In ancient days, the sin of idolatry was considered the greatest of all sins. It was the cause of all the misery of Israel and the early Christians. Indeed, the first commandment of the Decalogue says, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. 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.” (Ex 20:1-4) In the context of Israel living in the midst of neighbours who worshipped idols and deities, whilst Israel worshipped the one and only God, idolatry was considered the most serious act of infidelity. The psalmist says, “I am the Lord your God: listen to my warning. ‘Let there be no foreign god among you, no worship of an alien god. I am the Lord your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt.”
In truth, worshipping idols per se cannot cause us any real harm because as the psalmist says, “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they make no sound in their throats. Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.” (Ps 115:4-8) To worship idols is to worship nothingness, an illusion. That is why when we chase after illusions, we will ultimately hurt ourselves. The real idolatry is not so much statues and carved images but what they represent. When these statues represent our egoistic desires, then they will destroy us.
In the final analysis, the real idolatry is the worship of self. This is what the prophet said to the people. It is pride, arrogance and disobedience of the laws. “Israel, come back to the Lord your God; your iniquity was the cause of your downfall. Assyria cannot save us, we will not ride horses any more, or say, ‘Our god!’ to what our own hands have made.” The mistake of Israel was to rely on human political powers instead of on God. They trusted in military might and they sought to preserve their self-centered lives. Indeed, this is the case for the modern man today. He trusts more in science and technology than the power of God. He thinks that the answer to the problems of life lies in knowledge expressed in political, economic and technological power. Instead of trusting in God and submitting all our plans to Him, we become proud and over self-confident in solving our own problems.
This worship of self can subtly mask itself as righteousness. Whilst the Israelites in the Old Testament broke the laws of the Covenant, the Jews in the time of Christ ironically broke the laws by keeping the laws! In seeking to keep the laws, they became self-righteous, judgmental, proud and intolerant of those who failed to keep the commandments perfectly. So instead of helping them to be more loving and compassionate, the laws became a goal to achieve with all their efforts, so that they could show off to others that they were holier than the rest.
Consequently, they became over legalistic in the way the laws were implemented. This was the context of the scribe’s question when he asked Jesus, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” The Jews were required to observe not just the Ten Commandments but also the 613 laws and other customs as well. There were so many laws that they began to question which was the most important. The good Jews were doing their best to keep the laws so that they would be blessed by God. Others kept them so that they could earn praise from others. (cf Mt 6:1-5)
Observing the commandments alone need not necessarily make us more loving towards God and others. As St Paul noted, “Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful.” (cf 1 Tim 1:8-11) At any rate, the Laws tell us what we cannot do. They are prohibitive and restrictive by requiring us to do the minimum. They do not teach us how to love more.
Idolatry is self-love. That is why the antidote to the sin of idolatry is love; love of God and of others. Jesus declared, “This is the first: Listen, Israel, the Lord our God is the one Lord, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You must love your neighbour as yourself. There is no commandment great than these.” In saying that the love of God is the first and loving our neighbours as the second, Jesus was not speaking of specific laws. He was laying down the principles to be applied in every specific situation. Once we get the principles right, then we will know what to do in every situation instead of worrying whether we broke the letter of the laws. Jesus, in delineating these two fundamental principles of love, was simply reiterating the Old Testament commandments given by Moses in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. (cf Dt 6:5; Lev 19:9-19)
Why is the love of God the first of all commandments? This is because we do not love as we ought because we do not know the meaning of love, or because we do not have the capacity to love. Loving God is to enable us to love as He has loved us and to find the strength from His love for us to love others. St John makes this point when he wrote, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (1 Jn 4:9-12)
This explains why our God is a loving and compassionate God. When we sin, He is always ready to forgive and to heal us. He does not take delight in seeing us suffer the consequences of our sins. The prophet said, “’You are the one in whom orphans find compassion.’ – I will heal their disloyalty, I will love them with all my heart, for my anger has turned from them. I will fall like dew on Israel. He shall bloom like the lily, and thrust out roots like the poplar, his shoots will spread far; He will have the beauty of the olive and the fragrance of Lebanon.”
Only when we have loved God, can we then do likewise. Accordingly, the command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” is but the means to acquire the heart and mind of God. When we love Him with all our heart, we become one with Him in love and in compassion. When we love Him with all our mind and soul, we begin to think like Him with respect to how we should see people, especially sinners and the poor. When we love Him with all our strength, we will in turn be strengthened in our capacity to do good for others.
But prior to even loving our neighbours, the command of the Lord is that we should love ourselves. This is the presupposition to the capacity and the right way to love. If we know how to love ourselves, we will know how to love our neighbor because we share the same humanity, the same aspirations in life for love, respect, dignity, care, compassion, forgiveness, food, accommodation and health. The golden rule of our Lord is this, “In everything we do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Mt 7:12) Thus we cannot love our neighbour unless we are first in touch with our own needs.
So the end to loving God is for the love of our neighbours. God does not need our love but He wants us to love Him so that we can love ourselves by loving our neighbours. St Paul wrote, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (cf Rom 13:8-10) Anyone who loves is filled with the love of God. “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (cf 1 Jn 4:12f) In loving, God is glorified, and in God, we are glorified.
So today, let us take heed of the call of the prophet. Let us come back to the Lord so that we can truly love ourselves and our neighbours once again. Let us be wise and not rely on our idols, for the Lord says, “What has Ephraim to do with idols any more when it is I who hear his prayer and care for him? I am like a cypress ever green, all your fruitfulness comes from me. Let the wise man understand these words. Let the intelligent man grasp their meaning. For the ways of the Lord are straight, and virtuous men walk in them, but sinners stumble.” Let us walk the way of truth and love. Let us love from the strength that comes from God’s love and mercy for us.