Day 28: The Problem of Idolatry
Illustration: Juliana Crownover
We are not tempted to confess a belief in other gods under that name…We do in practice tend to put pleasure, or comfort, or wealth, or power, in a position which gives it sovereignty over some of our time and some of our energy…If we believe in God at all, what we believe about Him matters more than anything else in our composition. To believe in God falsely conceived may easily be worse than to disbelieve in Him altogether. For we tend to become like that which we worship. The good influence of a true faith and the bad influence of a false faith pervade all of life; in a thousand subconscious ways faith molds or checks both thoughts and desires…Idolatry is indeed a deadly thing. False religion can be worse than atheism…The atheist, who has no belief in God and no experience of religion, misses all that is best in life; but he is safe from all that is worst. Just because religion is the greatest power in the world, touching men’s souls at a depth which nothing else can reach, it can, if it is perverted, do greater harm than anything else.[i]
William Temple (d. 1944), Archbishop of Canterbury
Have mercy on us, O LORD, as we are vexed by many and great tribulations. Comfort us by your grace and relieve us from our infirmities, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[ii]
Old Testament Lesson
The story takes place while Moses has been absent. He has been up on Mt. Sinai with God when the people start to despair about whether he’s alive anymore. The people aggressively approach Aaron and demand that he construct gods for them. This seems odd because just days before, when they received the Ten Commandments, God explicitly stated that they were not supposed to make other gods or bow down to them. Aaron makes the idol at their behest (probably out of gold that has been melted down), but likely intends it as a way to serve the true God.[iii] In the ancient Near East, we find similar animal figures representing Apis among the Egyptians and Baal among the Canaanites.[iv] Aaron figures that even if the image is borrowed from other neighboring religions, they’ll be fine as long as they’re using it to worship the one true God. By contrast, the people are likely using the idol to hedge their bets since the God up on the mountain seems to have consumed their leader and scares them to death. The point of this story is that idolatry is a grave offense against God. While religious imagery in and of itself is not problematic since Christ came in the flesh and thus can be depicted in images, all imagery must reverence the one true God and not lead to syncretistic worship. Yet God’s mercy is also on display for those who humbly repent when he relents from the calamity he was about to bring.
7Then the LORD said to Moses, “Hurry up and go back down because your people, whom you brought out from Egypt, have corrupted themselves. 8How quickly they’ve turned aside from the way that I commanded them. They’ve made for themselves a metal calf and they’re bowing down and sacrificing to it and saying ‘These are your gods, O Israel, that brought you from the land of Egypt.’” 9Then the LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and, no doubt, they are a hard-headed people. 10So now leave me alone that my anger may burn hot against them. I’m going to destroy them and make a great nation of you.”
11The Moses besought the face of the LORD his God and said, “Why does the LORD’s anger burn so hot against your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with awesome might and a powerful hand? 12Won’t the Egyptians say, ‘With wicked intent did he bring them out to slay them in the mountains and to wipe them out from the face of the land?’ Turn from your fierce anger and relent from this calamity against your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob your servants to whom you freely swore when you said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring to be like the stars of the sky and all this land of which I have spoken, I will give to your offspring that they might inherit it forever.’” 14Then the LORD relented from the calamity that He had promised to execute against His people.
New Testament Lesson
Circumcision was performed on all Jewish males on the eighth day after their births. It was the outward visible sign that they were members of the covenant community. Because the Law prescribed that circumcision was to be performed on the eighth day, this meant the religious leaders were circumcising children on the Sabbath. Jesus challenges the hypocrisy of criticizing Him for completely healing a man (body, soul and spirit) while not applying the same standard to circumcision which did little to heal the soul. This story demonstrates that disciples need to be able to recognize true teaching. The key to this recognition is discerning where the teaching comes from. Jesus claims intimate knowledge of the Father, thus authenticating his teaching. The religious leaders, however, have corrupted the original revelation given to the Patriarchs and are using it as a weapon to maintain their power. Their covert attempts to kill Jesus are the proof that they are far from God.
14Now the Feast of Tabernacles was already going on when Jesus came up to the Temple and was teaching. 15And the Jewish leaders were astounded, saying, “How is this man so learned, having never been taught?” 16Then Jesus answered them and said, “My teaching is not my own, but comes from the one who sent me. 17If anyone wants to do God’s will, he must discern whether the teaching is from God or whether I am just speaking on my own authority. 18He who speaks on his own authority, seeks his own glory. He who seeks the glory of the one who sent Him, this one is true and dishonesty is not in Him. 19Has not Moses given you the Law? None of you actually practices the Law. Why are you trying to kill me?”
20The crowd answered, “You’re nuts. Who is trying to kill you?” 21Jesus answered and said to them, “Just one healing I did and you are all amazed? 22This is why Moses gave you circumcision – not that it came from Moses but from the Patriarchs – you happily circumcise a male child on the Sabbath. 23If a male child receives circumcision on the Sabbath and the Law of Moses isn’t broken, then why are you upset with me for healing a man completely on the Sabbath? 24Don’t judge by outward appearance, but judge righteously!”
25Then some from Jerusalem were saying, “This isn’t the one they were trying to kill, is it? 26Look, He is speaking openly and no one is saying anything to Him. Could it perhaps be that the rulers know full well that He’s the Christ? 27But we know where He has come from – when the Christ comes no one will know where He has come from.”
