Why Idolatry is an Economic Issue

The tomatoes caught me off guard. Sitting in a small Anglican church in Kenya, I was prepared for the invitation to put some money in the offering plate. I was not prepared for tomatoes.

But that’s what the members of that farming village brought. Tomatoes, avocadoes, maybe even a chicken or two, all brought up and placed on the altar. They brought the literal firstfruits of their small fields, the work of their hands given back to God in gratitude for his blessing on farm and farmer alike.

Perhaps a Christian approach to economic life begins on an altar covered with tomatoes, with worship that orients all of who we are toward the God who so loved the world that he gave. Indeed, worship is an economic issue. We are made in the image of a generous King, wired to reflect his generosity to the rest of creation.

Follow the Money

If worship is an economic issue, so is idolatry. When we read about the Israelites worshiping Baal in 1 Kings 18, for instance, we often imagine that some the Israelites simply fell in love with Baal statues. Perhaps a compelling Baal evangelist showed up and presented the 4 Spiritual Laws of Baal Worship. Maybe a traveling Baal apologist presented some compelling arguments in a public debate.

But the primary attraction to Baal worship certainly wasn’t a pretty statue or a theological argument. It was an economic promise. The nations around Israel called Baal the “Rider on the Clouds” who could bring the rain and make all your economic problems go away. Little wonder, then, that when King Ahab chose to marry a woman from Baal territory, the farmers in Israel built a house for this new god and welcomed him to the neighborhood (1 Kings 16:31).

Of course, most Israelites didn’t totally reject Yahweh, the God of Israel. They probably kept going to the temple, paying their tithes, and saying a prayer or two now and again—especially on holidays. They just added Baal worship to their insurance policy. After all, if you’re a farmer, it’s only practical to invest in getting the Rider of the Clouds to like you.

The rest of the story makes clear that Yahweh would have none of it (1 Kings 17:1–18:46). He proves to Israel that he is the only God who can deliver the economic goods by bringing a drought on Baal’s home turf and sending fire from heaven to consume Elijah’s offering. The Lord wages a war for his peoples’ hearts on the battlefield of their bank accounts. Worship, after all, is an economic issue.

This is the sort of background we should bring to Jesus’ words that we cannot serve God and money or Paul’s declaration that greed simply is idolatry. The New Testament writers understood that money poses one of the biggest temptations facing God’s people. Too often, we treat money as an idol like Baal, an idol to worship as a god to get what we want. Over and over again, the New Testament makes it abundantly clear: Money wants our worship. But every bit of ourselves we give to our stuff we snatch away from our true king.

Here’s the bad news: Evidence suggests that money may be winning the war for the average US Christian’s worship as often as not. While Americans have experienced significant income growth over the last 50 years, studies show that during that same period of time, average evangelical Christian giving dropped . . . from 5.98 percent to 3.21 percent of those ever-growing incomes. As American Christians, we’ve generally earned more and given less.

The Old Testament mandated a 10 percent tithe plus voluntary offerings for agrarian peasants living on small, rain-dependent farms. Jesus commanded his followers, poorer by far than any of us today, to “give to everyone who asks you” (Luke 6:30). The earliest Christians, living under occupied rulers and oppressed by exorbitant taxes, nevertheless liquidated assets and shared their homes with one another. But today US Christians give away less than 4 percent of our incomes. If the biblical authors thought love of money could drag them to hell, what would they have to say to us (cf. Luke 16:19–31)?

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Michael Rhodes