I read somewhere that the actress Jane Fonda has given up on plastic surgery. At age 82, she has finally had enough. In an interview with Elle Canada, she said, “I can’t pretend that I’m not vain, but there isn’t going to be any more plastic surgery—I’m not going to cut myself up anymore…I have to work every day to be self-accepting. It doesn’t come easy to me.” Fonda is also refusing to buy new, glamourous gowns for public events, swearing off new clothes, given that the clothing industry is a big contributor to waste, environmental degradation, and climate change. She recently rocked a gray pixie cut and a six year old gown at the 2020 Academy Awards and this news was a big splash in social media.
We might chuckle at or openly mock such statements, but I applaud Fonda. For one thing, she has recognized an idol or two in her own life and that isn’t easy to do. Whether it’s vanity or our appearance, some ideal of beauty or perfection, or some mold of success that we try to fill, idols can take over more and more of our lives, our wallets, and our skin (as in Fonda’s case). We don’t often recognize when we have ultimately given over our lives to an idol or when an “idea,” “person,” or “thing” has claimed a place in our hearts rightly reserved for God alone.
The older I get, the more I appreciate the commandments, particularly the ones about having “no other gods before God” and the injunction about “not making idols.” Every day, we can see examples of idols that entrap and enslave people’s time, energy, purpose, and spirit, including my own. Initially, idols can seem very attractive, but they can also prove deadly. Think of consumption and its power to entice and drain resources. Think of greed and its capacity to infect good people at the dividing of an estate, while fueling deadly feuds. Think of nationalism and its capacity to lead us blindly into war or conflict. Think of the overuse of technology or cell phones and our inability to maintain healthy relationships with each other, safe driving, and family time. h the Daily Mail, Simon Cowell — known for his work on “American Idol,” –said he used to get irritated when he had a meeting, and everyone was on their phone. For 10 months, he gave up his addictive phone habits and reportedly ditched his mobile. He told a reporter that ditching his mobile “has been so good for my mental health,” he said. “It’s a very strange experience but it really is good for you and it has absolutely made me happier.”
In Deuteronomy, God says, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days.”
To what do you hold fast? What are the idols in your life? Would you recognize that which you are slowly ceding more of your life energy? Figuring out whether something has become an idol is a matter of being willing to do without for a time. Do you know how you would react if any of these idols were removed from your life or were temporarily inaccessible or unavailable to you? Naming these idols is actually part of the remedy; we cannot address what we do not yet see or refuse to name, even to ourselves.
The poet, William Cowper, in the 18th century once prayed:
The dearest idol I have known
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee.
The act of tearing is an apt image. To remove idols involves tearing them from our hearts and brain-wiring. We find it exceedingly difficult to worship only God, when we are confronted with ideas, people, and things that serve our immediate interests, needs, and ideas of fulfillment or success in excess, even when these things have become detrimental to self or others.
This is why Saint Augustine defined virtue as “rightly ordered love” (City of God, XV.23). Our disordered loves tend to get us in a lot of trouble, especially when we are blind to the power we have given them.
In one explanation, Augustine wrote: “But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally.” (On Christian Doctrine, I.27-28)
Our behavior will follow what we give our love to—so, our hearts must be rightly ordered to properly direct and prioritize action. We may hear hurt family members say, “Well, he loved me, but he loved the bottle more.” Or a young, married man who struggles with a porn addiction might actually value the convenience and expeditious nature of images over the messiness of human relationships and human bonding.
I once knew a man—I will call him “Pete” – who spoke proudly of his material wealth, his business that he had started, his travels, his wife, and how people far and wide respected his opinions and came to him for advice. Pete was a successful man by all of societal criteria. He was powerful, prestigious, and accustomed to being in control. But when I visited him, he was in spiritual crisis. A nasty fight with diabetes had left him on dialysis and with a weakened heart. Above all things, he had valued his ability to “get things done” and his ability to negotiate each rung on the proverbial ladder of success. Yet, he was discovering how those things that he had valued—material wealth, power at all costs, self-reliance at the expense of relationship, even his own ingenuity could not help him in his new situation. What had driven him most in his lifetime was now driving him to despair. Would he have called those things idols? Probably not. We tend to think of idols as having faces that bear no resemblance to our own and we don’t imagine the day when those idols will fail to “save” us from disappointment or despair.
