- Epistle: 1 Corinthians 10: 1-7, 12-17. Gospel: Luke 16:1-10
“[M]y dearly beloved brethren, flee from idolatry.” “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much.”+
What is it that was so terrible about idolatry? Especially when it involved, as it might have seemed for the Corinthians to whom St Paul was writing, only an outward participation in pagan rites, rites that were associated with gods not believed in? What was so bad about simply partaking of a feast one knew was dedicated to a false god, which is the activity St Paul was most concerned with, if one denied the existence of the god and was just in it for the food?
Indeed, the average person reading the OT might think that the God of the Jews and the Christians had a tyrannical obsession with idolatry, with ensuring people worshipped him and no-one else. After all, the Ten Commandments condemn idolatry before they condemn all the acts that are obviously evil, like murder and stealing. The prophets at every stage of the ancient Jews' pre-Christian history decry idolatry as the great sin and declare that it is a major reason for the horrific calamities undergone by the Jewish nation. Is God like a self-obsessed control-freak who is desperately protective of his dignity and enraged by the idea that anybody would fail to obey his command to focus on him?
Why did Christians in the early Church choose to be tortured and die rather than burn incense to the Emperor as to a god? Why did they choose such deaths rather than to deny Christ with their words, when they could have said to themselves and to God that they continued to believe in their hearts no matter what they said under threat?
Just what is the big deal about idolatry? And why is it so important to confess the truth outwardly if by not doing so we can save our skin and continue to believe it nonetheless? In other words, how could idolatry be so bad even when it is not sincere? Isn't it the heart, the innermost belief and commitment that matters?
We cannot understand idolatry until we understand and take seriously the holiness and uniqueness of God, who is not merely a powerful, superhuman King demanding veneration and submission. He is the Creator of all and the fount of all beauty and truth and the personal basis of all goodness as the One who is Love, who is the Light. Even more to the point, we cannot understand what idolatry really is until we understand that God is also the Redeemer and the Covenant maker. In the OT God rescues the Jewish people (more than once) from their oppressors and calls them to himself as a groom to a bride. He thus makes a covenant with them which he compares to a marriage. Every time they committed idolatry, they did not merely make a religious error, they betrayed their vows and their husband and saviour. In addition, they did not just reject a particular being or ruler, they rejected Goodness itself. The reason God commands worship of Himself, and worship of Him alone, is for our sake, not for his. He makes quite clear in the Scriptures that he does not need anything from us for his own sake (Cf. Psalm 50:8-13). But we rely on him for our very existence and for our fulfilment. As rational, moral and spiritual beings, we cannot reach fulfilment until we acknowledge the fundamental truths, and acknowledge the One who has made and re-makes us. And that means we cannot reach fulfilment without worship and thankful praise of the one true God.
All of this might seem very abstract, but these spiritual principles have very practical consequences when violated. St Paul reveals in the Epistle that idolatry goes hand in hand with other sins: lust and lack of self-discipline, for example. False gods, gods who can be formed by human hands, are generally either very convenient gods morally, allowing for temple prostitution and the abuse of power (e.g., the misbehaving and arbitrary gods of the Greeks and Romans), or cause their adherents to plumb the darkest depths, including offering unwilling humans to be killed as sacrifices (cf. Moloch or the religion of the Incas). Just after the end of today's passage, the Apostle reminds his readers that demons have associated themselves with the idols. So, while the physical idols are false gods and powerless in themselves, they are not merely “nothings”. They are a locus of evil.
Nevertheless, one might accept the evil of committed idolatry but question why Christians (and Jews at the time of the Maccabean Wars) were unwilling to compromise even externally with idolatry. It seems some of St Paul's original readers had the same doubt.
But when St Paul brings the significance of Holy Communion into the discussion, it becomes clear that the sacramental principle is relevant. In the sacraments an outward sign not only symbolises an inward spiritual reality, it communicates this reality, and changes the participants. Similarly, even apparently trivial cooperation with idolatry by a follower of God enacts a spiritual corruption that changes them for the worse. We cannot and must not treat what we do with our bodies as irrelevant to our souls if we just choose it to be so or if we judge that no-one is “hurt”. It does not work that way, it is not the way humans are “built”. It is misunderstanding this that undermines much modern thinking on sexual morality. For example, the man who tells the wife he has cheated on in a one-night stand that it “was just sex and didn't mean anything” is making this error. Not that this is really an error in the normal sense, since he can hardly fail to be aware that he is attempting to deceive both himself and his wife.
Another reason why even the “smaller” idolatries would be spiritually fatal is that given in the Gospel for today: he who is unrighteous in the “least” will be unrighteous in larger matters. Being a Christian is nothing less than being wholly given over to God. I will now turn to look more closely at the Gospel.
One of the confusing things about today's Gospel passage is that it is not clear what it is about the “unrighteous steward” we are meant to imitate. Jesus says he is unrighteous, but also says he is prudent, and then compares the “children of light” unfavourably to him on this ground. What is so wise about this fraudster's behaviour? Just this, that he used money, money to which he was about to lose access, to insure future friendship, gratitude, and a home: “I am resolved what to do, that … they may receive me into their houses.” That is why our Lord sums up the message of the parable this way: “Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; and when it fails you, they will receive you into everlasting habitations.”
So, we are not being told to imitate the dishonesty, but the priorities and, one might say, enlightened self-interest of the unrighteous steward. In the same way he used wealth he was about to lose to gain friends and future security, we are to use wealth to gain grateful friends and eternal security. Who are the friends? Though not mentioned here, they are by no means difficult to infer from the rest of the Gospels' context. They are mainly the poor and needy, including those who are spiritually poor and needy. (Of course, the friends could also include our literal friends, as being willing to spend on blessing them in some way is also a sign of a healthy attitude to possessions.) To put it more bluntly, Jesus is telling his followers that grasping onto wealth is not only greedy, rendering it “unrighteous mammon”, it is stupid. Instead, even for our own sake, we should devote much of it to the poor, to building up community and personal relationships, and to funding evangelistic missions and other activities that “bind up the brokenhearted and set the captive free” (Isaiah 61:1).
Why? Because like the steward, we cannot keep access to the wealth forever, and when it is gone (or when we are gone from this “mortal coil”) it will be useless to us. On the other hand, the blessings flowing from helping those in need with mere money are of eternal significance, and give us back far more than luxury and wealth ever could. Now, if one was to say that that should not be the main reason to help those in need, but that one should do it out of compassion, one would be right. But we need to realise that Jesus is taking a rather amusing little story and deliberately giving it a surprising twist at the end to tweak us, to jolt us somewhat. I can imagine him giving this lesson with a wry smile. You could even say this is as close as He gets to giving Christians investment strategies: Heavenly Economics 101. It's as if he's saying, “If even this criminal can see money won't help him much in the long-term, but the hospitality of friends will, why can't you see this in a larger perspective, when you are supposed to have 'seen the light'?”
Therefore, when Jesus says that he that is faithful (loyal or trustworthy) in what is least is faithful in what is much, he is pressing home the point that wealth is the “least” important thing. But he is also saying that integrity and generosity are linked, and that integrity is not real unless it applies across all areas of life. Here is one connection between the Gospel and the Epistle that I have already mentioned before. The other, with which I will finish, is subtle but important. Wealth itself can be an idol, but we must work to keep or topple it from that position in our lives, and thus flee even from this idolatry. +