28So while Jesus was teaching in the Temple, He cried out and said, “You know me and you know where I come from. You also know that I’ve not spoken of myself, but the one who sent me is true, the one whom you don’t know. 29I know Him since I am from Him and He sent me.” 30So they wanted to arrest Him, but no one laid a hand on Him because His hour had not yet come. 31Out of the crowd, many believed in Him and were saying, “When the Christ comes, He won’t do more signs than He’s done, will He?”
- In our OT lesson, I have translated the Hebrew word “rah” as “calamity.” So, at Moses’ intercession, God relents from the calamity he was about to bring. But the more typical translation value from “rah” is “evil.” Is God the author of evil? If not, why not?
- Does God change his mind? If he does, how do we reconcile this with other texts that (for example) state, “For I the LORD do not change” (Mal 3.6). If God doesn’t change his mind, why do we bother praying?
- How could Jesus, without any formal education, wow all the religious leaders with his knowledge? Is wisdom better acquired in books or in prayer?
- The Jews were confident in their salvation because of circumcision. What are you relying on for yours? How do we become reconciled to God?
Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)
Today’s lessons provide a cautionary tale. It is very easy in the spiritual life to get so caught up in our own ways of doing things that we lose sight of the goal, which is union with Christ. Moses had only been away a few weeks when the people started to lose heart. They demanded an image they could worship. There is a fierce debate about whether the golden calf is simply a symbol of the true God (gold and livestock were among Israel’s most prized material possessions) or whether they were importing the image of a foreign god to protect themselves in the event of Moses’ death. The latter understanding seems more likely, but this is by no means certain.
What’s not debatable is that God unequivocal sees their actions as idolatrous. He becomes so furious that He wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth and start over. Moses’ quick and effective intercession apparently keeps this from happening. God relents from His anger toward the people (at least for the time being) and He commands Moses to return back down the mountain and discipline the people. Moses encounters the people in a frenzied orgy and he has to lead a kind of quasi-military operation to restore order.
In our NT lesson, the idolatry is different. There are no metal idols anywhere. Although idol worship is a constant problem throughout most of the OT, it ceases to be after the exile. The Jewish people learn a hard lesson that God is not kidding when he states that there are to be no other gods in their midst. Syncretism is an offense against a jealous God.
But notice that by relying on circumcision as the visible sign of their covenant relationship with God, the Israelites had substituted a physical sign for the intimate spiritual relationship that God was seeking with them. They were putting their faith in external covenant markers and in promises of their election more than in a relationship. Jesus diagnoses the problem well when he warns them not to judge by physical appearances, but by righteousness. As we learned in the first week of Lent, righteousness is not necessarily a moral quality, but is more a quality of relationship.
As William Temple so aptly put it in the quote that began this day, our modern flirtation with idolatry is quite different than Israel’s. Our gods are not alternative deities like golden calves. For us, they are often material things that bring power, pleasure and comfort. They’re things like i-Phones, luxury cars and bigger houses. Make no mistake, we can be very quick to put our trust in material goods. We long for them. We pursue them. We spend our lives buying them and fixing them. This can be just as damaging to our spiritual lives as what the people were doing centuries ago when they made a golden calf.
Once again, we have to be careful not to separate the physical and the spiritual too starkly. On the surface, there is nothing wrong with material goods. The problem is when we get so attached to their use that we can no longer function spiritually. When material goods delight us, attract us and consume us, we are no longer using something good with indifference. We have become like an addict who needs a drug but derives no pleasure from it anymore.
Thus there is nothing wrong with the material world. The material world comes from God and is there for our care and use. Yet, like anything, we can take the good gifts that God has given us and corrupt them. We do this when we become slavishly devoted to material things and allow them to draw us away from the one true God. In our world today this is very easy to do.
How do we figure out if materialism has become a problem in our lives? Take material goods away for a time and see how you react. If you find yourself, after a brief adjustment period, going on just fine, great. The material good likely hasn’t become an idol in your life. But if you find yourself agitated and constantly thinking about it, these are classic signs of addiction.
This is why Lent can be so helpful. We take things away for a time to focus on God. In so doing, we identify the things that take us away from righteousness, away from a relationship. When we are able to use the goods God has given us with indifference, we are able to employ material goods in a healthy way.
For many, Christian art opens up a helpful pathway to God. Spend some time at a museum, on line or in a book drinking in beauty. Use whatever comes from this to stimulate prayer.
Fast from technology for a time. Don’t use your smart phone. Don’t text, use Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat or anything else. Notice especially how this makes you feel and whether you have become so attached to a piece of technology that you cannot live without it.
- Intercessory Prayer
Just as Moses interceded for the people in our OT lesson today, spend some time in prayer interceding for others. Pray especially for those who are struggling, for peace and for justice. Pray for the healing of the divisions in the Church as well.
[i] William Temple, Personal Religion and the Life of Fellowship (London: Longman Group, 1926), 2–3.
[ii] Adapted from The Anglican Breviary, 482.
[iii] Brevard S. Childs, The Book of Exodus: A Critical, Theological Commentary (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 566.
[iv] Ibid., 565–566.