“And the Lord spoke all these words: I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Though shalt have no strange gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, nor of those things that are in the waters under the earth. Though shalt not adore them, nor serve them: I am the Lord thy God, mighty, jealous, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me: And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love Me and keep My commandments” (Ex. 20:1-6).
Idolatry is a grave sin. The passage above is the first of the ten commandments that God gave to Israel after He led them out of Egyptian bondage. The ordering of the ten commandments is worth noting, as well. They can be split up into two sections: those that pertain specifically to God and those that relate specifically to our neighbor. Usually, you will see that the first three are sectioned off together: Thou shalt have no strange gods before me, thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain, thou shalt honor the sabbath and keep it holy; 4-10 are usually said to pertain to conduct with our fellow man. However, sometimes the 4th commandment, “honor thy father and thy mother,” is included with the first three pertaining to God, since our parents represent God here on earth through their authority over us. But, regardless of how you section them off, the ten commandments are ordered the way they are for a reason, and this is to signify their importance. What this means is that to sin against the first commandment is the worst offense possible, because it sins directly against God. It is also the first and principle sin, the sin of pride, the sin that turned angels into devils, and first damned the human race. Satan refused to humble himself before God, placing himself above God in his own heart, and Adam and Eve dared to be like God by eating the forbidden fruit: “No, you will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. So, when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate” (Gen. 3:4-6).
The Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said in his book On Being Human that “Every man has in his heart an altar, which is not empty. There are three possible kinds of God: the god of one’s own ego, in which the atheist believes, and which is also the god of modern confusionism; the god of nature, of stone and gold and silver, which belonged to the old religions of idolatry; and the Supreme God, who made both man and nature, and redeemed them both upon the cross.” If it is not the Living and True God that we worship, then it is something else. Mankind was created as a religious being, which means that he cannot help but bow down and worship something. If it is not the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then there are really only two things that it can be: oneself or Satan. Satan does not care which you worship, though his pride is certainly fed when you worship him, but, at the end of the day, his only goal is to direct you away from God. Some idolatry is well hidden. People will flock hundreds of miles and pay hundreds of dollars to go to a concert of their favorite celebrity or to watch their favorite team play in the super bowl. Still, we cannot find the time nor the energy to drive 5-10 minutes to worship God at Mass for a bare minimum of one measly hour a week, free of charge I might add. Some idolatry is plain to see, such as Satanism or the adoration of the Pachamama statue in the Vatican garden (Kyrie Eleison. Christe Eleison. Kyrie Eleison).
How serious an offense is the adoration of false gods? Two passages from Sacred Scripture come to mind immediately. First, the golden calf incident in the book of Exodus:
“And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Go down; for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves; they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them; they have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “these are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” And the LORD said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them… And as soon as he (Moses) came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it with fire, and ground it to powder, and scattered it upon the water, and made the people of Israel drink it… And then Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to their shame among their enemies), then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, ‘Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together to him. And he said to them, ‘Thus says the LORD God of Israel, “put every man his sword on his side, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.”‘ And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses, and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. And Moses said, ‘Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, that He may bestow a blessing upon you this day'” (Ex. 32:7-10, 19-20, 25-29).
The first thing to notice about this passage, God was not ignorant of His people’s sin, and He disowned them for it. Every else in Exodus He refers to Israel as His people, except here (and some other places where they sin gravely) where He refers to them as Moses’ people. Even while they were in Egypt, he referred to them as “My people,”; but when Israel decided to return to Egypt by worshiping the same gods that they worshiped there, God does not refer to them as His people. The second thing to notice is that God’s anger is flared up against this blasphemy, and His people warrant destruction for their infidelity and betrayal. No sooner had they witnessed the wonders and signs of God and liberated from intense slavery do they turn back and worship other gods. God does not take this lightly, as is evident from Scripture. The third thing to notice is the extreme measures that Moses takes to punish the people. He grinds the calf and makes the people consume it, and then he calls the Levites to himself, and they slay 3,000 men (just counting the men). Some people may want to explain this away and say that God did not sanction this and that it was purely the actions of Moses and the Levites, but they would be wrong. For one thing, Moses says that these commands come from God Himself (“Thus says the LORD God of Israel…) and, further, it was this act in defense of God that merits the Levites the honor of being Israel’s priests. Some people are unaware of this, but prior to the Golden Calf incident, every man in Israel was supposed to be a priest; however, after they fell into idolatry, they lost that right, all except the men of the tribe of Levi.
