This I Believe

Martha - Highlands, North Carolina
Entered on May 7, 2008

We have a friend who collects road signs. Not commercial signs, urging this or that product upon you, but those home constructed signs that people rural back roads with warnings such as, HELL HURTS , and promises like, JESUS SAVES”. Lately, I find myself joining him with a slightly different collection of road signs. These are the small rectangular ones affixed by state requirement to the back bumpers of our vehicles. I’ve always taken note of the proclamation of favorite sport teams or professions, but only lately have I noticed the use of the so-called vanity plates to proclaim spiritual messages.

One that caught my attention was on a gleaming white Lexus, the most recent model sedan. It read 2BEHOLY . I wasn’t sure if this was a general exhortation 2BEHOLY, or one specifically related to driving that particular make and model of Lexus.

But the two plates that have generated the most reflection for me were sighted on SUV’s. Last fall as I took my regular route home and pulled to a stop at a red light, I was struck by the particularly massive SUV in front of me. Its shining blackness made it even more impressive — it was immaculately dust free, with gleaming chrome, and shadowed glass that ensured the privacy of its driver. As I waited for the red light to change, I marveled at its bulk. My eyes finally came to rest on the license plate. The light was changing and traffic beginning to move as I read it again with disbelief. In all capital letters it proclaimed, I TITHE.

That sighting sent me scurrying to the concordance to look up the biblical references to tithing. I knew, of course, that Jesus had warned against boasting about your tithes and other expressions of righteousness. But the roots of tithing were in the Old Testament stories — stories first about what the people owed God as an acknowledgment that all that nourished them was a gift from God, and second about the establishment of the temple structure, with its priests who were to be sustained by the tithes of those who toiled on the land, raising grain and tending flocks.

As with other humanly managed structures, the temple structure soon succumbed to our tendency as well as infinite capacity to corrupt. So by the time Jesus came along the temple was more marketplace than holy place, and he made the first of many challenges to our avarice.

But this SUV plate seemed particularly incongruous with the primary intent of the concept of tithing — acknowledging God as generous creator of all those things in the world which nurture and sustain us.

Rather than gratitude for the world, the ads for SUV’s promise a world conquered and harnessed to meet not just the needs but also any possible wants of the owner/driver. Luxury. Escape. Serenity. Adventure. Power. Privilege. Security. Having it all even when you want to leave it all behind. Having it all even when some have none. Having it all even if it takes all there is.

A popular slogan in some churches of our Bible belt city is, What Would Jesus Do? So what would Jesus do with an SUV? Take a ride in the wilderness? Escape the crowds of sick people? Since there are some concerns about their rollover tendencies, maybe he could overturn them like the tables.

But I think I saw the answer the other day. Yes, that other vanity license plate that caught my eye. This one on a monster grey Ford Suburban. It read, HE WEPT. Indeed.