The Trap of Idolatry

(Homily for Twenty-Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A)

One of the greatest thinkers in human history was the Jewish physician, scientist and philosopher, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204). Of him they said, “From Moses [of the Torah] to Moses [Maimonides] there was no one like Moses.” His Guide for the Perplexed deeply influenced St. Thomas Aquinas who refers to Maimonides as “the Rabbi.” Maimonides took as his starting point the absolute transcendence (“otherness”) of God. Correspondingly he considered the great sin to be idolatry. All creation reflects the being and goodness of God, but our temptation is to stop short and worship the creature rather than the Creator Himself.

A common example of idolatry is pornography. Few created things possess such beauty as the human form. Art, literature, poetry (including inspired poetry like the Song of Songs) have celebrated that beauty. Unfortunately we stop short, fixating on the form itself. Thus men neglect their families to spend hours at strip clubs or staring at images on a computer. They do not come away refreshed, but hating themselves – and perhaps also their wife, unable as she is to compete with the fantasy images. The subsequent emptiness sets the man up for another, more desperate quest for satisfaction.

The same cycle occurs with other forms of addiction. Humans can take almost any good thing and pervert it. Alcohol has occasioned untold misery, although of itself it is good. Even cocaine, in its natural state, serves a healthful purpose. I lived seven years among people who chewed coca leaves. I did myself, although I preferred to use the leaves for tea. Only when entrepreneurs learned how to refine the coca leaf (it takes about 350 kilos of dry leaves to yield one kilo of cocaine) did it become an instrument of evil. The root problem of such abuse, as Maimonides perceived, is the sin of idolatry – our desire to manipulate people and things to attain a happiness only possible in God.

In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees challenge Jesus to make a judgment concerning idolatry. “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” By his response Jesus strikes just the right balance. Not possessing a coin, he asks them to show him one. It bears the emperor's face.* In spite of the prohibition against graven images (Ex 20:4), they have one. Rather than tossing away the image, Jesus tells them to give to Caesar what belongs to him – and to God what belongs to God.

Jesus isn't saying to compartmentalizing life. Some have criticized the U.S. Bishop’s letter on Iraq, not because they have read it, but because “the Church should stay out of politics.” I agree that bishops and priests have limited competency in setting out a detailed political plan, but we do have principles – received from Jesus – which any political action must take into account. We would be derelict if we did not attempt to apply them to major issues. At the same time, we need to take our lumps when we fail to take into account relevant questions.**

“Repay to God what belongs to God.” As Maimonides brought out so brilliantly, what belongs to God is everything. Things are good, beautiful, true only because they come from Him. And when we stop short of Him, we pervert the very beauty, truth and goodness of creation. We do this not only in obviously destructive ways such as pornography, alcohol and drug abuse, but in more subtle way. Even something so noble as a parent’s love for their child can become idolatrous – and in the process destroy both the child and the parent who values their child more than God.

Jesus asks us to give their due to all things – even graven images. But also to recognize the danger of stopping short because only One can claim our entire heart.

************

*When a Protestant questions me about statues in Catholic churches, I sometimes repond by asking if he has a picture of his mom in his room - or a dime, with Roosevelt’s graven image, in his pocket. Even if he doesn't, our case does not depend on filial affection or the U.S. monetary system. God Himself commanded Moses to fashion golden images of cherubim (Ex 25:18-22). See also Ex 26:1, 31; Num. 21:8-9; I Kings 6:23; 1 Chron. 28:18; Ezek. 41:15, Jn 3:14

**On account of the clergy sex scandal, bishops and priests are keeping a low profile. In New York many kept quiet even in face of a blatant outrage like the radio talk show which paid a couple to have sex in St. Patrick's Cathedral on August 15. It took a lay organization to effectively protest. See ST. PAT'S SEX ROMP AIRED ON RADIO

Spanish Version

From Archives (for Twenty-Ninth Ordinary Sunday, Year A):

2014: Trust No Matter What Week 4
2011: Fighting Government Encroachment
2008: Render Unto Caesar
2005: God Owns It All
2002: The Trap of Idolatry
1999: What Belongs to God

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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Fr. Brad's Homilies (well worth listening)

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Bulletin (First Quarter Report, Stewardship of Time, Talent and Treasure)

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Richard John Neuhaus on the Rise of De-secularization (Worldwide, Religion Is the Rule, Rather Than the Exception)

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Sex Scandal Hits Texas

"On the eve of Respect Life Month 2002, I want to share with you my deep concern about a growing threat to human life that could have grave implications for the church: the campaign by abortion advocates to deny Catholic health care providers their fundamental human right of conscience to refuse to take part in morally evil actions such as abortion and euthanasia." (Message from Archbishop Brunett)

Novena for Youth (to discover God's plan)

Parish Picture Album

(October 2011)

Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)

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