Sunday, October 07, 2012

Why Is Greed Called "Idolatry"?

This is written in response to a post by Ryan Thomas Jones -- where I'm a little late to the conversation, but wanted to add some thoughts all the same. In the linked piece, Jones argues that greed can be called "idolatry" only because the target of greed -- money -- involves actual literal images, and those images are the essential part of idolatry. I respectfully disagree. I have split up the response into two points: my objection, and why it matters.

My Objection

Let's start first with the Ten Commandments, the parts about other gods:
You shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make yourself any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:
You shall not bow down to them, or serve them. (Exodus 20:3-5)
If we were to place something before God but make no image of it, it would still be idolatry in a real sense. "Having no other gods before God" is commanded here, just as plainly as not making such an image. Serving a god besides God is plainly called wrong, and I have no doubt this would hold true even without an image. For example, I have no doubt that this command would apply to pagans who served Bacchus or Aphrodite or other gods even if there were no images involved. So serving another god is itself considered wrong, whether or not there are images involved.

Next, Paul on the subject of greed:

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. (Colossians 3:5)
And Christ on the same subject:

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24)

Mr Jones argues that the real reason greed is called idolatry is because money has images on it:
Show me the tribute money. And they brought him a coin. And he said to them, "Whose is this image and superscription?" And they said to him, "Caesar's." (Matthew 22:19-21)
I have to say plainly that I disagree with the reasoning that "greed" is called "idolatry" merely because the coins had images. Greed is not called idolatry only when it applies to something with an image on it. Greed might desire gems that have no image on them, or on gold that has not been minted into coins but is only a bar of precious metal. Paul said nothing to show that greed is only "idolatry" when it applies to things that are marked with an image. If we were to look back to the Ten Commandments for reasons that Paul might call something idolatry, I can see several reasons:
  • Having another god before God;
  • Having idolatrous images; 
  • Serving another god.
When Jesus commented on how "You cannot serve both God and mammon", he did not mention images; he mentioned service, and he mentioned devotion and which master is first in someone's love and devotion.

From there, it seems a safe conclusion -- the intended conclusion -- that greed is idolatry even if it attaches to things like jewelry that have no image on them.

That means "idolatry" is a legitimate concern for other things which take our devotion away from God, where we serve something else before God.

Why It Matters

Mr Jones described some preaching he has heard:
Sometimes they will go on to say, “So we are really all idolators.” It makes for good preaching if you are trying to produce a big altar call with lots of tears. But here’s the thing. It’s not biblical. It’s a pious hoax.
There's an implication that the "idolatry" accusation is being used by the preacher as theatrics, to produce a show -- and that an essential part is the "lots of tears" -- that is, inducing guilt. A commenter to the original post says as much:
The sins that get re-categorized as idolatry are bad enough by themselves, and people are often stuck dealing with them. Adding the idolatry tag is an attempt to ratchet up the guilt ...
I have seen and heard my fair share of bad preaching over the years. I have no doubt that some preachers would use the accusation of "idolatry" to "ratchet up the guilt" as the commenter says, or "produce a big altar call with lots of tears". It is a manipulative thing, and it is right to object to the manipulation. Under the circumstances, another sad thing is that the "altar call" may sometimes be theatrics, not mercy. (My denomination doesn't do altar calls; this cuts down on the theatrics, though without necessarily improving the preaching.) If an altar call makes us rededicate our lives to God, there is a risk that we have rededicated ourselves to works-righteousness.

The reason I bothered writing this post is that I think there's a far better way to react to guilt than by trying to soften the accusation against us. It is better to turn to Christ -- and, sadly, here I'll have to make clear: not in the manipulated "don't you feel even guiltier now" kind of way that Mr Jones was so right to object to. There is a certain kind of preacher who may believe that guilt-tripping repentant sinners is a holy thing and part of his calling; there is something fundamentally sick about that. Should a preacher never try to create guilt? Let's say that if someone has no conscience it is the preacher's job to help revive it, and if someone has no sense of what is good and holy, then it is the preacher's job to build that up. Most people can tell the contrast by themselves, from there. (It is one of the most effective ways of discrediting the church, making a culture where nothing is holy, and then persuading the church to try to fit into that culture. Peoples' consciences will die for lack of hope that there is a better way.)

