You probably have some human faces pressed together in your pocket. A penny portrait of Lincoln. A Jefferson nickel. A quarter icon of Washington. We do like our money to have a human element to it.
We do plenty of counting this time of year. Moms and Dads count how many days they have left to swipe their Visa for gift purchases. Children count how many of those presents lie colorfully wrapped beneath the evergreen tree. Stores count profits. And surveying the hams, pecan pies, and oceans of eggnog lavished before us, we all try not to count calories.
“He who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” Matthew 10:37
She is never mentioned in Genesis 22. God is, Abraham is, Isaac is, but Sarah is missing from the story. Did she know that God had decided to test her husband? Was she aware that this testing was the sacrifice of their one and only son? When she kissed Isaac goodbye for this odd journey to the land of Moriah, did she have any notion that God had commanded her husband to lay their son atop an altar, sink a knife into his heart, and burn his body to ashes? We don’t know what Sarah knew.
We do know that, after the story is over, after Abraham passes the test, after Isaac is spared when the blade is in midair, that Sarah dies. Jewish tradition sees no coincidence in the fact that her passing in Genesis 23 follows immediately after her son’s near-sacrifice in Genesis 22. When it says, “Sarah died…and Abraham went to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her,” (23:2), it means that Abraham went from Mount Moriah to mourn for her. These traditions suggest that, when this mother heard of what was to take place on that mountain, assuming as she did that Isaac would in fact be sacrificed, she cried out and breathed her last. Her son was her life, therefore, his death was her death.
“Children are a gift of the Lord,” the Psalmist sings. Oh, indeed, they are. A parent’s heart is inextricably bound to the heart of his child. We can understand why, according to Jewish tradition, this mother died upon hearing of the assumed death of her boy. Likewise, we can hear the depth of agony seeping through the cracks in David’s broken heart as he cries out, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33). I think I speak for most mothers and fathers when I say that my greatest fear is the death of one of my children.
This parent-to-child love makes it all the harder to hear Jesus’ words in the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday: “He who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” Matthew 10:37. It is certainly fitting that Jesus immediately adds, “He who does not take up his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.” These words do indeed feel like a heavy cross to bear.
But what does it mean to love someone or something more than we love Jesus? It means that they who were formed as a gift we transform into a god. You see, idols are not mere blocks of wood or stone before whom pagans kneel; idols are beloved things, beloved people, whom we fear or love or trust more than God. We are all, at heart, idolaters, for we are prone to turn presents from heaven into the presence of divinity on earth. We break no commandment more than the first, “You shall have no other gods.” In fact, every law we break is also a breaking of the first, for if our hearts truly and wholly belonged to the Lord, we would keep the whole law. Because we do not fear, love, and trust in Him above all things, all things become opportunities for sin, including the gifts of sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives. Focus on the family can easily devolve into a mis-focus of gifts as gods.
We do not love these gifts less by loving Jesus more. Quite the contrary. The deeper our love for God, the deeper also shall be our love for our children. Love is the embodiment of a life lived in and for another. Love toward children or parents or spouses goes idolatrously wrong not when we love them too much, but when we love them too little. For how can love be true love when it stands against the God who is love itself? How can I say I love my child when I make him into an idol? How can I say I love my wife when I love her more than I love God? No, I am not loving too much when I’m committing idolatry; I’m loving too little, for it is the selfish, self-loving side of me that compels me toward the transformation of gifts into gods.
That is why my life constantly returns, indeed revolves around, the man from Nazareth who hangs between heaven and earth, painting the world white by bleeding wounds. There, in that dying God, I find not only the very incarnation of love, but forgiveness for all my self-love. In that God all my gods die. In Him I die. And as I lose my life, and His love finds me, I gain life in His giving love. I have no other gods besides Jesus Christ, because He is God of gods, Lord of lords, who deepens my love for Himself by pouring His love into me. And that love of Christ flows from me to others: to my children, to my wife, even to my enemies.
I will never be worthy of Christ, but Christ has counted me worthy by loving me even unto death, even death on a cross. "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing," (Revelation 5:12). Worthy is this Isaac, who carried His own wood to the mountaintop, where He was not spared but given up for us all, that all in Him might become the chosen sons of the Father. Worthy is He, and worthy are we in Him, to receive life and forgiveness and salvation and honor and heaven and blessing, now and forever, and unto ages of ages.
Put yourself in our shoes. We meant well. I mean, it wasn’t as if we woke up after waiting all those days and said to each other, “Hey, let’s become idol worshipers today.” It was nothing like that. We hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Moses for so long that we figured he was dead up there on the mountain somewhere. And here we were, smack dab in the middle of no man’s land. We had to do something. We had to get moving, and we needed God to lead the way.
So we made this icon of the Lord, this golden calf. Aaron certainly seemed to have no qualms about it, and he was the brother of Moses. It was officially sanctioned, you might say. Our soon-to-be high priest himself gave it a thumbs up. What more could a people ask for? We never intended to our alter our allegiance, to swap creeds. We said as much: “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? Everyone knew it was Yahweh who rescued us from slavery. And if there was any doubt, Aaron removed it when he built an altar before the calf and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to Yahweh.” Hear that? To Yahweh. We never meant to praise a metal cow. This was divine worship, not bovine worship. The image was just that—an image, an icon of our God.
Needless to say, if you’ve read the story in Exodus 32, things didn’t turn out so well. When Moses finally showed up, all hell broke loose. He smashed to smithereens the stone tablets the ten commandments were written on. He took our icon, burned it, ground it into powder, scattered it over some water and made us drink it. He turned the Levites into executioners, and when they were done, we had three thousand graves to dig. So the law was shattered, our icon was becoming urine and dung inside our guts, and lots of bloody corpses littered our camp. All this because we decided that it was okay for us to choose how we approach God.
Obviously, we were wrong. And we suffered the consequences. It doesn’t matter how pure, or how religious, our motives were. It doesn’t matter that we meant well. We learned, in the hardest of ways, that we don’t get to decide how God is to be worshiped. He doesn’t leave it up to us to determine how best to come to him. He takes no opinion polls, doesn’t put his finger to the cultural winds, never forms a committee to make the decision for him. It doesn’t matter how pretty our golden calf was, how good it made people feel, how it connected with them, how comfortable they felt approaching God that way. In the end, because we, not God, had made this calf our own way, our own truth, our own life, it became our own downfall, our own lie, our own death.
God is big on the scandal of particularity. No one comes to him on their own terms. They come to him only via his son, Jesus. To see Jesus is to see the entirety of God. All the fullness of divinity dwells in him. We worship God who is a man, a man who is God, a Godman who is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through him, for in him the Father was pleased to dwell, in him the Father paid for our sins in the currency of blood, in him the Father gives us the entirety of himself.
So learn from us Israelites. Trash your golden calves. Treasure Jesus Christ. In him you have everything you need, and more.