This is what the first of the commandments is about—a call to Israel and by extension to all of us– to be able to recognize when we are elevating the excessive blindly, proclaiming idols and elevating them in the name of good.
Often our own virtues are the very thing that, when followed to excess, can mislead us to terrible vice, whether it be our freedom at the expense of human community and solidarity, patriotism at the expense of critical questioning or opposition, national interests at the expense of global checks and balances, or a false security at the expense of human lives and humanitarian efforts. While it is true that the God of Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sarah is often depicted as a passionate and jealous God in the Hebrew Bible, I think that it is because God knows how easily we can dupe ourselves into believing that we do not need anyone but ourselves and that we can dang well do what we want, thank you very much. Therefore, one way to think about idols is to examine which virtue we esteem most highly and then imagine how it may turn to vice in excess. How might your own virtues become vice in another set of circumstances?
When we pursue or desire something blindly or excessively—at all costs—we sacrifice love on the altar of the self. As Kathleen Norris writes, “Idolatry makes love impossible. Perhaps that is why it is the first of all of the commandments that God gives to Israel…If we break any of the other commandments, the ones that (literally) get prime time, we have already broken the first one. We have already elevated ourselves and our perceived desires above all else.”
The story of Jesus “cleansing” the temple of the money-changers directly confronts idolatry in his time. Jesus quite literally turns the tables on the authorities and calls a spade, a spade. This is why the synoptic tradition (that is, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke) show this temple cleansing as the main cause of Jesus’ arrest and conviction. During that time, religious worship often included some form of animal offering; a pair of pigeons could be purchased in the temple courtyard by the average Joe who either lived in a place not conducive to raising pigeons or forgot and left his offering at home. However, the temple only accepted temple currency, not Roman currency—hence, the need for money-changers and the introduction of greed into the exchange. When Jesus chases the money-changers from the temple, he was declaring by his actions a turn away from an economy that promulgated human greed, rather than alleviating human need. To fully appreciate this, we might imagine a computer savvy Jesus entering the temple of Wall-Street and somehow scrambling the numbers on the stock exchange to reflect humanitarian interests rather than blind corporate interests. He was saying a collective “no” to the idol of self-interest and practices that, over time, had become corrupt.
When people ask me about my faith in Christ and my walk with Jesus, the question that is most on their minds is, “Why?” Why this rebel Nazarene from two thousand plus years ago? Why do you follow? Why do you preach in the name of Jesus Christ?
I place my feet in the footsteps of Christ because I value what Jesus has shown and continues to show about our relationship to that which transcends all human powers, principalities, and personalities. I follow so that I might be better able to recognize that which is not God, not life-giving, and not loving. I follow so that I may hope each day to be better able to recognize those hidden idols that are false foundations for a noble and virtuous life, a life lived not simply for the betterment of oneself but for others – for in Christ, we are made one. I follow so that my worship might be something other than idle and idolatrous, that the candle of hope placed in the world’s window might not be extinguished by human cruelty or injustice but fanned by the winds of mercy and loving-kindness even under the most desperate of circumstances. I follow so that I might know God’s peace, that I might be a bearer of that peace.
When idols rule our lives, we are blind to love. We, as Norris writes, can not love and our worship is without substance. When idols rule, we teeter on the precipice of power as we try to dominate others with our agenda. When idols rule, we gather behind closed doors and with closed hearts, minds, and hands. When idols rule, peace becomes the eerie silence that follows death’s knell, rather than the hosanna heard ‘round the world when we truly reconcile with our enemies. When idols rule, we have failed as a people of faith to be and become what God intends– a people who do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly hand-in-hand with each other and a Holy Eternal Other that puts all of our idols to shame.
Sisters and brothers, be curious about your idols. Ask them questions and do not be afraid to discover that their answers prove unsatisfactory in the light of Christ. If you suspect you have an idol or two in your life, try to go without and see how you may grapple with its effects on your life. Be curious and reflective about the idols that society elevates at the expense of inquiry and examination. And while you do this, hold fast to the One who deserves our love and who puts all of our idols to shame. Amen.
 Michelle Castillo, “Simon Cowell hasn’t used his mobile phone for 10 months, says it’s ‘so good for my mental health,’” cnbc.com. June 3, 2018.
 Norris, Kathleen, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998) 88.