But for those who are already aware of their sin, it is not the preacher's job to increase their misery in their guilt. It is the preacher's job to show how faithful Christ is in forgiving us, how steady his promises are, how unwavering his faithfulness is. Even when our devotion to Christ may have slipped when we were tempted, it is the preacher's job to remind us that Christ's devotion to us did not slip. It is the preacher's job to explain why we can hope in Christ, and how trustworthy that hope will prove, and how love casts out fear. It is the preacher's job to hold up all of Christ's acts of mercy and forgiveness, and his promise of the Last Day.

That is, I think, the right response to finding out that some things we do can, in fact, be compared to idolatry.


Martin LaBar said...

Well said.

I suspect that the most common idol is the person we see in the mirror.

RT Jones said...

Thanks for the post WF. I am honored that you have taken the time to engage with me on this level. Here are a few observations:
1. What you are calling the first commandment is broken up into two commandments by most protestant churches. Commandment one is to have no other gods; commandment two is to refrain from making idols (even of the true God, as the Israelites did when they made a golden calf and worshiped it as Yahweh). Roman Catholics and Lutherans group these together, instead turning the last commandment into two. Because I hold to the former version, I would contend that the prohibition against idolatry is different from the prohibition against worshiping other gods. I would suggest that this alone is worth pondering. J.I. Packer has an interesting chapter about this in his book Knowing God.
2. I am less concerned than my commenter was about the term being used to "ratchet up the guilt." I was prompted to write the post after one of my professors, whom I hold in high regard, made a point in class that we are all idolators. My concern is that this way of putting things is misleading. It implies that if you think more about anything other than God, you have become an idolator. But this is nearly impossible for someone who works a full-time job and must spend the majority of time thinking about something other than God. Or put differently, if someone is really dedicated to a hobby, say, golf, and they think about it more than they think about God, I don't think it is biblical to say this is an idol. My point is that there is no verse that clearly says that it is sin.
3. Most importantly, I think there is something particularly insidious about greed that is not common to other things we tend to label as idolatry. I listened to a Tim Keller sermon a few weeks ago where he said that the problem with greed is that no one thinks they have a problem with greed. It is a sin that we become particularly blind to.

I probably didn't make this as clear as I should have in my original post, but I don't actually think that either Jesus or Paul thought the main problem was the images on the money. I think it more like a play on words. I think it works something like this:
A. Money has images.
B. Images can be idols.
C. The way people treat money is almost like they are serving money itself rather than using money as a tool.
D. Therefore, putting money before God is "idolatry."
So I would agree that greed towards jewelry is also idolatry. But my point is that we must not too quickly apply this principle willy nilly across the board to include "anything we would put in God's place." I think it comes dangerously close to minimizing the evils of greed. So I'm saying this in an effort to take us back to what the scriptures are really saying instead of reading scripture through our cultural lenses.
But I understand if you're not convinced. I'm not sure I would have been convinced by this argument a few years ago.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Martin

Thank you for the encouragement. And I agree: the most common idol is "the man in the mirror" to borrow a phrase from Michael Jackson.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Mr Jones

Thanks for responding.

I'm not actually calling anything the "first commandment"; I think the numbering conversation is beside the point. I think it's a real stretch to say that serving other gods isn't necessarily idolatry.

I have full sympathy with wanting to hold our ground about not every thing in our lives that takes up time being called idolatry. If we take the ten commandments as a basis, then we're expected to work 6 days a week. I don't think there's any such verse that says "if you think about something (like golf) more often than God it's idolatry".

On your final point, I think the 'images' are beside the point, on the grounds that worshiping/serving another god is wrong regardless of images. So I'd have, there, just your points C and D, and consider the point well made already.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF