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Idolatry in their Hearts
F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Ez. 14:1-11; Ps. 115; I Cor. 10:1-13; Lk. 15:11-32
The Psalm and all the lesson deal with idolatry, directly or indirectly. “Wherefore shall the heathen say, Where is now their God?” You want to know where our God is, I’ll tell you! “As for our God, He is in Heaven; He has done whatever pleased Him.” Our God is in the place of command, on His throne in Heaven!
The post-Exile Hebrews did not seem to fall nearly so often back into literal idolatry of wooden or stone idols as did the pre-Exile Hebrews. I suspect that that was due largely to the development of the synagogue with the Torah scrolls as the center of worship. It made their religion much closer to hand and very portable. The Torah scrolls being read and heard regularly greatly enhanced the teaching of their religion, allowing for the dispersion of Judaism around the Mediterranean Sea as a spiritually tight-knit group. They did not need the Temple in the sense that they had needed it. It led to Jews becoming the first people to highly value literacy.
That did not mean that they no longer had idols. It meant rather that they practiced their idolatry in new and more sophisticated ways..., like we do today. They knew not to carve idols out of wood or stone, and to set them up for worship in their homes or on the hill tops or in wooded glens.
They did, however, struggle to procure for themselves those two stabilities, personal and moral, which we all need, but in ways which contradicted God’s way of stabilizing us. They idolized money, power, or reputation. And most of all, they idolized their religious expertise, all of which resources they, the experts, were able to corner the market on, and thus reap bountiful rewards in money and admiration. They did so because, although they were experts in the law of God, they did not know the grace of God, or how to put law and grace together. Yet, law and grace are meant by God to be offered together.
The question is whether we will appropriate and receive them both together. When we do not put law and grace together, we will tend to use the law as a means of controlling people, not setting them free – a fault which Jesus hammered.
Jesus warns the people: “Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places, and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts....” (Mark 12:38) They had idolized the opinions and the praises of the people. They found their worth and sense of honor that way.
Neither they nor we need physical idols to commit idolatry. Spiritual and cultural idols will do quite well, thank you.... We will use anything which we think, rightly or wrongly, will give us those two stabilities. Getting the good opinions of the “important” people is the basis perhaps of all idolatry. If that important person is not God, it will have to be someone in the created order. And then, law and grace will become separated, and probably, as with the Pharisees, destructive.
The name for the parable of "the Prodigal Son", as it is called, comes from the word ‘prodigious’, meaning ‘hugely abundant’, extraordinary in some manner. One of the sons was prodigiously wasteful, but the father was prodigiously graceful. It could be called the parable of the prodigal father, but we have come to think of ‘prodigal’ as meaning wandering or straying, rather than prodigious. We comment, for example, in our own current affairs, “Ah, the prodigal son has returned” – when a wanderer has returned home.
The insult to the father of the son’s behavior comes not only from his wandering and wasting, but first of all from even asking at all for his inheritance before the father has died – as though to say, “Dad, it’s about time you passed on so I can get on with my life.” The son was acting like a pampered child, absorbed in his own quest for good feelings, as demonstrated by his sordid, lustful lifestyle.
Everything he did was an insult to his father, and whole family also. The father might have actually divided the family property and given a share to the son, who then may have sold some of that family patrimony to satisfy his drive for high living. The family land was sacred in the Hebrew culture. It would be insult and betrayal to squander it on one’s own lust for pleasure and power.
He was doing as so many teenagers do, riding on the illusion that they know it all, that they can handle the world, that there is a plum out there waiting for them to come along and pluck. He was idolizing his own self-deluding wisdom.
If we can assume that the father was a responsible man who was not about to pamper his child who had betrayed the family, the father would have been looking and listening carefully for the boy’s attitude and sincerity of repentance. His prodigious love for the son would include an understanding that discipline might be needed. But for now, it was a matter of rejoicing.
