The Sin of idolatry and the Religion of the Self
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

There is so much that we could focus on from all these readings, but I’d like to focus on the first reading, which concerns idolatry. The sin of idolatry consists in giving divine honor to anything that is not God. And to give divine honor is to worship. To worship is to make the center of your life. Whatever you have made the center of your life, that’s what you give divine honor to. Hopefully for you, that is God. But for most people, it’s not. It’s something else.

The sin of idolatry is the ground of all other sins, and that is why the first commandment is directed to it: “You shall have no other gods before me”.

In the desert, the Israelites fell into the worship of the Egyptian god, Apis. This god is represented in the Egyptian pantheon as a bull. The Israelites were familiar with the Egyptian pantheon, because they were slaves in Egypt. Now Apis was the god of strength and agrarian fertility, or wealth.

Apis was popular because most people make power and wealth the center of their lives. And although few people today actually bow before idols of gold, there are very few people who have not made the pursuit of power and wealth their chief purpose in life.

But when we make power and wealth the center of our lives, we have really made ourselves the center—for we only really love wealth for what it does for us, and we love power for what it can procure for us. And so the worship of the god Apis was really nothing more than the worship of the self. The sin of the Israelites was that they lost their gratitude to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; they forgot what He had done for them in history, and so they naturally turned to the worship of the self.

That is why Israel was commanded to celebrate festivals throughout the year, like the Passover, or the Feast of Booths, the Sabbath, Rosh Hashanah, Hanukah, Purim, etc.,. All these feasts are all ordered towards remembering, commemorating something that the God of history had done for his specially selected covenanted people, Israel, and the purpose of these feasts was simply to keep God’s action in history alive in the memory.

And that is the point of our feasts and holy days, because if we forget, we lose gratitude, and when that happens, we become an irreligious people, and we begin to gradually make the self the center of our lives. Although we might not be hostile towards religion, we become indifferent to it. We stop going to Mass, or go whenever it is convenient, and we stop praying. Gradually, our religion becomes a religion of the self. That’s what the New Age is.

The New Age has always been with us, but we see it in new garb every ten years or so. Today you’ll find it in the book The Secret as well as in the writings of Deepak Chopra. Caroline Myss’ Anatomy of the Spirit was the New Age book to read a few years ago, in the 90s it was The Celestine Prophecy, and prior to that it was something else, i.e., The Power of Positive Thinking, etc.

What is typical of the New Age is that it promises salvation without personal reform. That’s why it is so attractive to many people, and that’s why New Age authors produce best sellers--but we never see the great spiritual classics on the best seller list, like The Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales or something by St. Theresa of Avila, etc. With the New Age, there is no requirement to make any kind of personal sacrifice; there are no commandments, certainly no moral precepts bearing upon our sex lives, etc.

The New Age is about power. The salvation it promises is not eternal life, but prosperity in this world. It is about becoming empowered in order to enjoy what you want or desire. That is why there is no mention of sacrifice, taking up your cross, detaching oneself from this world, etc, and that’s why New Age writings are so popular and sell.

Even the movie Eat, Pray, and Love, is fundamentally about the religion of the self. That’s the only religion Hollywood knows and respects. In this movie, Julia Roberts goes to Rome, then India, and then Bali. In Rome she eats, in India she prays, and in Bali she loves. What she has discovered while spending months in an ashram in India is that God is in me. But she qualifies this. She says that she has discovered that God is in me, as me. And of course, that’s the problem right there: God is in me, as me.

The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, revealed himself as “totally other”, and of course we profess that if God is in us, He is in us not as me, but as other than me. We are called to become other than what we are now. We are called to die to ourselves and to rise as a new creation in the Person of Christ.

But Hollywood wants nothing to do with this religion, because the self is no longer at the center. Christ is at the center, and he demands personal reform. He demands that we change, that we despise sin and reject it. He said “if you love me, keep my commandments”; “Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine must take up his cross and follow me”.

At the end of the First Reading, Moses intercedes for Israel. He appeals to God on behalf of Israel. The Lord hears the prayers of Moses, because, interestingly enough, Moses reminds God of his promises. That’s how God reveals himself in history, namely, through his own fidelity to his promises. And Moses knows this. He does not want this revelation to die out, but to be perpetuated in memory throughout history. That’s why God hears his prayer and answers it.

We are called to be intercessors. We have to pray for our people. We have to pray for this country, the people of this country, who are so fooled and taken in by so many lies. In the Intercessions for this past week’s Tuesday Evening prayer, there is one that reads: “O God, in your hands are the hearts of the powerful; bestow your wisdom upon government leaders, may they draw from the fountain of your counsel and please you in thought and deed.”

That’s something to remember: the hearts of the powerful are in the hands of God. He can change hearts in an instant. This reading has shown us that individual human persons have the power to influence the course of history by prayer. Moses did this. We enjoy the dignity of causality. We can, by our prayers, turn the divine anger away, cause Him to relent of the punishment due to sin, and really, let’s make no mistake about it, the Lord really does punish sin—He wouldn’t be a God of justice if He did not. But we can plead for mercy upon our culture, for the sake of future generations, for the sake of our children and grandchildren, we can pray that this secular culture hostile to genuine religion, hostile to Catholicism, that would like us to keep Catholicism in the private realm, we can pray and sacrifice that their plans, the plans of the powerful, will not prevail, that their hearts will be changed, so that God may be more loved and that our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren may know the love of God and the joys of practicing the Catholic faith fervently.

Let’s pray for people, intercede on behalf of others, that they may be awakened, that Catholics may not get taken in by the most current cultural lies and may surrender their lives to God, trust Him, follow him come what may, that they may open themselves to divine grace, and not be afraid of sacrifice, of suffering, that they may not always seek rest and relaxation, leisure, an easy life, that they may desire to love God, to serve God, to put Him first, to see every day as an opportunity to love, to further the interests of Christ, and to channel the divine mercy.