Ask anyone what are the biggest sins of our age and idol worship probably wouldn’t even make the list.
In a society awash in sexual immorality and materialism, bowing down before idols seems to be a most antiquated sin—the sort of thing you read about in the Old Testament, or early accounts of Christians who were forced to choose between martyrdom and sacrificing to the Roman gods. But in the modern era, believing too readily in something doesn’t seem to be the problem. Rather, not believing in anything at all seems to be the chief ailment of our age.
So when Pope Francis decried the “idolatry of money” in his new apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, no doubt many readers found his remarks bizarre and bewildering. Surely all those Wall Street traders are not whisking home to sacrifice goats to statues of Pluto?
Yet the gospel writers, St. Paul, and many of the Church Fathers would heartily agree with Francis’ warnings on idolatry. How can this be?
Idolatry as the ultimate sin
When we think of idolatry in the Bible, the classic image that leaps to mind is that of the ancient Israelites, worshipping a golden calf while Moses was speaking with God on the mountain—a brazen violation of the first of the Ten Commandments which they had just been given. The New Testament writers, however, expanded upon the idea of idolatry implicit in the Hebrew Scriptures, inspiring many of the Church Fathers to link idolatry with all sorts of sins that modern minds might not associate with it.
Tertullian, a father of the late first and early second century, called idolaters murderers, adulterers, and liars. “Further, you may recognize in the same crime adultery and fornication; for he who serves false gods is doubtless an adulterer of truth, because all falsehood is adultery,” Tertullian wrote. Other Church Fathers made similar connections. St. Polycarp warned that those who did not keep themselves from the sin of covetousness would be “defiled by idolatry.” St. John Chrysostom referred to the idolatry of greed at least at least forty times in his homilies.
Such comments are firmly rooted in Scripture. For example, in Colossians 3:5, Paul declared greed or covetousness as “the service of idols.” This is repeated in Ephesians 5:5, “Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure or greedy person, that is, an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”
So how exactly did we get from the idolatry of the golden calf to the idolatry of greed and covetousness?
For Tertullian, idolatry was at the root of the other sins: “After such crimes, so pernicious, so devouring of salvation, all other crimes also, after some manner, and separately disposed in order, find their own essence represented in idolatry.” Tertullian’s comments reflect an inner unity in the Ten Commandments. In a sense, each of the other sins listed, stems from the first one—“You shall not have strange gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself a graven image.” Indeed, as Pope Benedict XVI observed in Jesus of Nazareth, following the second half of the Decalogue—those that deal with love of neighbor—implies following the first half about loving and honoring God.
Again, the question probably remains for many of us: How do you get from sacrificing to idols to sneaking around with someone else’s wife? To answer this, we need to take a closer look at some of the individual New Testament verses where this issue is raised.
Idolatry as desire
First, there is the idolatry that is connected with illicit desires, such as greed or covetousness mentioned in the verses above. So what should we desire most? In Psalm 42, we read, “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God.” In Psalm 84, the author tells us, “My soul yearns and pines for the courts of the Lord. My heart and flesh cry out for the living God.” The Douay-Rheims translation of Psalm 119:20 takes this idea even further, “My soul hath coveted to long for thy justifications, at all times.”
Anything that we desire more than God has become an idol for us, Scripture says. For example, In Philippians 3:19, St. Paul writes of sinners that, “Their God is their stomach. … Their minds are occupied with earthly things.” And Christ Himself in Matthew 6:24 warns us, “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” (Mammon is an Aramaic term for wealth.)
These verses, particularly the last, indicate that the objects of sinful desires can become so powerful that we render them the kind of unconditional and all-encompassing obedience that is properly due to God alone. As Chrysostom said in one of his homilies, anticipating the objections of his congregation:
But ‘you do not bow the knee or worship.’ Nay, but with great obedience you do all that they command you, whether it be your belly, or money, or the tyranny of lust. Why this is just what the Gentiles are disgusting in, that they make gods of the passions; calling lust Venus, and anger Mars, and drunkenness Bacchus.
Thus, when we make our desires our idols, the sin of idolatry also takes the form of disobedience to God. In the encyclical Lumen Fidei, Pope Benedict XVI (the likely main author) sees idolatry as a pretext for putting ourselves at the center of our own realities. The path of idolatry, the encyclical warns, ends in the desolation and dissolution of sinful desires:
Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires; in refusing to await the time of promise, his life-story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants. Idolatry, then, is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another. Idolatry does not offer a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth.
Idolatry as trust
Lumen Fidei identifies idolatry as the “opposite of faith.” This can be seen in the classic Old Testament instance of idolatry mentioned above. “While Moses is speaking to God on Sinai, the people cannot bear the mystery of God’s hiddenness, they cannot endure the time of waiting to see his face,” Pope Benedict XVI writes. Because they cannot endure the wait, the Israelites turn to the golden calf.
In Matthew 6, Jesus implicitly connects idolatry with a lack of faith in God. Immediately after making His declaration on mammon, Jesus calls us to trust God completely:
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? … Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?
The sin of idolatry
We now are in a position to offer a better definition of idolatry—one theologically richer than simply saying something about bowing down and sacrificing to statues. An idol is anything that becomes the ultimate object of desire and source of security in our lives. In other words, an idol is anything that we substitute for God in our lives. (Please see below note on the source of this definition.)
To return to that Wall Street trader, we can now see how easily he is at risk of falling into the trap of idolatry, regardless of whether he has that statue of Pluto and chained goat waiting for him at home. No doubt, many of us, not just the trader, are tempted to idolize money in some way, either as something we desire greatly or as a source of security in our lives.
To describe this as idolatry is not theological hyperbole. It puts such sin in proper perspective, helping us to see how the pursuit of money—as well as material possessions, pleasures, power, and temporal sources of security—can become so monstrous as to become a form of idol worship. Such a message is an indeed timely one as we reflect on what matters most to us during this Christmas season.
Note: In formulating this definition of idolatry, I must acknowledge a particular debt to my father, Greg Beale. The definition offered above is adapted from his book on idolatry, titled We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry. Within the book, an idol is variously defined as “whatever your heart clings to … for ultimate security” and “[w]hatever is substituted for God as an object of desire” (pages 17 and 166, respectively).