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Is Idolatry Less Serious Now Than Back in Old Testament Times?

Let us be swift. In the Gospel reading for this 9th Sunday after Pentecost, we hear that the Lord was getting closer to Jerusalem. What you should remember is that He was making His triumphal “Palm Sunday” entrance seated like a Davidic Priest King on the colt of an ass.

The people, having heard about the many miracles and clear teachings of the Lord, having heard about the raising of Lazarus, thought He was the Messiah who would restore the Davidic Kingdom, expel the Romans, and bring about a return to the Temple of the glory cloud of God’s presence.

Close to Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives, above where He would pray and suffer after the Last Supper, there is a place where you look out over the Kidron Valley and all of Jerusalem is before you. This is where Christ wept over the city and, speaking of a “visitation” predicted its annihilation by the Romans. A visitation, Greek episkopē, was the arrival of a great ruler or commander who would take stock and settle accounts.

The Church uses “visitation” as a term for the appointment of someone who will go to investigate a diocese, seminary, religious institute, etc. These days, it seems that “visitations” are frequently levied against traditional groups and that, soon thereafter, they are taken over or disbanded. Curious, that. I digress. A “visitation” was often a frightening image, not a consoling. It could mean, and did often mean in the Old Testament, destruction and death, such as that applied to Jerusalem by the Assyrians and Babylonians.

Christ described a horrifying future for Jerusalem, the city the Jews thought to be the center point of the world and which had killed God’s prophets and, soon, Christ Himself. The 1st century Jewish historian and general Josephus describes in his Jewish War, that a million people died in and around Jerusalem and that the Romans crucified 500 people a day around the city. The Temple, which was a microcosm of the whole universe, was destroyed, thus making it truly the end of the world as they knew it.

In Luke 19, Christ then ascended to the city and went into the Temple. The people had thought that, as David Priest King, he would offer sacrifice and put things to right.

But, no. Quoting Jeremiah 7, Christ drove out those who were “selling things.” The quote was from Jeremiah’s Temple Sermon. God sent Jeremiah to confront the people about, especially, idolatry. The “weeping” prophet warned the people about the Babylonians, who were soon to “visit” and visit destruction on the Temple and take the people captive. You can see the connection with the Lord’s immediate prophesy about the Romans.

However, the fact of people “selling things” may not have been the most serious issue. The fact is, many people came from afar to the Temple and they wanted to participate in the daily tamid sacrifices of a lamb with bread and wine offerings in the mornings and evenings, or they wanted to purchase their own sacrificial animals. They could do that by making a money donation to the Temple. There were “money changers” because only Jewish or Tyrian coinage was accepted, not Greek or Roman, etc. They were doing a service by selling doves, lambs or changing money. Alas, they had encroached into the Courtyard of the Gentiles. King Herod had made a renovation to the Temple, providing also a place for Gentiles, non-Hebrews, to pray to the one true God. It was also a sign of the coming of the Messiah that the Gentiles would seek to worship the true God of Israel. Hence, the Lord’s angry reaction and move to drive them out.

Augustine of Hippo, by the way, in explaining the Johannine account of the “cleansing of the Temple” (and it might have happened twice, once at an earlier Passover pilgrimage) says that Christ’s reaction teaches us how to deal with evildoers:

Prohibe quos potes, tene quos potes, terre quos potes, quibus potes blandire; noli tamen quiescere… Stop those whom you can, restrain whom you can, frighten whom you can, allure gently whom you can, do not, however, rest silent (tr. Io. 10.9).

Through the history of salvation, destruction had been visited on the people by God because they had fallen into idolatry, a sin against the 1st Commandment of the Decalogue. This was a recurring problem. Paul cites one of the most dramatic consequences in writing to the Corinthians, who were having problems with idolatry and immorality. As we hear in the Epistle for Mass (in part):

Do not be idolaters as some of them [namely, the people of the Exodus waiting for Moses at Mt. Sinai] were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to dance.’ We must not indulge in immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.  We must not put the Lord to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents;  nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.  Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come.

Here we have spectacular, turning point moments, for God and His covenants with the chosen people. As mentioned, the Golden Calf incident he starts with from Exodus 32. There is a euphemism in the description of the sinful, idolatrous behavior of the people. While waiting for Moses they got impatient and made an Egyptian god idol out of gold and worshiped it and “rose up to play” in some translations. In other words, they had an orgy. Moses showed up and commanded the loyal tribe, the sons of Levi, to go through the camp and slaughter with the sword every man who had committed idolatry, about 3000. This was the moment that the priesthood was stripped from all the males of the people and conferred upon the Levites only, as it would remain until the destruction of the Temple by the Romans.

The ordination of the Levitical priesthood was a literal bloodbath.

Is idolatry serious?

In Numbers 25, the people are in Shittim, again at the foot of a mountain, on the plains of Moab, and they started to have sex with and marry Moabite women. The Moabites lured them into worshipping a false god, Baal, and eating sacrificial meat. God commanded that all the men be slain by the Israelite “judges,” some 23,000. In Numbers 25, the people grumbled about the manna they were given by God. God promptly sent them a plague of poisonous serpents. Death ensued.

Is idolatry less serious now than back in Old Testament times? Paul didn’t think so.

Why would it be less serious today?But it seems that it is.

All manner of things that violate the 1st Commandment are brought into our churches today, perpetrated in the acquiescent presence of our very highest leaders. Let us never forget Pachamama in the Vatican gardens and on the very altar over the bones of Peter in the Basilica. Risking the problem of post hoc ergo propter hoc, the years that have followed haven’t exactly been stellar for the Church. Recently in Canada, a shaman invoked the “Grandmother of the West” so those present could enter the “circle of spirits.” Really?

Ps 95/96: 5:  For all the gods of the peoples are idols.

False gods, idols, demons.

We must never allow ourselves to place some created thing on the throne of our hearts or give honor to any created thing that is due to God alone. That is idolatry, a sin so foul that whole swathes of the people were slain to bring the chosen people back to right worship.

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them. You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve (Exodus 20:2-5).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church 2084 ff. elaborates what the 1st Commandment involves. Quickly, it forbids idolatry, such as the worship of any creature, and of “demons … power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state [and] money.” Specifically prohibited: superstition, polytheism, sacrilege, atheism, and all practices of magic and sorcery, astrology, palm reading, and consulting horoscopes or mediums. Today, “graven images” could perhaps also be translated into too much attachment to a sports team.

Have you done any of these things? Go to confession.

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