In today's second reading St Paul rejoices over how the people of Salonika, when they were converted, 'broke with idolatry … and became servants of the real, living God' (1 Thess. 1.9). Idolatry is a word with a decidedly antiquated ring to it. We do not have to worry about that sort of thing in our own age or in our own lives. Or do we?
If we think of idolatry as bowing to statues and calling them gods, then of course not. Perhaps, however, we miss the point if we think like this. At the heart of idolatry is adoration. We look on what we have made or acquired and we adore it. Or we look on someone who is successful or attractive, and we adore that success, or we envy their attractability. And if we think of it in those terms, then perhaps our age has its own temptations to idolatry. For example, we live in a culture in which we idolise the stars of sport and of screen. More seriously, there are people who make gods out of their nations by becoming extreme nationalists even to the point of embracing terrorism. A few people with the wealth and means to do so end up lavishing attention on their possessions which are their pride and joy. So perhaps Idolatry is not so far removed from us after all.
One of the characteristics of idolatry is that it takes life but does not give life. An author I read said that if you worship good looks, you will never feel secure, because who can resist the aging process of the years? He also said that if you worship money, you will always feel anxious, for who feels that they have enough money? Even if such people are in fact comfortably off, they worry about whether their investments are ‘performing’. In these ways our obsessions can drain life from us, by focussing us inwardly rather than encouraging us to look at the world around us.
Compare and contrast Jesus in today's gospel (Matt. 22.34-40) where he says that God calls on us to love. Love is what gives life to our world. Love of God lifts us up out of the narrow concerns of everyday life, with its inevitable frustrations and tensions. To know that we love God and are loved by God gives freedom, inspiration and energy to us. To this we add love of neighbour which heals our world. The world becomes a better place if there is mutual concern and support. The world becomes a safer place if the cycle of hurt is stopped by reconciliation. These kinds of things are made possible by love of neighbour. We are in a living relationship with a God who gives us life. Idolatry attracts because it satisfies for a time. But in the end it takes and does not give.
The truth is that love is creative and enabling. God loved us enough to call the world into being. Love is the opposite of idolatry, because love calls us into a living relationship. And to worship God is to be called into relationship with the one who made everything possible.