I think too many of us think that idols are some kind of ancient pagan belief system that died out long ago. And in one sense, that’s true.
But frankly, worshipping idols never went out of fashion. Idols are just as prevalent now as ever. We just don’t call them idols anymore. We like to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re beyond all that silly nonsense.
But I’m not sure what else to call the idols of our current age and culture. Two idols that have a strong grip on America are money and partisan loyalty. There are of course other idols too. And America isn’t the only culture or nation bound in the grip of idols. Every culture and nation is guilty of this.
An idol is a false god or something that is the object of worship. Idols appear to be God-like, but they are antithesis of God. They are the opposite of Christ. The characteristics of idols are the exact opposite characteristics of God.
If we believe that God is love, then a simple definition of God’s characteristics can be summed up in 1 Corinthians 13:4-13 –
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly,but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Idols are the opposite of this description.
God is love. And God is more too. God is about Shalom – a Hebrew word meaning wholeness or completeness or tranquility. God is also about the Imago Dei – the image of God. Shalom and Imago Dei are intimately tied together. There can be no Shalom without Imago Dei. How could there be? It is in seeing the image of God in all people that we know what Shalom (wholeness) is.
But idols don’t work this way. Idols are the opposite of love. Idols are also more. They are about anti-Shalom and anti-Imago Dei. Idols don’t seek out wholeness. They seek to divide. They seek to separate. They seek the ego. Idols are narcissistic. They are blind to the image of God. Instead they want us to see things that are not the idol, that don’t think like the idol, that don’t believe like the idol, that don’t have blind loyalty to the idol, as bad and unworthy of life itself. Idols seek to consume all of life and destroy anything that gets in the idols way.
Idols are like a religion in their ideas and structure. But their core beliefs are opposed to God. They have their own gospel narrative of how they save. Except their gospels aren’t about saving people from Sin and Death. Rather, their gospel narratives have a twisted idea of salvation – it’s only about saving themselves – and everyone and everything is expendable in order to accomplish that goal. That’s how narcissism works. And idols are narcissistic at their core. Narcissism is the belief that the narcissist is the only living thing that matters.
Idols demand blind loyalty that cost people their lives, their relationships, their health, and more.
Idols have high priests who proclaim the idols’ false gospels, declare what sacrifice people will make and impose rules on people.
Idols have sacraments that aren’t the means of grace, but instead are the means of karma – getting what you deserve. And given that people are sinful, idols do all they can to be cruel task masters that demand perfection and inflict punishment when there is failure.
Idols have hymns of praise to their false gods. These hymns are full of lies.
Idols have followers that carry out their faith. Questioning the idol or the beliefs associated with the idol is unacceptable.
False gods such as money and partisan loyalty can be clearly characterized by two things that define what faith in these idols is really about – scapegoating and sacrifice. You see, blame and guilt are essential for an idol because the idol knows that it is empty and needs someone else to blame for its failings. Excuses are common with idols. If only this person had done this, the plan would have worked. The false god would have been successful. There is always someone else to blame. All scapegoating really does is showcase how impotent these false gods really are. They aren’t powerful. They can’t save. They really can’t do anything. They are about as powerful as the Wizard of Oz – a fraud. Idols lead to death and destruction.
The other characteristic that accompanies idols is sacrifice. Idols demand that everyone must sacrifice – that something must be lost, or worse – something must die. Idols demand sacrifice. Sacrifice to appease. Sacrifice to eliminate a threat. Idols feed off of the pain of others, the loss that others experience. All so a false narrative can be proclaimed.
How long will we hold onto the idols of our culture? They demand a great deal, and offer far less in return. Money and partisan loyalty aren’t about serving God. They aren’t trying to serve humanity or creation. They demand to be the center of attention. They demand sacrifice – work yourself to death for them, destroy relationships over them, sacrifice health over them, don’t question them. And each time they fail to provide salvation, they have someone to blame.
Two things we aren’t supposed to talk about in polite company are money and politics. Idols don’t like to be talked about. We are supposed to lie to ourselves – to pretend they don’t have a grip over us. To ignore their unpleasant reality. Instead, we are just supposed to comply with their wishes. If people talk about money and partisan loyalty, then they realize and see that they are not alone in knowing that the idol is a false god, that it is weak, that it lies, that is it empty, that is demands and never actually gives what it promises. If people talk about these false gods, then these gods no longer have control over people and their lives.
“But, we talk about politics so often, Matthew!” “But we talk about the economy and the stock market all the time, Matthew!”
Yes, but we don’t talk about money – our relationship to it, how it impacts our relationships, how it demands to be the arbiter of how decisions are made – even faith related decisions.
Yes, we talk about politics plenty. But not really. We talk about the horse race of politics. We scapegoat those who we disagree with, regardless of the issue. We only look to see how our side is scoring political points and the other side can be seen as evil, less human, stupid. We seek out how our beliefs about politics are right and the other side is wrong, never considering that we might be wrong, or that there might be more than one way to think about an issue. We talk about politics in terms of winners and losers.
We don’t really talk about money or partisan loyalty. Because if we did, we’d realize that we have been worshipping these idols, that they have been fooling us and making us to be fools for a very long time. And in the end, we’d have to be mad at ourselves. The false gods aren’t really anything after all – they aren’t even alive. They are a lie. How mad would you get if you suddenly realize that you’ve been following the dictates of a lie? And doing it willingly?
False idols work that way. In the midst of this pandemic, we have an opportunity. When this is all over, we have a choice – do we go back to “normal?” Do we go back to the way it was before COVID-19 came? Do we go back to our blind worship of money and partisan loyalty?
Or do we seek first the Kingdom of God and it’s righteousness? Do we seek Shalom? Do we seek to see the Imago Dei? Do we set aside false gods and idols in order to truly live into what we claim to believe?
I don’t want to go back to the way it was. I want to go forward to live into the faith given to us by God. I hope you do too. I don’t know what others will do. I don’t have control over anyone else. But I will live into the Kingdom of God.