In the first reading today, there is no missing the straight-up idolatry. It is the classic text of the story from Exodus:
The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once to your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have become depraved. They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them, making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it, sacrificing to it and crying out, ‘This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’ The LORD said to Moses, “I see how stiff-necked this people is.
Even the Responsorial Psalm (Ps 106) gets in comment: “Our fathers made a calf in Horeb and adored a molten image; They exchanged their glory for the image of a grass-eating bullock.” The line is almost humorous if it weren’t so serious. And God’s reaction is as serious as it gets.
Think back to the Book of Genesis:
When the LORD saw how great the wickedness of human beings was on earth, and how every desire that their heart conceived was always nothing but evil, the LORD regretted making human beings on the earth, and his heart was grieved. (Gen 6:5-6)
These verses comprise the prelude to the Great Flood and story of Noah. In a way, Moses becomes Noah and the ark – the very means by which the people of Israel are saved from imminent divine danger.
The full text of the very first of the commandments addresses idolatry:
I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall not have other gods beside me. You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or serve them. For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their ancestors’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation; but showing love down to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Ex 20:2-6; or similarly in Dt 5:6-10)
Perhaps its place at the end of the list tells us it is the quickest way off the ark into the flood waters. And it is the one we least worry about because who among us has constructed a golden calf or its modern day equivalent? But then sometimes we only discover we have gone overboard when we are tossed about in the waves. At that point we realize that the gangplank off the ark was the subtlest of paths.
Rev. Tish Harrison Warren, an Episcopal priest and columnist for the NY Times recently wrote about idolatry in our modern life (Feb 26, 2023, NYT):
Idolatry may also seem far removed from modern life, conjuring images of ancient peoples bowing to golden statues. But we should understand that those who bowed before images did so because they believed they could persuade or manipulate the gods to give them what they longed for — fertility, rain, abundant harvests, victory, happiness, security and safety. We may use different means today, but modern people are driven by the same motivations. We also seek, in our own ways, to control our world and to wrest from it what we need and desire.
The idea of idolatry is not, necessarily, having false gods that we can name — or sculpt, for that matter. Instead, it is a term for disordered love. It describes a devotion to even good things that is excessive or obsessive. It conveys to us that well-meaning people who desire worthy things can seek them in ways that harm themselves and others, that we can be driven by longings that we may not know, understand or be able to articulate but that determine the shape of our lives and our society. The 16th-century Protestant theologian John Calvin famously said that “the human heart is a perpetual idol factory.” We are constantly devoting ourselves to what will make us feel secure and safe, things that promise to provide what we most desire and need. Idolatry, Calvin thought, is a subconscious motivator. Our idols are the deepest loves and urges driving us under the hood of our conscious minds, our default mode of being. In his book “You Are What You Love,” the philosopher and theologian James K.A. Smith points out that what most deeply drives us is often not what we articulate as our deepest love. In other words, he says, you may not love what you think you love. We may not worship what we say we do. Part of why idols can remain invisible to us is that they are often not individual in nature. Typically, communities, nations or subcultures have particular idols, which become so normative that they are no longer recognized as idols. They become the water we swim in.
I think this might be the singularly challenging sentence: “We are constantly devoting ourselves to what will make us feel secure and safe, things that promise to provide what we most desire and need.”
The Israelites thought the statue of a grass-eating bullock would make them feel secure and safe. We might scoff at their particular choice of idols, but what is it that we seek to make ourselves safe and secure? When we bow our heads down in prayer, what do we pray for trying to persuade God for what will make us safe? We can love God and our families, but what else do we love that displays traces of an urge that drives us and our actions in the world.
A good question for Lent is what is our secret idol to which we devote part of our lives and energy? If we truly are what we love and if we devote our energy to that love, are we loving in an ordered or disordered way? I doubt it will be a grass eating bullock; it is probably just a small thing. But then again, maybe it is your kryptonite.
The golden calf did not make Israel safe or secure. Almost got them wiped out. They had Moses and Noah. Who do you have? Who in your life can see you as you are and is willing to help you see the things you idolize? It is a tough question, but then Lent is a time for such reflection and action.