The Sin of Idolatry

The following passage comes from “A Year With Thomas Merton’, a series of daily readings taken from Thomas Merton’s personal journals, selected and edited by Jonathan Montaldo (Harper Collins ebooks)

The Christian faith enables, or should enable, a man to stand back from society and its institutions and realize that they all stand under the inscrutable judgment of God and that, therefore, we can never give an unreserved assent to the policies, the programs and the organizations of men, or to “official” interpretations of the historic process. To do so is idolatry, the same kind of idolatry that was refused by the early martyrs who would not burn incense to the emperor.

The policies of men contain within themselves the judgment and doom of God upon their society, and when the Church identifies her policies with theirs, she too is judged with them–for she has in this been unfaithful and is not truly “the Church.” The power of “the Church” (who is not “the Church” if she is rich and powerful) contains the judgment that “begins at the house of God.”

November 30, 1964, V171

Can A Christian Drive A Mercedes-Benz?

I’ve been seeing a lot of commercials lately for Jeep products, specifically the Grand Wagoneer. And I’ve been struck by one specific image at the end of the commercial. I had no idea that these vehicles could be so expensive.

Frame from ad capture 9/10/2022

Sure enough, these Grand Wagoneers do start at $89,995 and most configurations go into 6 figures. It is easy to configure one to retail for $120,000 or more (not including the premiums some dealers are charging in 2022 due to vehicle shortages). This reminded me of a wide ranging and passionate discussion in my Sunday School class a few years ago about how luxurious a life a Christian could live and still be true to the Gospel. The provocative title of this post is borrowed from that lesson.

Just to be clear, I personally don’t particularly like Jeeps or SUV’s, so a Jeep SUV has no appeal to me at all. Especially at $100,000! But my personal preferences aren’t important and won’t be covered here. Let’s just stay on topic. And for reference, we will be comparing this SUV to my truck “Lazarus” (aka ‘the truck that won’t stay dead’). She (I know Lazarus is a masculine name but aren’t all ships and vehicles called with a feminine pronoun?) is 10 years old and has 175,000 miles. She would be well into the 200’s now except for the pandemic, which resulted in my working from home the last 2 1/2 years instead of commuting 100 miles each day. She has a very slight leak on the rear main seal and the fuel pump sending unit is damaged, so I can’t trust the fuel gauge. There are a couple of significant dents on the passenger side I don’t want to talk about. And a fair amount of wear and tear. She has the factory trailering package and 4 wheel drive, but isn’t hardened for hard-core off-roading.

Comparing Lazarus to a 2022 Jeep Grand Wagoneer as “utility” vehicles, the Jeep doesn’t come off favorably. Lazarus has twice the payload capacity and over 50% more trailering capacity despite the Jeep’s 6.4 liter engine being considerably larger than the trucks 5.0 liters. The larger engine does result in lower gas mileage than the truck, which I didn’t think was possible. While the Grand Wagoneer can be purchased with 4 wheel drive, I would say that it wouldn’t have nearly the same off-road capability as my stock pickup. The Jeep’s 8 passenger capacity compared to the truck’s 6 might be an advantage, but I’ll discount it due to the inconvenience of the third row seats in the Jeep and the rarity that 8 people need to fit in a vehicle. (Large families are an obvious exception that I’ll address later.) So functionally the Jeep is clearly not a match, in my opinion.

So what does the Jeep offer to a prospective buyer. As I see it, two things: luxury and the flip side of the same coin, status.

Let’s face it. There is no comparison between the trim levels of our representative trucks. The technology, convenience and sheer sumptiousness of the Jeep doesn’t even allow for a comparison with my pickup. In fact, my living room doesn’t come close.

Web image of Jeep Grand Wagoneer front row seating and dash.

It is clearly more comfortable, but how much more? I sometimes drive the truck for hundreds of miles and find it plenty comfortable. In fact, a few years back while recovering from spinal surgery the truck was the most comfortable place I had to relax in, even more so than the recliner I sat and slept in for a year. I’ve even slept in it on multi-day drives, taking naps in rest stops and Wal-Mart parking lots. So while the Jeep is surely MORE comfortable, I can’t believe it is an apples and oranges improvement. Also, some of the safety technology is much more advanced in a 10 year newer vehicle, but I’m also tempted to not weigh these very highly as they are rarely if ever needed and don’t make that big a difference in a 3,000 pound vehicle in a serious incident.

So, yes, you do get a nicer ride. But to what end? If your auto is first and foremost a tool for transportation (and possibly cargo hauling) then comfort isn’t critically important. Or at least marginal improvements in comfort. Which brings us to the second attribute: status.

I’m not going to dwell long here. I know a lot of people invest a lot of their self image (and public image) in the vehicles. They put a lot of thought into the statement their lifestyle makes about them. I would simply ask, “Why not let your life and actions say something about you, instead of (as our friend Veblen would say) our ‘conspicuous consumption.’ If this doesn’t resonate with you, then you probably aren’t reading this post.

But if it does, let’s consider what the $90,000 difference between a top of the line Jeep Wagoneer and a new passenger car or late model minivan (for you growing families) could mean. $90,000 is:

  • A four year education at a state university, including room and board.
  • 20 sponsorships of third world children for nearly 10 years each via World Vision (my charity of choice)
  • Contribute to 450,000 meals for hungry people in North Texas (via Tarrant County Food Bank)
  • Fund the distribution of 18,000 bibles worldwide through Gideons International.
  • Provide 1,200 Emergency Boxes through UN World Food Program USA, each of which feeds a family in desperate need for a full month
  • Provide 28,000 rides to those needing transportation (low-income residents, people with disabilities and people over age 65) via Catholic Charities Fort Worth. The vast majority of rides are for medical care and for employment or school.

I make these observations to highlight a point. It’s not a black and white issue that if you drive a luxury car you aren’t a Christian. But consider the undeniable fact that we in America live in tremendous wealth. Knowing that you will eat tomorrow and have a place to sleep tonight is a luxury many don’t have. So how are we using this wealth? To pad our lives with comfort, or as stewards of resources given us to expend in God’s Kingdom?

To conclude: as you consider your Christian walk and how you will spend those extra resources you have above food and shelter, I would ask you to do two things:

  1. Consider Jesus closing to his most famous sermon, the Sermon On The Mount. Specifically Matthew 7:21-23 in which he points out that many acting the part of Christians are just fooling themselves, and
  2. Reread the parable of the Sheep And The Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). Here Jesus points out that he recognizes his followers by how they treated those in need.