The elder son comes in from working in the field, hears the rejoicing, finds out what is the occasion, and refuses to join them. The younger son had abandoned the father as irrelevant to his life, other than to finance his pleasure-seeking. The elder son had expected that his good behavior would earn the father’s special attention. He was not working on the family farm for the good of the family any more than the younger son, he was seeking only another kind of self-centered reward from the father. He had not yet, as Jesus had at 12 years old, come to know who his real Father was. He was still idolizing his human father as the giver of his sense of worth. When he saw his father rejoicing at the return of the wasteful son, he saw himself being slighted and ignored. His father had not killed a fatted calf for him, even though he had remained working hard at home.
Today we call it sibling rivalry, just as between Cain and Abel – a jealousy for the attention and goodwill of the father. The younger son has despised his father, the older son had idolized him as the source of his worth, not yet having moved on to God as his father, the only true giver of his sense of worth. His younger brat brother being honored was seen as betrayal of himself by the father. He had earned the good will of his father. The father owed it to him. Why was the good will which belonged to him being squandered on that brat brother?
His father’s response, “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine...” made no sense to him.
This is a parable, not a real event, so we can only imagine the various possibilities with which the father might have treated his sons. Had he indeed shown favoritism? Had he been too strict? too soft?
But becoming an adult requires that we do our growing up – with or without the helpful cooperation of our parents. We have a heavenly Parent who can heal all the damage done by our human parents, we have a heavenly Parent who does not play favorites, but rather who disciplines us differently and specifically according to the needs of our own souls. We have a heavenly Parent who will pay any price to draw us to Himself.
So, if we are living in idolatry,
whether of our own willfulness and pleasure-seeking, or of our human parent – in
either case because we have not yet graduated onto our heavenly Parent, then we
must do our repenting and our growing in the right direction. We must become
children of God, no longer of our human parents, or of anything else in the
world. Only God Himself can supply those two fundamental stabilities: personal
and moral. No one else can do that. No one else can save us. Our parents are
only temporary stand-ins for the real Parent. And we as children must accomplish
journey-perilous, moving on from our human parents to that divine Parent.
We read in the Old Testament lesson that certain elders of Israel had come to Ezekiel to hear the word of the Lord. God speaks to Ezekiel that they are corrupt elders, that they have bought or created carved idols, images of gods or goddesses which, God says, they have taken into their own hearts. They not only set these idols physically before themselves to worship, they have taken those idols into their hearts. Their worship of those idols is not just pro-forma. Their delusions are so strong that they really do trust that these carved objects can save them. They have demoted God to just another one in the pantheon, coming to Ezekiel shopping around for the best deal among the divinities.
God asks, “Can such persons come before Me?”
It is a fearful and terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God, when He may be about to utter that final judgement which you yourself have generated by consistent and persistent rebellion and rejection of His will and presence.
God promises, “I will answer that man myself, and I will set my face against that man, I will make him a sign and a byword and cut him off from the midst of my people, and you shall know that I am the Lord..... that the house of Israel may go no more astray from me, nor defile themselves any more with all their transgressions, but that they may be my people and I may be their God, says the Lord.” (14:7-8)
Why is all this so important?
Ezekiel gets right at the heart of the destructive meaning of idolatry. Whether through ignorance or ill-will, we are choosing something to be God for us which is no god at all. That is more than just an innocent “mistake”, even if it is done mistakenly. Idolatry is fatal, mistake or no mistake.
The “for us” part is important. We are contingent, non-necessary beings. We, by ourselves, can give no reason for our existence. We require someone or something other than ourselves to be God for us, to supply our personal and moral stabilities. If there is no personal creator God who loves us, then we are just fleeting blips on a sea of cosmic chaos.
The Bible tells us that God is “jealous”, that God will not share His glory with any other deities. So, God is charged with being mean-spirited, narrow-minded, ungenerous. He is not politically correctly “pluralistic”.
But the “jealousy” of God does not come from narrow-mindedness, it comes from reality contact. God is the creator of reality. It is logically impossible for there to be more than one ultimate creator. All other supposed deities are themselves, then really creatures, aspects themselves of the created order.
