On idolatry

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On idolatry

Published: 16th December, 2023

The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
15th October 2023
Exodus 32:1-14

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

What do we think idolatry really means?

I’m guessing that most of us probably aren’t in the business of offering sacrifices to golden bulls in our back gardens.  So does this mean that idolatry is something that we don’t have to worry about?

If you go and have a look at St Leonard’s chapel, you will see the marks left by people who had a very definite idea of what idolatry meant.  There are chisel marks all around the east window, and three empty niches that were once clearly more richly decorated, and which surely contained statues.  This destruction was probably carried out by puritans in the seventeenth century, people who objected to images of any kind in churches.

Outbreaks of iconoclasm have been a recurring pattern in Christian history.  Taking their cue from the Ten Commandments, iconoclasts take the commandment not to make an idol, or graven image, as being a generalized prohibition of figurative images in churches.

We might think back to last week’s Old Testament reading from the Ten Commandments.  “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth”.  You might think that’s clear enough, but then if you read on a few chapters in Exodus you come to an explicit command to make two cherubim to sit on top of the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle.  Later in the narrative, God commands Moses to make a bronze snake.  So it’s actually very clear that the prohibition against making idols in the Ten Commandments is specifically about objects of worship, rather than a generalized prohibition of pictures and statues for decorative purposes or as devotional aids.

So whatever idolatry is, it’s something more than just having pictures in church.

When we read the story of the Golden Calf there is something slightly ridiculous about it.  Aaron gathers up all the gold he can find, makes a calf and then says “These are your gods, O Israel”.  Now of course a calf is a wonderful thing.  Whether as a source of food or power or for their fertility, these animals have had an important place in human history, and still do.  And yet God is not a bull.  Reading this morning’s Old Testament lesson, it seems clear that Aaron is simply panicking and doing the first thing that comes into his head to deal with a difficult situation.  He decides that in Moses’ absence, the people need something visual and tangible to encourage them in their onward journey.  Hence the bull.  But a bull is plainly a hopelessly inadequate image for God.  Apart from anything else, the God revealed to Moses, the God who has led the Israelites, the God who calls Himself “I am”, this God is a God of justice.  It’s very hard to say what a bull has to do with justice.

Damaging consequences flow from this.  It’s easy to imagine what they could be.  If a bull is your image of God, then it’s natural enough for your values and religious practices to be of a somewhat bovine nature.  “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel”.  Given the importance of the fertility of bulls to pastoralists, it’s not hard to see where all this is going to end.

So although most of us aren’t likely to be tempted to set up a golden calf in our gardens and to start offering sacrifices, that doesn’t mean that we are free from the temptation to idolatry.  If idolatry is worshipping something that is less than God as if it were God, then we are as vulnerable to it in our generation as humanity has been throughout its history.

Let’s think of some examples.

There is an idolatry of physical fitness.  Now of course there isn’t anything wrong with being physically fit.  In fact it is on the whole a very good thing.  But it can become an obsession.  It can become the focus of our lives, and our source of meaning and motivation.  We start to offer sacrifices to it – the cost of gym subscriptions, time with our families, all these things are offered up at the altar of physical fitness.  Notice that physical fitness is not in itself a bad thing, any more than a calf is in itself a bad thing.  It is just that when we worship something that is less than God as if it were God, we run into trouble.  And it isn’t hard to see that negative consequences flow from our worship of physical fitness, whether it be in devaluing mental or spiritual occupations, or perhaps a kind of contempt of those who are not physically fit, or those who are disabled.  Physical fitness is a reasonable goal to aspire to, but it should not become our principle source of meaning and motivation.

There is also an idolatry of nation.  As with physical fitness, there is nothing in itself wrong with the idea of a nation.  Different groups of people share things in common, that they do not share with others.  We are not all the same, thank God.  Nations as communities of solidarity have given rise to all sorts of good things, and the simple patriotism that encourages and inspires us to work for the wider good of our national community is a positive thing.  But we can see how a healthy patriotism can all too easily slide into an unhealthy, idolatrous nationalism.  It happens when a kind of mystical idea of the nation becomes detached from the flesh and blood reality of the people who actually make up the community.  This supposedly pure idea of the nation becomes a kind of idol; sacrifices are offered to this idol; and the result is often chauvinism and conflict, as the happy cooperative relationships within and between nations are overwhelmed by a tide of idolatrous nationalism, leading to division, confrontation and war.  This is sadly all-too-relevant in our current moment.

And then there is the idolatry of money.  Perhaps here the image of the golden calf hits home.  Of course there is nothing intrinsically wrong with money.  It’s just a means of exchange.  It simplifies trade and make it easier for us to obtain from others the things that we need for our survival and wellbeing.  But it’s also easy to see how a healthy desire to earn the money we need to care for ourselves and our families, and to contribute to the life of the church and the wider community, it’s easy to see how a healthy pursuit of money to support the wellbeing of ourselves and others can turn into something altogether darker.  When money becomes our chief source of meaning and motivation, when we entirely orientate our lives around money, when we start making sacrifices for the sake of getting more money, when we offer that which is dear and good on the altar of our bank balance, we have a problem, and a bad one.

There are any number of other examples, but I think I’ve made the point.  We don’t need to be building golden calves to be falling into the danger of idolatry.  It is a more subtle sin than that.  Whenever we worship something that is not God as if it were God, when we take one of the good things that the abundant generosity of God or the ingenuity of humanity has made for our use, and make that the focus of our lives and the source of our meaning and motivation, we fall into idolatry.  And this has hugely negative consequences for us and often for all humanity.  When we look at the problems of the world around us, we can actually understand almost all of them in terms of idolatry, when we see ourselves and others relentlessly pursuing money or power as if these things were God, whilst largely ignoring the one true God of love and justice we encounter in the Holy Scriptures.

The true worship of God is the best protection against idolatry.  When we orientate our lives not towards money or power or physical fitness or material gain, but towards the worship of the Holy Trinity and the service of our brothers and sisters; when at all times and in all places we offer thanks and praise to God and love and kindness to our neighbours; when we do these things we have a much better hope of valuing the good gifts of God in their proper places without turning them into rival gods.

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen