Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 44:9-20) transports me to the Canaanite craft show where all of the the blacksmiths and carpenters are showing off the tools of their trade. Actually, they are forging wares for worship in the idol workshop (kind of lends a new meaning to the old adage that “idle” hands are the devil’s workshop). The prophet is poking fun (an old practice) at those who would be so stupid as to assign divine power to the same lifeless fuel used to bake bread and warm buns on cold days. The ignorance of this worthless enterprise is beyond belief to the prophet, and yet, by the number of times these kind of harangues are found in scripture, the folly of idol worship must have been widespread and continual.
The great 20th century prophet and preacher and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr used this text, along with one of Jesus’ teachings, in a sermon on the draw and danger of materialism and over-consumption. He had the insight that our cultural march to over-abundance has been inevitable, because it derives from our creativity as humans. Ben Franklin noted that what separates humans from animals is that we are tool-makers (homo faber, according to Marx); we are crafts people, artisans, technicians, and we simply cannot help creating more than we need. The creativity of humanity is God-given. It’s part and parcel of being made in the image of God. We cannot help but produce an overabundance of stuff. The problem, Niebuhr said, is that another inevitable trait of humans (this one not God-given), is the tendency to worship what we produce. Our stuff captivates us; we enshrine it and pay homage to it just as foolishly as the Canaanite pagans did in bowing to the wooden and metal images. Our totems certainly look differently, but who can deny that we live, breathe and move in a cultural temple where tax-sheltered affluence and fine homes and fast cars and fancy phones and all manner of gadgets and gear are all worshiped daily as surely as the Lord God Almighty is worshiped in sanctuaries on Sunday mornings.
Perhaps Jesus’ call for the rich young man to let go of all his possessions was an attempt to free his spirit from the worship of his stuff. After all, you can’t follow the Messiah and Mammon. These two roads diverge in the wood. One’s narrow; the other is broad. It’s no mystery as to which one is less traveled. Choosing which road to travel – Robert Frost said that makes all the difference. Let’s choose to follow Christ’s low road and travel toward the poor, while the majority of folks follow culture’s high road and travel toward the pot of gold, and let’s see who gets to the bonnie banks of paradise first.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.