What is Your Golden Calf?

Whatever our habitual sins may be, we would do well to bring them out in the light of the confessional.

Gerrit de Wet (1616-1674), “The Adoration of the Golden Calf”
Gerrit de Wet (1616-1674), “The Adoration of the Golden Calf” (photo: Public Domain)

Something I’ve often wondered about both as a kid and as an adult is how the Israelites so quickly forgot their covenant with God while Moses was up on Mount Sinai. In previous trips up the mountain, Moses brought Aaron and his sons, several of the elders and Joshua, among others. Aaron and a few others were even allowed to “see the God of Israel,” and surprisingly, God allowed them to live though they had been warned otherwise in the past. And on the next fateful trip up the mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments, he was away from the Israelites for only 40 days and 40 nights. But when he came down, Aaron had helped the people build a golden calf to worship, rather than being obedient and grateful for what God had taught them.

My thought has often been, “Oh, I’d never do that. How could they forget so quickly? How could they be so foolish?” However, I think I’m starting to understand, and I only have to think back to my last confession and the days that followed to identify with those Israelites. I recognize what God is telling me to do (and how I’ve failed), so I go to confession and feel great. Then, it’s typically much shorter than 40 days before I fall again. Though I continue to take baby steps forward, my golden calf, you might say, is my pride and my lack of patience.

What about Christians on the whole? What golden calves have been trotted out over the years? Though he had some legitimate gripes, it’s probably fair to say that Martin Luther’s golden calf (as well as that of many of the “reformers”) was his pride, as well. He decided he knew better what should be in the Bible and what shouldn’t. He needed it to fit his worldview, so rather than adjusting his views to be in line with Sacred Scripture, he adjusted Sacred Scripture to be in line with his views.

Since then, we see more recent versions of this D-I-Y Christianity where Premillennialists (via John Darby in the 1800s) introduced such novel ideas as the “rapture” and a heavy emphasis on looking for modern-day predictions being fulfilled in the Bible and claiming we are clearly in the “end times.” “Once saved, always saved,” has become a convenient slogan to support this vision. Others have increasingly predicted doomsday scenarios (ostensibly to get people to repent, but with the condition that we need to follow their view of what it means to be a Christian). Still others give us doomsday scenarios simply to get us to follow their political worldview with no mention of eternity whatsoever. Jesus Himself, though, warned against paying attention to such talk in Luke 21 (et al.). Once again, pride is the golden calf, with an unhealthy side dish of presumption, arrogance and self-righteousness.

On a day-to-day basis, what are those golden calves? How many excuses do we use for not honoring the Lord’s Day by attending Mass and resting from unnecessary work? “I’m traveling — can’t do it.” “We have Sunday morning soccer or cheerleading practice, so it’s just not going to work out this week.” “I’m tired.” “I have too much to do.” “I’d rather go for a hike ‘cuz I find God in nature.” (Never mind John 6!)

Or, is money our golden calf? Are we willing to bend the rules to make a quick buck? Are we willing to sacrifice family time (or family size) for our career aspirations? Is that new car or iPhone more important than tithing?

Could sex be our golden calf? Do we succumb to temptations to view pornography? To cohabitate? To use artificial birth control? To have casual affairs?

How about technology? Might it be our golden calf? How often do we choose our phone, or TV, or video games instead of using our time and talents to pursue our purpose in life? Technology can be a great thing, but it can also easily morph into sloth.

Perhaps it’s food? Or alcohol? Or cigarettes? Or some controlled substance? If we don’t acknowledge our weaknesses and temptations and work on self-mastery to counter them, they will rule us and we will bow down at the altar of vice.

Maybe we should cut the Israelites some slack. At least they were honest enough to parade their false idol out in public. We would do well to bring ours out into the light of the confessional. There, we can receive God’s supernatural grace to help us have the strength to reject our golden calves and repair the damage we’ve done to our relationship with Him. Kyrie Eleison.