Covenant (vs. Idolatry)
The covenant God makes with the Israelites is pretty basic: "I will be your God and you will be my people" (Lv. 26:12). It is an agreement to be in right relationship, where the Israelites are to love and trust in God, and God will provide for them. It was not long before the people started breaking that promise.
The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with accounts of the Israelites turning away from God, in deference to other gods, statues, Asherah poles, and even a bronze snake made by Moses. It was easy for them to forget the primacy of God as their priority and sole source of life.
Idolatry means putting someone or something in the place of God. "One of the most persistent themes of the Hebrew Bible is the critique of idolatry," writes Old Testament scholar John J. Collins. "This applies not only to carved or molten statues, but to the human tendency to absolutize things that are merely part of the created order."
Examples of idolatry and turning away from God in Scripture:
Addiction and Modern Culture
Today, while most people may profess belief in the one God of Abraham, we still put excessive faith in idols. For example, we put increasing faith in technology to keep us fed, provide our energy, help us stay alive longer, make us more attractive, entertain us, and protect us from harm. We may idolize money, sex, work, science, or power.
Idolatry can also be understood as addiction. The first three of the Twelve Steps involve recognizing one has become powerless to an object of addiction and turning one's life back to God's control. Twelve Step groups are normally understood as addressing vices that are not generally considered socially acceptable, such as addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, and overeating.
But we can be idolatrous and addicted in socially acceptable ways as well. Some lesser-known Twelve Step groups—such as those for co-dependency, cluttering, and spending—can attest to that. A Christian "Cultural Addiction Anonymous" group meets in Washington D.C. to address their addiction, which they see as:
dependence upon and complicity to unjust structures, systems, and practices antithetical to Jesus' teachings. As recovering addicts we now see and admit that we have been programmed since childhood to live life in a "co-dependent" relationship with the addictive behavior of our society. [Sharon Gerred and Nancy Thurston, Cultural Addiction Anonymous: The Socially Acceptable Addiction, 29 June 2005]
They identify and wrestle with the seductive and addictive nature of mainstream societal values and practices involving individualism, privacy, control, fear, work, race and class issues, money values, debt, and militarism. These issues largely revolve around acquisition and maintenance of power and a desire to be first, despite Jesus' admonitions that "the last will be first and the first will be last" (Mt. 20:1-16). They also generally promote instant gratification above other more important values. When we become hooked into these values we become dependent on the status quo and have less motivation to fight for changes, even when justice may demand it.
Money As Idol
Money is probably the most conspicuous idol today, and it is well represented in scripture. We judge people's moral worth by the amount of money they have, regardless of how they acquired it. The affluent lifestyle lived by many in America is maintained by the continued deprivation of the poor.
The belief system and level of faith associated with our market economy often usurps moral values, essentially taking on religious proportions. The Gospel, however, portrays stored up wealth as an impediment (e.g. Mt. 6:19). The author of 1 Tim. has even stronger words regarding the desire for money:
Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains. (1 Tim. 6:9-10)
William Stringfellow frames the problem squarely as one of idolatry:
The issue for the Christian (and ultimately, for everyone) is whether a person trusts money more than God and comes to rely on money rather than grace for the assurance of moral significance, both as an individual and in relationship with the whole of humanity. [William Stringfellow, Dissenter in a Great Society, 57]
Recent surveys indicate a growing trend toward setting money as an even higher priority. A UCLA survey of their 2006 freshmen class found that almost three-quarters of respondents considered it essential or very important to be "very well off financially," compared to 62.5 percent in 1980 and 42 percent in 1966. A recent Pew Research Center poll found 81 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds considered becoming rich to be their first or second most-important life goals.
Whether it is money, a common addiction like alcoholism, or something more unique, idolatry and addiction keep us from loving God, as well as neighbor and self. We can't rely on anything other than God, but by putting our full love and trust in God we will be secure. God largely provides that security through an economy of interdependence, so our participation in that economy we provide security for our neighbors.
Worshipping the Lord means giving him the place that he must have; worshipping the Lord means stating, believing not only by our words that he alone truly guides our lives; worshipping the Lord means that we are convinced before him that he is the only God, the God of our lives, the God of our history.
Homily at St. Paul Outside the Walls
Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid, licensed under Creative Commons license. Cropped from original.