Love Is Incompatible with Idolatry
by Pope Francis
Dear Brothers and Sisters, good morning!
We have heard the first commandment of the Decalogue: “You shall not have other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). It’s good to pause on the subject of idolatry, which is of great importance and timeliness.
The commandment prohibits making idols or images of any sort of reality:everything, in fact, can be used as an idol. We are talking about a human tendency, which doesn’t spare believers or atheists. For example, we Christians can ask ourselves: who, truly, is my God? Is it the One and Triune Love or is it my image, my personal success, perhaps, within the Church? “Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. It remains a constant temptation to faith. Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2113).
What is a “god” on the existential plane? It’s what is at the center of one’s life, and on which what one does and thinks depends. One can grow up in a nominally Christian family but focused, in reality, on points of reference that are foreign to the Gospel.The human being doesn’t live without centering himself on something. So here is a world that offers a “supermarket” of idols, which can be objects, images, ideas, roles. For example, also prayer. We must pray to God, our Father. I remember once I had gone to a parish in the diocese of Buenos Aires to celebrate a Mass and then I had to do Confirmations in another parish a kilometer away. I went, walking, and found a beautiful park. However, in that park there were more than 50 small tables, each one with two chairs and the people were seated, one in front of the other. What were they doing? Tarot cards. They went there “to pray” to an idol. Instead of praying to God who is providence of the future, they went there to read the cards to see the future. This is an idolatry of our times. I ask you: how many of you have gone to have cards read to you to see the future? How many of you, for example, have gone to have your hands read to see the future, instead of praying to the Lord? This is the difference: the Lord is alive; the others are idols, idolatries that are useless.
How does idolatry develop? The commandment describes phases: “You shall not make yourself a graven image [. . .]; you shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:4-5).
The word “idol” in Greek derives from the verb “to see.” An idol is a “vision,” which tends to become a fixation, an obsession. In reality, an idol is a projection of oneself in objects or in projects. Advertising, for example, makes use of this dynamic: I don’t see the object in itself but I perceive that car, that smartphone, that role – or other things – as a means to fulfil myself and of responding to my essential needs. And I seek it, speak of it, think of it; the idea of possessing that object or of doing that project, attaining that position, seems a wonderful way to happiness, a tower to reach the heavens (Cf. Genesis 11:1-9), and everything becomes functional to that goal.
Then one enters the second phase: “You shall not bow down to them.” Idols exact worship, rituals: to them one bows down and sacrifices everything. In antiquity, human sacrifices were made to idols, but also today: children are sacrificed for a career, by neglecting them or simply not generating them; beauty calls for human sacrifices. How many hours <spent> in front of a mirror! Certain persons, certain women, how much <time> they spend putting on makeup?! This is also idolatry. It’s not bad to put on makeup, but in a normal way, not to become a goddess. Beauty calls for human sacrifices. Fame calls for the immolation of oneself, of one’s innocence and authenticity. Idols ask for blood. Money robs life and pleasure leads to loneliness. The economic structures sacrifice human lives for greater profits. We think of so many people without work. Why? Because it happens sometimes that the entrepreneurs of that business, of that firm, have decided to lay-off people, to earn more money – the idol of money. One lives in hypocrisy, doing and saying what others expect, because the god of one’s affirmation imposes it. And lives are ruined, families are destroyed and young people are abandoned in the hands of destructive models, to increase profit. Drugs are also an idol.
Here the third and more tragic stage arrives: “. . .and not serve them,” it says. Idols enslave. They promise happiness but don’t give it; and one finds oneself living for that thing or for that vision, caught in a self-destructive vortex, in the expectation of a result that never arrives.
Dear brothers and sisters, idols promise life, but in reality that take it away. The true God doesn’t ask for life but gives it, gifts it. The true God doesn’t offer a projection of our success, but teaches to love. The true God doesn’t ask for children, but gives His Son for us. Idols project future hypotheses and make one disdain the present; the true God teaches one to live in the reality of every day, in the concrete, not with illusions about the future: today and tomorrow and the day-after-tomorrow walking towards the future – the concreteness of the true God against the liquidity of idols. I invite you to think today: how many idols do I have and which is my favourite idol? – because to recognize one’s idolatries is a beginning of grace, and puts one on the way of love. In fact, love is incompatible with idolatry: if something becomes absolute and untouchable, then it’s more important than a spouse, a child, or a friendship. Attachment to an object or an idea makes one blind to love. And so to go after idols, <after> an idol, we can even renounce father, mother, children, wife, husband, family – the dearest things. Attachment to an object or an idea makes one blind to love. Carry this in your heart: idols rob you of love, idols make you blind to love and to truly love it’s necessary to be free of idols. What is my idol? Take it out and throw it out of the window!
[Original text: Italian] [ZENIT’s translation by Virginia M. Forrester]
A warm greeting goes to the Italian-speaking pilgrims, in particular to the Daughters of Our Lady of Mercy, who are holding their General Chapter, and to the Daughters of Nazareth on the 125th anniversary of their foundation. Dear Sisters, I assure you of my prayerful remembrance so that you are able to renew daily the oblative dimension of your life in the faithful exercise of the evangelical virtues. I greet the Auxilium Cooperative, which helps minors with psychic problems, and I encourage them to continue this important service to society.
Finally, I greet the young people, the elderly, the sick and the newlyweds. Today is the liturgical memorial of Saint Alphonsus Maria Liguori, zealous Pastor who won people’s hearts with meekness and tenderness, fruits of his relationship with God, who is infinite goodness. May his example help you to live your faith with joy in simple everyday actions.[Original text: Italian] [ZENIT’s translation by Virginia M. Forrester]
 The term Pesel means “a divine image originally sculpted in wood or in stone, and especially in metal” (L. Koehler – W. Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, vol. 3, p. 949).
 The term Temunah has a very broad meaning, linked to “likeness, form”; therefore, the prohibition is quite broad and these images can be of every sort (Cf. L. Koehler – W. Baumgartner, Op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 504.
 The commandment does not prohibit the images themselves – God Himself would command Moses to make golden cherubim on the Ark’s cover (Cf. Exodus 25:18) and a bronze serpent (Cf. Numbers 21:8) – but He prohibits adoring or serving them, that is, the whole process of deification of something, not just the reproduction.
 The Hebrew Bible refers to the Canaanite idolatry with the term Ba’al, which means “lordship, intimate relationship, reality on which one depends.” An idol is that which masters, takes the heart and becomes the pivot of life (Cf. Theological Lexicon of the old Testament, Vol. 1, 247-251).
 Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2114: “Idolatry is a perversion of man’s innate religious sense. An idolater is someone who ‘transfers his indestructible notion of God to anything other than God: (Origen, Contra Celsum, 2, 40).”
 The etymology of the Greek eidolon , derived from eidos, is of the root weid, which means to see (Cf. Grande Lessico dell’Antico Testamento, Brescia, 1967, Vol. III, p. 127).
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