against losing our connection with God amidst our self-made busy-ness.
In the verses right before our Gospel passage, Luke tells us about an encounter Jesus had with a man who had an inheritance dispute with his brother. In response to the man’s demands that Jesus intervene, Jesus told a story. It was the parable about a man for whom meaning in life was bound up in his possessions and wealth. He was greatly satisfied with all that he had, but then God showed up with a question for the man. God asked the man what would happen to all the stuff he had acquired if he were to die that very night?
Jesus tells the disgruntled brother and the listening crowd that that’s what happens when all that’s in your wallet is wads of stuff or, in the case of the Pharisees, wallets full of celebrity and knowledge whose only purpose is to create an image of superiority.
What’s in your wallet? Is your wallet filled with the pursuit of new and more stuff? Is it crammed with a desire for bragging rights about your job or exercise routine or whatever occupies your heart, time, and resources? It is bulging with opinions and attitudes that shut out any new possibilities?
If that’s the case, then you’re carrying around a bunch of cards that are going to expire and leave you with nothing. It’s time to cut those cards up, toss them in the trash, and fill your wallet with what will last. Fill them instead with trust in God’s love for you. Fill them with the knowledge that a meaning-filled life doesn’t come from possessions or over-indulgence or other people or opinions and positions masquerading as wisdom. Invest your trust, your faithfulness, your obedience and, yes, your money, in the things of God, and your heart will follow.
When we know that our value comes from the beloved of God, we see that life is to be celebrated—that its’s full of blessing and purpose. We have a kingdom to work for and an inheritance to share. Our work gives glory to God. Our enjoyment of food and drink and play increases our gratitude towards God. Our relationships are rich reflections of the connection we have with God. That’s the good news. And the better news is, we can have that unfailing treasure now and after our earthly lives are over.
You’ve probably seen bumper stickers that say, “Jesus is the answer.” You’ve probably also seen the ones that ask, “If Jesus is the answer, then what’s the question?” People have been asking questions since the dawn of humanity, and one of them is the question Ecclesiastes is trying to answer: “How can I live a meaningful life?” Living our lives in Jesus provides the answer to that question, and our faith in Jesus removes all obstacles that might keep us from that life.
If your wallet is filled with divine treasure of grace and peace and joy and love, spend it freely! There are no limits and no expiration dates. There are no worries that someone might take it from you. But, if you feel like something is holding you back, if you feel like life is nothing but vanity and chasing after wind, then ask yourself, “What’s in my wallet?”
I warned you that Ecclesiastes is not especially happy reading. I feel sorry for the guy. But I also appreciate that he challenges us to take a hard look at ourselves and ask some difficult questions. Our gloomy Teacher will continue to do just that. But if he starts to get you down, take heart. We know that life is more than vanity—more than chasing after wind. Life is a gift, to be enjoyed eternally in the presence of God. Our lives are valuable and full of meaning. If you happen to meet a modern-day Ecclesiastes who asks you how you know this is true, just pull out your wallet, and show them what’s in there. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young