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False Gods

March 31, 2018 | (816 words)

Yesterday was both Good Friday and the first night of Passover. Late last night, as I was drifting off to sleep, a gentleman on a National Public Radio broadcast explained that Passover was about land, specifically the need for a safe homeland for the Jewish people. This got me thinking about the reading from Exodus chapter 12 we American Catholics heard as part of our Good Friday service, a few hours earlier.

There was the ritual sacrifice of an unblemished one year-old male animal (sheep or goat). The smearing of some of the animal’s blood on the sides and tops of the door posts where the good guys (Israelites) would eat the sacrifice. Followed by instructions on how the sacrifice was to be cooked (roasted over fire, with bitter herbs), and eaten (with loins girt, sandals on your feet and staff in hand, as if in flight).

But all this detailed description was but a lead-in to the main event, a dramatic night raid the Lord has planned, during which he will strike down the first born of the land of Egypt, man and beast, and execute judgement against all the gods of Egypt.

Yes, the Israelites were suffering an epic bondage at the hands of the Egyptians at the time. But why were the Egyptians being prosecuted in this unprecedented way? Was it for enslaving the Israelites, worshiping false gods, or both?

…punished for enslaving the Israelites, worshiping false gods, or both?

Unpacking this emotionally charged two-part question may be best left to those who specialize in Old Testament scholarship. But that need not stop the general reader from pondering the ramifications of the latter half of the equation, namely, the worship of false gods.

Egypt was a highly advanced society at the time, with an elaborate hierarchy of gods familiar enough through depictions in popular entertainment to even the casual student of history. In our present era of pluralism, though, the idea of punishing an entire people for false worship has a decidedly anachronistic ring to it, since in our enlightened age we no longer care “who you pray to.”

And besides, we don’t even know what a false god is anymore, do we? After all, nobody is standing around paying homage to a golden calf these days, are they?

Well, we American Catholics do occasionally hear about false gods in the odd homily at Mass. Wealth, power, and lust are the pre-occupations most frequently mentioned by our dedicated priests as modern-day pitfalls that should be studiously avoided. And at a certain point in each liturgical year, the well-known reading from Matthew 6:24 cycles up, and we are reminded of the inability to serve two masters (God and mammon).

But if one may be so bold, it seems our clergy has not quite figured out how to preach this message in a way that resonates with today’s congregants. If one may venture further down the path of effrontery, we’d suggest the reason for the pastoral ineffectiveness is because the American Catholic Church has not quite come to terms with how the American Experiment of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is, in many ways, based on the unrestrained pursuit of wealth, power, and lust.

… life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, largely based on the pursuit of wealth, greed, and lust.

That’s right, folks, our country is both flawed and great, all at the same time. But it is very difficult to hold two contradictory ideas in one’s head simultaneously, which is why some of us get carried away with praising our freedoms and our standard of living, while others go just as far afield in condemning our moral turpitude.

Needless to say, this is a complicated issue, and one should not hold it against our hierarchy or our clergy for not being able to satisfactorily reconcile the contradictions. But if we are to make any headway in this matter, we will have to confront the daunting reality that our great country is, indeed, seriously flawed.

And we will also have to understand how the worship of false gods is a real and present danger. This is not some long-ago subject with no bearing on our present circumstance. We should read Exodus chapter 12 as more than just an inspired tale about securing a homeland for an outcast people.

Those of us who continue to comfortably yawn through this old story once a year do so at our own peril. Just as we who fail to integrate the message of the odd homily warning us off wealth, power, and lust are also doing ourselves a disservice. One braces for the day when we as a society might finally come to full attention, startled by the realization we are up to our eyeballs in false worship, now as then.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
March 31, 2018

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