I don’t exactly recall when I was first introduced to the Ten Commandments, but probably around age 7. At first glance, many seemed straightforward and generally a good idea, such as not killing or stealing. There were others that I didn’t understand such as committing adultery or coveting your neighbor’s wife, but I figured they must be a big deal if they had made the top 10. However we were encouraged to memorize and not to discuss or question. The one commandment that seemed the easiest to keep was the first one about not worshiping false gods. Now at that time, my whole frame of reference was Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai, commandments in hand, and finding the Jews worshiping a gold calf. I figured, no way would I ever fall for something that obvious. Ah, the naiveté of childhood.
So what is a false god anyway? In my mind, it is anything that separates us from one another or from God. Fr. Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest, makes the point that organized religion at its core, is about helping us to live in “oneness” with God and each other; this is also known as the mystical body of Christ. But given all the forces at work in our society, living this oneness is far more difficult than it might seem.
First, allow me to offer some examples of what might constitute a false god. On a personal level, it’s natural and healthy for us to take pleasure and a degree of pride in our accomplishments, our skills, our health, our looks, our family, our career and also hopefully, to be grateful for them. Where we get into difficulty, where these gifts can start to become a “god” or an end in themselves, is when we start to listen to the messages that say because of our gifts, we are somehow better than others; that we are somehow special; that others are inferior to us for whatever reason and that we ourselves are like a god, a master of our own destiny. Once we start to see ourselves, somewhat like the Pharisee in the temple in Luke 18, thankful that we are not like the tax collector, we’re headed in the wrong direction.
Likewise at a societal level, we should be proud of our community, our culture and our country and its place in the world. Each of these are how we make our way through this life together, caring for one another, on our pilgrimage that culminates in life everlasting. Unfortunately, there are those “false prophets” who through fear or greed, throw up barriers to us living God’s call, causing us to lose sight that all we have is not of our own creation but a gift. These voices, often quite loud today, would have us believe that those who suffer from systemic prejudice have either brought it upon them selves or are somehow inferior to those of us who benefit from the status quo. These voices that warn us that the refugee, the stranger, fleeing for their lives are a threat to us and should not be welcomed, even though it flies in the face of Jesus teachings. And incidentally, also has been empirically proven inaccurate.
While we know that God comes to us through the daily, mundane aspects of our lives, we also need to be aware that God comes to us through the unfamiliar: calling us to love our brothers and sisters when they show up as the stranger, the victim, the ex-convict, or those with a different lifestyle than us. It is often through these encounters that we deepen our relationship with God, as we pray to Him for the strength to act out of love and not fear. And yes while it’s natural for us to strive for a comfortable lifestyle (I’m perhaps more guilty than most), our heavenly Father sends these challenges into our lives to stretch our hearts so that there is room for everyone but not the false gods.