“Take this to heart: idols rob us of love, idols make us blind to love and, in order to truly love, we must be free from all idols. What is my idol? Remove it and throw it out of the window!”
— Pope Francis, General Audience, August 1, 2018
Pope Francis has warned us that anything can become and be used as an idol. He warns that idols promise things like happiness and acceptance but they enslave us. Our contemporary idolatry has much in common with our ancestors in faith. The prophets spoke the words of Yahweh to a people who were utterly lost and trying to find their way. They worshiped idols and sought the favor of false gods. The Lord had rescued them from slavery in Egypt and led them to the promised land, but time and again the people of Israel strayed from the Lord, and time and again Yahweh stayed faithful to them, showing everlasting love.
The prophet Jeremiah uses marital language to highlight the infidelity that the people of Israel have committed with their idolatry. The second chapter of the book of Jeremiah recalls the initial devotion that the bride, Israel, had to her husband Yahweh, before betraying him. Jeremiah declares,
“Thus says the LORD:
I remember the devotion of your youth,
your love as a bride,
how you followed me in the wilderness,
in a land not sown” (Jer 2:2)[*].
Later in the chapter, Israel’s infidelity to the Lord is likened to a prostitute who “under every green tree…sprawled and played the whore.” (Jer 2:20). The image of the green tree is highly significant to Jeremiah’s accusation of idolatry. Green trees were identified with a goddess in the region of Judah and surrounding nations. There is also some evidence that the green tree imagery indicates worship of the gods Asherah and Ishtar. The people chased after the promises of false gods instead of the one who saved them. The people ultimately say that they prefer strangers and go after them, serving their kings and gods (Jer 2:25).
The prophet Micah gives a scathing indictment of the priests and prophets for twisting the words of Yahweh and perverting them for economic gain. Micah describes priests teaching for a price and prophets practicing divination for money, saying,
Its rulers give judgment for a bribe,
its priests teach for a price,
its prophets give oracles for money (Mi 3:11)
In ancient Judaism, the priests and prophets played essential roles as intermediaries between Yahweh and the people of Israel. The priests referenced in this passage took bribes to do things, and the prophets took pay to serve favorable oracles. Yet here they were abusing this sacred charge and committing economic idolatry. Money had become their god. Ultimately, God’s judgment for the sins of the priests and prophets was the destruction of the temple.
We are called to place God above all things, but idolatry places something else in the place of God. We cling to these false gods for our security. We have—both individually and collectively–betrayed our ever-faithful Lord more often than we think. As the Israelites chased after the false promises of fertility goddesses, many in our pews chase after the false promise that sex and unchastity will give them the security of acceptance or pleasure. This is as much an act of idolatry as worshiping an image of Ishtar.
Perhaps sex is not our idol, but there is something else in our lives that Satan uses to tempt us to idolatry. It could be the constant need to be busy, a career, or even social media. Or perhaps it is money, the love of which Paul calls the root of all evil in 1 Timothy 6:10. We all need money to survive—to pay bills, feed our families, and fund the Church’s ministry. But sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that all we need is more money to make us happy or to find our security. The truth is that happiness can only be found in God, and serving the Almighty Dollar leaves us unhappy no matter how much we make. Just as the priests in Micah’s time were corrupted by love of money, this idolatry can easily creep into the Church today. Unfortunately, we have seen that some of the most popular leaders in the Catholic Church and the broader Christian ecclesial community have succumbed to this. They tell the people what they want to hear and fail to rightly preach the Gospel. Though to be fair, this has also become a major problem within Protestantism with the rise of the prosperity gospel. This sin does not stop with the leaders, as the leaders spread this message to their congregations and it proliferates. It can continue from generation to generation.
Idolatry is a real threat to the Church and the souls it seeks to save; thus, the message of the prophets is one that we must preach often. Our faithfulness to God over all idols will be judged in the same light as the unfaithfulness of Israel in the time of Jeremiah and Micah. Is our Church leading souls to God? Or have we placed some idol ahead of God that seeks to destroy the Church?
Idols are not a thing of the past, but vanquishing idolatry is a pathway to the future. One of the contemporary prophets warning us against idolatry is Pope Francis, who has emphasized the dangers of idolatry, not only for individual Catholics, but for the Church as a whole. There are many idols that take us away from God, as Pope Francis preached in a homily on October 15, 2013. He said how some people “think they’re wise, they know everything…[But] they’ve become foolish and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God with an image: myself, my ideas, my comforts.” And guarding against the security of our own ideas as we move forward in our journey of faith should send us straight to the prophets, heeding their warnings. “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 Jn 5:21).
[*] All biblical citations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (NRSVCE)
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William is a convert to Catholicism and a graduate of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. He earned a Master's in Theology from St. Joseph's College of Maine. He lives with his wife and four children in Tucson, AZ and is active in teaching the faith at his parish.