I admit it. I like television commercials—at least some of them. They fit my video attention span and are often better than the programs they interrupt.

My current favorite features veteran character actor John Houseman. “We make money the old-fashioned way,” he growls. “We earn it.” With these words, spoken with authority in stentorian tones, Houseman extols the virtues of a particular investment firm.

Market research has helped the sponsor effectively target its audience: a group of people, similar in age and economic status, found to respond positively to the traditional and conservative image Houseman projects. He looks and talks like someone who can be trusted to handle one’s investments wisely.

But more than presence is involved in the success of these commercials. Houseman expresses deeply held beliefs that members of the target group share: What resources one has, one should have earned. Expecting to “get something for nothing” is wrong as well as risky. Gains that come too easily and too quickly, or as a result of taking advantage of the spoils system of a welfare state, are ill gotten.

With this in mind, I can only imagine what it must have been like in the synagogues and marketplaces where Christ, then Paul and the other apostles, preached the gospel to the Jewish establishment. I think John Houseman, gold watch chain encircling his vested girth, perfectly fits the image of God as the scribes, Pharisees, and Judaizers imagined—proper, solid, dependable, tolerating no nonsense, a comfort to do business with. What’s more, Houseman—a.k.a. God—shared his own point of view. He expected them to keep their accounts in balance and to earn their way. He was scrupulously fair in rewarding faithful service and good conduct. ...

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