Proper 26

November 4, 2012
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Deuteronomy 6:1-9
Reading 2: 
Psalm 146
Reading 3: 
Hebrews 9:11-14
Reading 4: 
Mark 12:28-34
By Russell Pregeant

I choose the alternative First Reading but stay with Psalm 146 in order to emphasize the anti-idolatry theme in the gospel text. What Jesus identifies as the “first” commandment—love of God with all of one’s heart, soul, mind and strength—is a slightly modified version of Deuteronomy 6:4-5, traditionally known as the Shema (= Hebrew for “hear,” the first word of the passage). (The Markan version adds “mind” to the list and uses a different Greek term for “strength” than is found in the Septuagint.) The Shema prohibits idolatry in two ways. The first is in the introduction, which asserts either that “the LORD is one” or that “the LORD alone” is God. Either way, it makes clear that “there is only one LORD God who is to be worshipped by Israel” and also denies that “the deity could be known in different forms, or manifestations, in different sanctuaries,” as the case in Canaanite religion.[1] The second way the passage prohibits idolatry is precisely through the “heart- soul,-mind” formula, which is clearly a call to whole-hearted devotion: if one loves God with one’s total being, then there is no room for the worship of anyone or anything else.

It is important to remember that the entire book of Deuteronomy takes the form of Moses’ address to the people just prior to their entrance into the Promised Land and that the verses that precede the Shema reiterate the theme of obedience as the requirement for Israel’s flourishing in the land. The land, one must realize, is in fact less a gift than a kind of lease, as Leviticus 25:23 shows: “the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” And, as Walter Brueggemann has so perceptively observed, the land itself—even though it is God’s gracious gift to Israel—can also be the source of temptation. For it is in the nature of land that it has to “be managed, ordered, and administered.”[2] And precisely because the people must manage it, the possibility arises for Israel to think of itself as “no longer recipient of land but controller, no longer creature of grace but manager of achievement.” Their temptation is thus to give credit to themselves or to the land in and of itself, and the gods and goddesses of Canaan (as portrayed in the Bible) are handy enablers of this self-deception. Unlike the God who led the people out of Egypt, who lays down specific moral requirements, the Canaanite deities of the land demand nothing other than ritual and are thus “subject to manipulation” and “ready to serve human ends.”[3] Ironically, then, God’s own gift—the land—holds the potential to become an object or a tool of idolatrous devotion. And there is an important lesson in this: anything can become an object of idolatry, and this includes items within our belief systems themselves. Psalm 146, on a related note, cautions against placing one’s “trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.”

The Markan passage underscores the theme of idolatry not only by repeating the Shema, but in a subtler way through the phrasing of the scribe’s question. As Eugene Boring notes, the Greek adjective meaning “first” takes the feminine form, corresponding to the feminine noun for “commandment.” The word that the NRSV translated as “of all,” however, is either masculine or neuter, which shows that “the meaning is not ‘first of all commandments’ [as some translations have it], but ‘first of everything,’ i.e., ‘above all things,’ ‘above everything else.’”[4] The scribe’s response, moreover, highlights the connection between love of God and love of neighbor, which is evident in various ways in the Hebrew Bible but not explicit in the Shema itself. And the point is reinforced by the addition of the declaration that “this is more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” The passage from Hebrews does not deal with idolatry explicitly, but it reflects the book’s strong declaration of the superiority of Jesus’ sacrifice to any other form of religious observance—here contrasting that sacrifice with the temple cult.     

Turning now to insights derived from process-relational theology, Hartshorne’s notion of God as the all-inclusive Person provokes some complex reflection. On the one hand, we can say that one of the faces of idolatry is the tendency to worship the part rather than the whole. There are aspects of reality than are good in themselves and worthy of a degree of respect and loyalty. Nations, families, groups of various kinds immediately come to mind. Unqualified loyalty to any of these, however, is clearly idolatrous and can take the forms of racism, belligerent and triumphalist nationalism, classism, snobbery, and the like. To worship God in process-relational terms, however, is to be in love with the universe itself (understood as Person) and thus to will and work for the good of all—not only all persons, regardless of race, religion, national origin, sexuality, etc., but of all creatures and indeed the natural realm itself. On the other hand, the panentheist view that God is in all/all is in God should temper our strictures against polytheism. The ultimate unity of God is indispensable for biblical religion, as is the ultimate unity of value. Without such unity, we have an incoherent and thus meaningless universe. Our increasing knowledge of world religions, however, is teaching us that many forms of polytheism boil down to an ultimate monotheism, in which God has many manifestations. And although it is important to maintain the ultimate unity of value, it is also important to recognize that the same value can play itself out in very different ways in different times and places. Process thought is no friend of idolatry, but neither is it a friend of narrow forms of confessionalism, which can ironically become idolatrous themselves.

In this election season, cautions against the various subtler forms of idolatry seem particularly appropriate. The injunction against trust in princes in Psalm 146 makes an important point, although we should beware of using it in a way that could reinforce the rampant anti-government fanaticism we are experiencing in the U.S. On other notes, a genuinely anti-idolatrous stance in this country at present cries out for the denunciation of the seemingly obligatory rhetoric of triumphalist nationalism and the idolatrous use of religious doctrine as a tool of exclusion and denunciation of others. To this end, we might remind ourselves that Jesus ranked love of neighbor right alongside love of God. The ultimate irony, perhaps, is that there are many, throughout history, who have tried to refashion him as a religious bigot.


[1] Ronald E. Clements, “The Book of Deuteronomy: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflecions,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. II (Nashville:Abingdon,1998), 343.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, The Land (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 71.

[3] Ibid., 58.

[4] M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2006), 342.