In a conversation with pastor, sociologist, and author, Tony Campolo, a youth worker asked him, “In a recent conversation your name came up as the guy who said you can’t own a BMW and be a Christian. So what’s the deal with you and money, anyway?”
Compolo responded saying, “Few things control our behavior more than our economic status. Jesus was aware of that—that’s why he said to the rich young ruler, ‘You’ve got to sell what you have and give it to the poor.’ Not because the poor needed the money, but because the rich young ruler needed to be freed from the way in which money was conditioning his whole perspective on life…. Jesus said, ‘Not many rich and not many powerful and not many wise of this world end up being my followers.’ Christianity is a religion built around a man who was rich and became poor, and I think that’s the first thing that must be said.”
To clarify, the youth worker asked again, “So—can you own a BMW and be a Christian?”
Compolo answered him, “Think of it: Here’s a car designed to do 200 miles per hour on the German autobahn and corner at 150. Why would anybody in the States, where the speed limit’s 55, want a BMW? The answer’s simple: The BMW is not a car, it’s a statement—a symbol of an individual’s status. The question for a Christian is this: In a world where there are such incredible needs, can I spend $60,000 on a status symbol? In the face of hunger and need and suffering, would Jesus say, ‘Hey, more important for me is buying a BMW’? If he were living today, I’d have a hard time believing he would do that.”
As a somewhat liberal-minded Christian, I like Tony Campolo. Statements such as the ones he made in this conversation make me feel guilty of owning a used RAM pickup truck and taking my kids to play laser tag, but they also make me think about how I spend money and where my priorities lie as a follower of Jesus Christ. I like money—I like the freedom money offers, the increase in opportunities having more money creates, and the influence more money has on those around me. Having money in our culture makes someone more attractive, more powerful, and more influential. On the other hand, when attaining money is a primary motivator, we act in ways we wouldn’t normally act—we abandon our moral convictions, we denounce our faith, we ignore the prodding of the Holy Spirit, we forsake our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and we turn on friends and family. Money can lead us into abhorrent hypocrisy. And if we follow it for too long, there really is no hope of turning back. Money is a dangerous and powerful god.
When Israel was traveling along the plains of Moab, the king of Moab—Balak son of Zippor—was terrified and said, “This horde is going to lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field” (Numbers 22:4). Fearing for his life and the lives of his people, Balak sent messengers to the prophet Balaam. Balak wanted Balaam to curse the Israelites so he could defeat them in battle. When Balaam consulted God about these matters, God told Balaam that the Israelites were blessed and he couldn’t curse them. Upon hearing this news, Balak sent new messengers to Balaam. These messengers were more wealthy, distinguished, and impressive. Furthermore, Balak promised Balaam that he would reward him handsomely. Balak knew how influential power and money could be in motivating Balaam to come to him and curse the Israelites. Balak knew as Compolo suggested:
“Few things control our behavior more than our economic status.”
Balaam also knew where a walk down the pathway of greed and gold-digging would lead him. Balaam concluded that he could not divide his devotion between God and wealth and he responded saying, “Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything great or small to go beyond the command of the Lord my God” (Numbers 22:18).
The rich young ruler wanted to follow Jesus; he just didn’t want to completely abandon his first love. He desired, in theory, for Jesus to be his primary motivator, but deep down he realized that his economic status was truly that which controlled his behavior. He wanted to be a part of the Kingdom through legalism and not true sacrifice. Jesus loved him because of his desire to do good. Unfortunately, doing good isn’t good enough. When the rich young ruler made this realization, he walked away sad because he recognized he couldn’t turn back. His money and possessions and the power, influence, status, and opportunities that wealth provided him had clinched his heart and he couldn’t free himself from that grasp. Jesus looked at him walking away and said to those who remained, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:24-25). This isn’t a euphemism. This isn’t a reference to a gate in Jerusalem. It is literally easier for a camel to squeeze his big brown butt through the eye of a needle than for someone wealthy to enter God’s kingdom. Why? Because money is plainly that powerful and influential. Money was, is, and forever will be God’s greatest competitor for our devotion. Balaam’s prophecy in Numbers 22 still stands firm today.
All the silver and gold in the world should not do anything great or small to cause us to go beyond the command of the Lord our God!
And what exactly is that command?
To love God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
And how do we do that?
Jesus provided the practical approach to loving God and neighbor to the rich young ruler:
“Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21).
Including his BMW.
John Wesley says something similar and I appreciate how he puts it all in perspective:
“It is the duty of every man to work as hard as he can, to make as much money as he can, to spend as little as he can, so as to give away all that he can.”
I wish I could say this is an easy task. I know I can’t even wrap my head around how difficult this is to comprehend. Jesus’ disciples didn’t think it was possible for anyone to do this either. In fact, they asked Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” (Mark 10:26).
I find some comfort in Jesus’ answer: “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27).
Therefore, I take that possibility to heart. I step out in faith that God will give me the strength to escape the grasp money has over my heart. To dig for God rather than for gold, and pray that the BMWs of the world don’t lure me down an autobahn of darkness from which I cannot escape. And when Jesus asks me to follow Him, I pray I’m not sadly driving away in my shiny BMW because I can’t bear the alternative.