In defense of idolatry

I heard a homily during morning Mass last Saturday, which a lot of us have probably heard. The first reading was from Isaiah chapter 48, which deals with idolatry. The deacon made the point that the condemnation of idolatry still applies to us today, because we make idols of things whenever we place them above God. Our idols today may be money or possessions or pride or sex, but they’re still idols.

But wait a minute. Didn’t they have money and possessions and pride and sex in Isaiah’s day? Are those really what was being condemned when God said that he was a jealous God?

When Isaiah prophesies, “Things of the past I declared long ago, they went forth from my mouth, I announced them; then suddenly I took action and they came to be….  before they took place I informed you, that you might not say, ‘My idol did them, my statue, my molten image commanded them’” (Is. 48:3, 5) — can that, by any stretch, really be referring to money or sex?

The nub of the sin of idolatry was worshipping false gods. And “worshipping” them consisted primarily of offering sacrifice. Thus the commandment was, “Do not offer sacrifice to false gods, for I am jealous! Sacrifice to me alone!”

It seems to me that idolatry is pretty well dead nowadays. You’re hard pressed to find people who offer sacrifice at all (Catholics and other Christians possessing the priesthood and the Mass being the exception), let alone offer it to false gods. Perhaps Satanists fall into this category?

Of course I’m speaking of the United States. I’m sure there are places in which sacrifice is still offered to false gods. But in the average modern American Catholic parish, I would say that the temptation to idolatry is not a major issue.

But this isn’t to say that scripture readings condemning idolatry have no interest or relevance to modern American Catholics. It’s important to remember that God is a jealous god, and to hear the thundering condemnations of the infidelity of the Israelites in consorting with other gods, even going so far as to call the Israelites whores and adulterers. God will be worshipped and will have no rivals. You cannot claim membership in his covenant, cannot claim to belong to his covenant Bride, while chasing after other divinities. On this he never budged an inch. He forgave when his Bride had suffered long enough and begged, in sackcloth and ashes, to be received back in his favor. But he never tolerated idolatry as a legitimate alternative to the worship prescribed under the Law.

We do indeed need to hear nowadays, that there are some sins that God does not tolerate, not even a little bit, and that those who commit them, and remain unrepentant, have no place in his Kingdom.

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