Walking away from our golden calves

A few years back I lost my job. It was a good job, with good stability and benefits. And then, one day, it was gone.

I soon was recruited for a position in sales. This was a new undertaking for me, and one with which I wasn’t really comfortable. But, I needed a job fast, so I overcame my hesitation and responded to the interview.

As soon as I drove into the parking lot, in an upscale business park with golf course-esque landscaping, my hesitation evaporated. I was driving a beaten-up 1991 Honda, which had attempted to violently steer me into a head-on collision with a semi on my way to the interview. And suddenly, I was surrounded by a parking lot full of cars that, each, cost more than the house we lived in. 

My Accord sputtered to a stop in between a Mercedes Benz and an Alfa Romeo — I didn’t know anyone actually drove Alfa Romeos — and, I was hooked.

I landed that job. And, I will always be thankful for the opportunity — it kept my family under a roof and in food for two years. But those two years were perhaps the darkest period of my life.

That initial awestruck money lust I experienced driving into that parking lot became my guiding force. It was my motivation when I woke up every morning. It kept me going through a thousand sales calls and meetings, when every fiber of my body screamed to walk away. 

Eventually, I worked up the courage and faith to walk away from that job. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with the job, or sales in general. But, there was something very wrong with what I allowed it to do to me. 

In chasing after money, and the lifestyle it could buy, I came very close to making wealth my own personal god.

With the least bit of hardship, and the dangling of a few shiny cars and tailored suits, I came very close to the Israelites in today’s Old Testament reading from Exodus.

God tells Moses:

Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, `These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

Moses convinces God to not destroy the Israelites. There is that bit of a bloodbath, when the Levites murder 3,000 people at random, but the remainder stick around for Ten Commandments 2.0, then continue on their journey with Moses.

We would hope that unfortunate incident with the golden calf was the last of our falling-out with idols and false gods.

But, even among many who believe themselves to be devout Christians, we continue to make new calves of gold. 

Pope Francis, in his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, spoke to this issue of our false gods.

We have created new idols. The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose. The worldwide crisis affecting finance and the economy lays bare their imbalances and, above all, their lack of real concern for human beings; man is reduced to one of his needs alone: consumption.

That situation, unfortunately, has only worsened since the pope wrote those words in 2013.

Everything about our culture today teaches us to worship money, and those who have it. We become blind to, scorn and look down on those who lack it. We define success, both in the secular world and in our churches, by how much money can be raked in. 

There is, of course, nothing wrong with money in and of itself. Or with having it. Cash is an inanimate object, and more often than not we don’t even have it as a physical object. It’s all ones and zeros in computer code that never translates into anything tangible, until we move those ones and zeros around to make our bits of computer code someone else’s bits of computer code, and receive goods and services in return. 

Our entire financial system is based on us giving existential worth to a manmade concept. Money, in reality, is nothing more than an abstraction to which we’ve assigned value. 

Don’t get me wrong. Money can be a very useful abstraction. It can be exchanged for things we need for our families. It can be exchanged to feed the hungry and lift up the poor. 

But, more often than not, it drives our society deeper and deeper into the sickness of greed, and all the violence, inequality, suffering, fear and hatred spawned by our greed.

The question isn’t whether we have money or not. Because we can have unhealthy, unholy concepts of money and its meaning, whether we have it or not. The trick, as with all our worldly passions, is to live among it, to use it for good when we can, and to never let love of it supplant our love for God, and for our neighbor.

For, as Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:24 — “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

Money, of course, is only one shape in the many forms of worldly abstractions that turn us from God. Sex. Power. Titles. Our bodies. People’s opinions of us. We can come to worship any number of abstractions that draw us away from God. And all of these abstractions, without fail, will falter and fade.

As we continue through Lent, then, let us examine our lives, our habits and our passions. Are there influences in our lives that turn our attention away from God? If we had to give up all we have in this world to follow Christ, what would we hesitate to give up, that we might better know God? 

Lord Christ, help us examine those things — our possessions and passions — we’d hesitate to give up to follow you, and learn to give them less value in our lives, that we might see with more clarity the path you have set for our feet. Amen.

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