Featured image from Adoration of the Golden Calf by Nicolas Poussin. Fine Art Images/Heritage Image/age fotostock.
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountains, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So, Aaron said to them, “Take off the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So, all the people took off the rings of gold that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf. And they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.” And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.Exodus 32:1-6
Before Moses even finished talking with God on Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, the people of Israel had already violated the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods!” Even worse, they attributed God’s work of salvation to this meaningless, golden calf! Thus, we see that false worship is not only false, cultic worship of a false god, such as Islam’s Allah or the many gods of Hinduism. False worship, or idolatry, can be two other things.
The first is giving honour/credit to things that properly belong to God. The Israelites built a false god and gave credit to it for bringing them out of the land of Egypt when it was God who did this. This kind of idolatry has not changed today. For example, we give the credit of creation to the Big Bang and evolution rather than God. Some Christians give the credit of conversion/salvation to the will of man (whether partially or fully) rather than the will of God (see John 1:12-13). And so on. Our natural inclination is to give credit to anything so long as it is not God, to whom all honour and credit properly belong. This is part of what it means to have original sin—to turn from the One True God and worship someone or something else.
Even Aaron their high priest failed spectacularly. He does something incredibly stupid. Not only does he make the false god for them, but he also calls for a festival to Yahweh (v. 5). How can they have a feast for Yahweh when they supplanted Him with a stupid golden calf? This should be a lesson to pastors not to fall for their flock’s idolatry, for example, placing the U.S. flag at the front of the altar in second place to Christ on the cross. In Divine Worship, we worship and honour Christ, not our country. Patriotism does not belong in the holy sanctuary. Anytime there is “Christ + something else,” it ceases to be right worship and becomes idolatry.
The second kind of idolatry does not have to be the cultic worship of a person or false deity. Idolatry can be the worship of anything, such as money, pride, autonomy, science, anything in this world. In the Small Catechism, Luther explains the First Commandment, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” In this regard, Luther argued that everyone has a god because everyone fears, loves, and trusts in something. Whether that something is a false god like Allah or things like wealth, pride, and other things common in this world, that person has a god. As Luther puts it:
A “god” is the term for that which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. As I have often said, it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one. Conversely, where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.LC, Part 1, 2-3
Let’s use money (or mammon) as an example, since it is “the most common idol on earth. Those who have money and property feel secure, happy, and fearless, as if they were sitting in the midst of paradise. On the other hand, those who have nothing doubt and despair as if they knew of no God at all. We will find very few who are cheerful, who do not fret and complain, if they do not have mammon. This desire for wealth clings and sticks to our nature all the way to the grave” (LC, Part 1, 6-9). Thus, both the rich and the poor can have money as their idol. (Keep in mind that not every rich and poor person worship money. The generalisation merely speaks to the general truth of things.)
The rich fear money in that they fear the sudden loss of their wealth. Because they love it so much, they are not only never satisfied with what they have, but they will also take drastic measures to retain their wealth—even criminal means. And they trust in their money because they believe it can get them anything in life. They ultimately think, “If money can get me anything I want and give me security, why do I need God?” Whereas the humble say, “Money cannot buy happiness,” the rich will challenge this proverb.
The poor, on the other hand, fear money in that they fear they cannot live a decent life without it. Therefore, they love it—they seek to acquire it. Some might begin with good intentions to acquire money in order to support their family, and some might remain there; but others will continue to love it so much that, just like the rich, they’re never satisfied with what they have and want more. And they also trust in money, thinking it will make all their poor problems go away. It might certainly alleviate some immediate problems, but money does not have the power to give you peace and salvation.
And so, what idols might we have in our lives? In what do we place our fear, love, and trust? In God? In money? Our pride? Our sexual identity? Our bodily autonomy? In science? Do we even have Jesus + something else? Such as Jesus + America (Christian Nationalism), or Jesus + money (the prosperity gospel), or Jesus + me (egoism, bodily autonomy)? Anytime there’s Jesus + something, the thing that always receives our fear, love, and trust is not Jesus but that parasite we’ve attached to Jesus’ hip. In the examples given, while we may say we love and worship Jesus, what we truly end up worshiping is America, money, or ourselves. As Jesus Himself said about money, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24). Whenever there is Jesus + something else, we always end up hating Jesus and loving the something else, being devoted to the something else and despising Jesus.
Jesus invites us to place our burdens before Him (Matthew 11:28-30). Let us also tear down our idols and lay the pieces before His feet. We fear, love, and trust in Him alone because He is the one who has died and risen for our sins, whose salvation is totally free through the gift of faith by His grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). Thanks be to God!
Theology Terms Used
- Idolatry: false worship, i.e., worshiping someone or something else over the One True God of Israel.
- Original Sin: man’s natural inclination toward living in sin rather than original righteousness and rebelling against God. (Original righteousness: to be right, perfect, utterly without fault, which mankind had at the beginning of creation before the Fall of Man.)