Resist the temptation of idolatry

By Fr. Jack Treloar, SJ | For The Compass | February 27, 2020

Traditionally the church has us consider Jesus’ temptations on the First Sunday of Lent. This year we contemplate Matthew’s version. The devil tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread: relieve your hunger by using your power. He tries Jesus by tempting him to make himself known in a spectacle by throwing himself from the highest spot on the temple. And, finally, the temptation to achieve unlimited power over the kingdoms of the earth. In other words, comfort yourself, achieve fame, and wield immense power.

The description of the final temptation is especially noteworthy. “The devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, ‘All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me’” (Mt 4:8-9). One immediately sees the temptation to power in the devil’s proposal. More significant is the devil’s invitation for Jesus to worship him.
In this week’s first reading from Genesis we find that the serpent promises Eve that she will be like God if she eats the forbidden fruit. Such a promise is the core of the tempter’s very small bag of tricks. All temptations come from the desire of limited creatures to become like God. The devil not only invites Jesus to become like God, but also takes the place of God when he asks Jesus to worship him.

From Jesus’ standpoint the third temptation is an invitation to idolatry. If one moves away from the simplistic notion of idolatry as the worship of a figure of metal, stone or wood to a broader notion of idolatry as placing something other than God in the place of God, then such idolatry becomes a violation of the First Commandment. “I am the Lord your God … You shall not have other God’s besides me” (Ex 20:2-3). Satan’s trick in this third temptation is that Jesus not only become like God, but also that he worships Satan as if he were God.

As we lead our own lives we must be aware of this core temptation to idolatry. When we read the history of the chosen people we learn that they constantly abandoned the dictate of the First Commandment and fell into idolatries of one sort or another. Early in Lent the church asks us to consider where we have allowed idolatry to creep into our lives. Perhaps we have an all-consuming desire for more money or material things. Perhaps we are in a relationship that is inappropriate for ourselves or the other person. Idolatry creeps into our lives in many ways.

It has been a long-standing tradition in the church to “give up” something during this time of penance. It might be helpful to ask ourselves where are the idols in my life? How can I put God in the rightful center of my life?

Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.

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