God does not share His glory with other alleged deities because there are no other creators of all things. To share His glory would not only demean His own honor as creator and sovereign, it would betray His creatures into unreality, the very idolatry which destroys the created order in the Fall. If God is God, then He alone is God, there can be no others. So for God to agree to our worship of other beings would lead us into disaster. Those other supposed gods cannot do the job. They will always, without exception, betray us into the very disaster from which they promise to save us.
God is not jealous for His safety. There is no force in heaven or on earth, separately or combined, which can do God even the least bit of damage. God is jealous for our safety. We are the ones at risk, and our idolatry is the primary way we put ourselves at risk to self-destruction.
The Epistle for this morning begins describing how God had blessed the Hebrews on their way out of Egypt. They were all under the same cloud, that is the cloud of protection during the day, and protection by fire by night. They all went through the sea, a kind of baptism unto Moses. They all ate the same spiritual meat and drank the same spiritual drink, drinking of the spiritual Rock which followed them, that is, Christ.
But then Paul says that some of them were idolators. He describes their behavior, eating and drinking, that is partying, and rising up to play, probably a reference to sexual promiscuity, as indicated by the next sentence. “Neither let us commit fornication, as some of them committed...”
Sexual engagement, from the beginning of recorded history, seems to have been the sacrament of choice to “find ourselves”, to “feel good about ourselves”, to get our emotions and inner contradictions stabilized.
They were idolators because they had lost (or never had) their trust in God securely in place, and so were de facto worshiping something other than God. Despite the miraculous exit from Egypt, the stresses of the desert were more than they could handle. They did not trust God deeply enough so disappointments led to idolatries, trusting things other than God – a golden calf, their own willfulness, their fears.
St. Paul’s admonishes us to not get overly confidant that we have not ourselves fallen into some of these idolatries. “Wherefore, let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” And then an encouragement: “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.”
So idolatry must be understood as both self-destruction and community-destruction. We do not plan it that way, of course, we think we are solving our problems. But if we choose anyone or anything less than God to be the center of our lives and the supplier of our basic personal and moral needs, we enter into a self- and community-destroying process.
That is because we as individuals also cannot unify our own inner being. We cannot unify our emotional, spiritual, or moral energies into a smoothly running and integrated personal whole. We, as individuals, cannot unify our own inner selves, and so then we cannot as a community of dis-integrated persons, unify our community. The world without God, that is, the Fallen world, cannot unify itself other than by coercion, deceit, and a little bit ‘o luck. And that changes with every shift of the balance of power.
Idolatry, making a god of someone less than God, is the very tool of the Fall. “Do as I say, and you shall be as God. Turn the stones into bread. Jump off the Temple... Just worship me, and it is all yours....” The response was a no-brainer for Jesus, but for us it is often not so easy. Some of those offers are very tempting.
It was not easy for those two young men in the parable. It was not easy for those Hebrews come to seek the Lord through Ezekiel. It was not easy for the new Christians to whom Paul ministered. And it is often not easy for us. We seem to have to get boxed into corners, by our own stupidities, idolatries, and arrogance, maybe by the design of God – before we realize that we are doing the same thing that the Hebrews did, setting up idols which enter our hearts and darken them, shutting out light and love and hope.
Perhaps you know the picture by Holman Hunt of Jesus, Son of God, He Who Is, standing at the door of our heart. It is a forlorne little hut, vines over-grown, no visitors for a long time. There is no handle outside, it can be opened only from the inside. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him and he with me...”
The visitors to Ezekiel can repent, and clean their pantheons of all deities but the Living God. The prodigious wastrel can repent and humble himself before his father, human and divine. And, we, like those to whom St. Paul ministered, can take heed lest we think that we have no such problems. We can live in the light with God and with one another. We can put our hand on that handle inside the door to our heart, and open it ever wider to Him who Is. We have done that already? To be sure. We are Christians. But there are, no doubt with all of us, areas, issues where we have not, where the Christ has not yet been invited, where idols still rule.
Yet, we are bold to say, “Our Father....who art in heaven...” Let us be bold to put our hand on that inner handle, turn it, and open wider and wider to the Light of Christ – right where we are today.
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