Another passage is the scene from 1 Kings, where the prophet Elijah slaughters the false prophets of Baal:
“So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. And Elijah came near to all the people and said, ‘How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him.’ and the people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, ‘I, even I only, am left a prophet of the LORD; but Baal’s prophets are four hundred and fifty men. Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves, and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, and put no fire to it, and I will prepare the other bull and lay it on wood and put no fire to it. And you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the LORD; and the God who answers by fire, he is God.’ An all the people answered, ‘It is well spoken’… And they took the bull which was given them, and they prepared it and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, ‘O Baal, answer us!’ But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped about the altar which they had made. And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, for his is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’ And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice; no one answered, no one heeded. Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come near to me,’ and all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down; Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came saying, ‘Israel shall be your name’; and with the stones, he built an altar in the name of the LORD. And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed. And he put the wood in order, and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, ‘Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering, and on the wood.’ And he said, ‘Do it a second time,’ and they did it a second time. And he said, ‘Do it a third time’; and they did it a third time. And the water ran around about the altar and filled the trench also with water. And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, ‘O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that Thou art God in Israel, and that I am Thy servant, and that I have done all these things at Thy word. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that Thou, O LORD, art God, and that Thou has turned their hearts back.’ Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, ‘The LORD, He is God; the LORD, He is God.’ And Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.’ And they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the brook of Kishon, and killed them there” (1 Kgs. 18:20-36).
This passage is one of my favorites for several reasons. The first is that Elijah does everything he can to make sure everyone knows just how ridiculous Baal and his worshipers are. He is not bashful when it comes to making fools out of them, and you can only imagine how much pleasure he derives from this. Jezebel, the queen at the time, was hunting down and killing the prophets of God, and she had a particular vendetta against Elijah, especially after this incident. But, more importantly, he was able to prove to the people that God is God alone, and there is nothing more satisfying to a holy man than to defend God before everyone. Secondly, it shows just how demonic worship of Baal was. The prophets of Baal were cutting themselves and mutilating themselves in an attempt to attract the attention of Baal, which was a common custom for them, the Scripture says. Yet, all Elijah had to do was call out in a simple prayer and God sent down a fire that not only consumed the bull, but also the altar and the trench full of water. Lastly, while it seems harsh, the killing of the prophets of Baal shows just how heinous a sin idolatry is. It isn’t merely that God is upset or hurt by our idolatry, He is perfectly fulfilled in Himself; but, what idolatry does is it sends people to hell. By not loving God and by turning their hearts to someone other than God, people damn themselves to hell.
These passages from the Old Testament can be hard to read, especially in modern times. Fortunately, Christ came and died for us, so God’s mercy is open to us at any time in the Confessional. However, because Christ did come and because Christ did die for us a brutal and ignominious death, the sin of idolatry is that much more wretched. How can we in good conscience put anything before God when He came down Himself to suffer and die for us? And, how can we in good conscience sit idly by and say absolutely nothing when effigies of a literal false goddess are put in our churches in Rome, the holy city where Peter and Paul spilled their blood in holy imitation of Christ’s sacrifice through martyrdom? This is an affront against the Holy Trinity, especially Christ, and a scandal to His Holy Bride, the Church! That’s why those young men who took the idols out of St Maria Traspontina, a Church dedicated to Our Lady, and threw them into the Tiber river are so laudable. They stood up for Christ and His Church when many of her clergy (not all, there are good priests, Bishops, and Cardinals who still love and adore Christ) did not. We cannot back down. We must tear down these idols and these monuments to evil! “You cannot be half a saint, you must be a whole saint or no saint at all!” We are either for God or against Him. We are either all in or all out. “But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of My mouth” (Rev. 3:16).
There is a tendency to think that the Faith is supplementary to our ordinary life and that it is only something to be done on Sundays and Holy Days of obligation, but if there is one thing that our Blessed Lord made known in the Gospels it is that our walk with Him is daily: “Whoever wishes to follow me must take up his cross daily” (Lk. 9:23, Mk. 8:34). Also, our walk with him will not be easy. We must take up our crosses, even if that means going against the world and suffering at the hands of others. What I am saying is not that we go out and kill a bunch of people, we don’t have that authority, but what I am saying is that we need to pray for holy zeal, such as the prophets of old had, and we need to stand up and defend Christ and His Church. Christ will not abandon His Church and He will not abandon us, but we need to be sure that we do not abandon Him. I say this especially to our priests and Bishops and our Holy Father, Pope Francis. Praise God for those who have stood up for Him. May God help those who want to stand up for Him but struggle, and may God bring back to Himself those who have turned their back to Him.
Praised be Jesus Christ! Now and forever.