In the New Oxford Review headlines today, Pope Francis is reported to have said that money is the “new idolatry”. I couldn’t help thinking what was new about that. Preachers of all sorts have said that ever since I can remember. “You cannot serve both God and mammon” is a Scripture we all must have heard a thousand times—especially during a stewardship event, a diocesan annual appeal, or a fund drive of some kind. We know the parable of the rich man versus Lazarus like the back of our hand; the rich man having to go through the eye of a needle; the rich man worried about how to store all his wealth. Given the repetition of the theme in sermons, one would think that all we have to do to avoid damnation is to be poor.
However, wealth is not the only thing our Lord cautioned us against. He also said that if we loved him, we must “hate” our father and mother. What? That’s not in our repertoire of Christian cautions. What he cautions against, here and in other contexts, is idolatry, an understanding of which may be found in the First Commandment: Thou shalt have no other gods before me. It’s reiterated in the Sh’ma: You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart and mind and strength, sometimes translated as soul, but obviously it means with your whole being. Anything you put ahead of him is idolatry, including your father and mother—which I think must have been mentioned specifically in order to emphasize anything.
Money has long ceased to be the greatest object of desire, if it ever was. Power is the newer idol. But there are many. Here’s a partial list, many of which sound kind of shocking to Christian ears: Love, family, children, spouse, country, politics, “self-esteem”, achievement (of any kind), success (of any kind), health, community, humanity, “rights”, “social justice”, Church, “righteousness”, “charity”, our will, and more. Money hardly makes the list.
It isn’t that any of these things are “bad”, but they are idols if we place them ahead of our Lord. I suspect the same is true of money. We may work to exhaustion to love, to revere, to believe in, to do, to have, to achieve. But we are finite. Unless we love him first, we exhaust our own meager resources. To love him first means we will love infinitely. The two greatest commandments may not be reversed. First, we love him; second, we love our neighbor as ourselves. To ignore the first assures eventual failure in the second.