If I was to ask you, ‘Which is the most irrelevant of the Ten Commandments?’, which would you pick?
I suspect that the second commandment might win any poll.
Here’s what it says: ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…’
How does that have any significance for us today?
Idolatry may have been meaningful way back when, but no one today is making physical idols to worship instead of God. Clearly this commandment was of its day.
Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest, disagrees. Here’s what he writes in Jesus’ Alternative Plan:
If I had to summarise the social teaching of Jesus in one phrase, it would be the doctrine of non-idolatry. Don't idolise anything. Even your marriage and your children are going to be taken from you. No form of government, no school of economics, no army or cause or country will ever be worth our whole soul. Serve God's world, but worship nothing. That is about as radical as we can get. Everything on earth is passing away. Spirituality is always about letting go. That's the rich, ultimate meaning of the word forgiving: handing it over before it is taken from us. We must fore-give all things.
Whoa. So we’re not talking about physical idols then? Well that changes things.
This commandment is actually a gateway to freedom.
It’s about letting go. It’s about refusing to let anything have a hold on our mind or heart that will pull us away from who we’re meant to be and the life we’re meant to live.
When we allow an ideology, an institution, a dream, a possession, a career, a relationship, to consume our identity (which is what happens when we attribute inappropriate worth to any of these things), we are in dangerous territory. We risk ‘gaining the world but losing our souls’. We become attached to things that will pass.
This commandment is about detaching from the temporary so we can attach ourselves to the eternal – to the things that will never cease to have weight and worth.
Idolatry makes life about stuff and things that will fade away. We end up with a distorted sense of reality. It lures us towards a less grounded existence. It’s not that these things are all bad in and of themselves, but if they are elevated to the level of being worshipped, we lose our grounding. And, like trying to build a house on unstable land, sooner or later, it’ll come crashing down.
A commandment that at first seemed irrelevant starts to look deeply profound when we considerer it more thoughtfully. It reminds us to live life with open palms. By not clinging onto things and idolising them, we then find the freedom to enjoy them as intended.
After publishing this article, my friend Ryan Offutt pointed me to a quote by David Foster Wallace on worship. This fits with the essence of my thoughts perfectly:
There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. If you worship money and things, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
Thanks for reading,