I have just finished reading the complete Bible for a second time. Reading the Bible from cover to cover was not part of the Catholicism of my youth, and it proved to be an interesting journey. I undertook it to better understand the roots of my Catholicism and Christianity and found out, among other things, just how Jewish we Christians are.
The God of the Old Testament is sometimes angry and punitive; yet God does not abandon his people. I noticed that much of God’s anger in the Old Testament centers on the Jewish people worshiping idols like Baal and others. At first blush, this would seem to be a practice to which modern people cannot relate, a reflection of less enlightened times.
But suppose we consider an idol to be anyone or anything to which we turn in times of trouble or when we want something, or for simple comfort. Have I worshiped idols in my lifetime? When defined this way, I certainly have.
First of all, those of us who have walked the path of addiction worshiped an idol. For some it was the god Alcohol. For others, the god Cocaine. Some of us have worshiped Sex, others Food. Whatever substance we were addicted to tended to be what we turned to both when anguished and when wanting to celebrate.
It is interesting to note how similar the addictive cycle is to the idolatrous cycle. In the Book of Exodus the Israelites worship an idol. God gets angry and punitive. The Jews repent, saying how sorry they are. God relents and forgives them and all is well—for a while. But then the appeal of worshiping the idols pulls at the Israelites until the cycle starts all over again. Ask anyone in a relationship with an alcoholic or drug addict if this pattern does not sound familiar.
Not all idol worshipers are addicts. Some of us have worshiped Power or Money. Others bow down before Prestige. Some of us simply love our Stuff. Anything other than the God of one’s understanding that becomes the center of one’s life is potentially an idol. Anything that becomes an obsession—Facebook, Twitter, video games, being thin—serves as an idol.
Sadly, such idol worship has even occurred within our own Catholic communities, where power has been coveted and abused and where buildings and budgets have received excessive attention at the expense of pastoral care and the corporal works of mercy.
Buddhists use another word for idols: attachments. And just as the Buddhists say, it is our attachments, our idols, that give rise to our suffering. Just ask any addict.
In the politicized Christianity of our era, we focus on specific issues like homosexuality or the perceived evils of Islam or the blessings of wealth. We would do well to recall that the biggest issue for the God of the Old Testament was idol worship. We might also do well to consider that God’s taking issue with his creation worshiping idols likely did not end centuries ago.
Jesus may not have focused as much on idol worship, in part because he came to transform a religion of law into a religion of loving kindness. But he certainly had words of warning for those who worshiped wealth or power. Keep in mind, too, that Satan tried to tempt Christ into idol worship, offering power and wealth as inducements. Finally, remember that Jesus had harsh words for those religious professionals who worshiped prestige over compassion. For those of us, religious professionals or not, who are drawn to the altars of prestige and possessions, Christ’s gentle message of love, nonviolence and attentiveness to the needs of the marginalized will fall on deaf ears. When he said, “Whoever has ears ought to hear,” he may have intended this statement as more than a request to pay attention. It may have been a warning against idol worship.
So the next time I watch “The Ten Commandments” and see Moses’ people dancing and cavorting around the Golden Calf, instead of viewing it as a curious pagan ritual, I need to accept that in my own way, I have danced with them and that if I am not careful, I will do so again.