Idolatry Is an Eternal Temptation

Register Summary

Pope Benedict XVI continued his reflections on Psalm 135 during his general audience on Oct. 5, offering his reflections on the second half of the psalm. More than 50,000 pilgrims were present for the general audience, which took place in St. Peter's Square.

The Holy Father explained how two different views of religion are presented in the second half of Psalm 135. The first depicts a living and personal God whose efficacious and saving presence stands at the heart of authentic faith as he defends his people and shows his mercy to them. The second illustrates a distorted and misleading spirit of idolatry.

“An idol is simply the ‘work of human hands,’ the product of man's desires. Therefore, it is powerless in overcoming our limitations as creatures,” Benedict noted. “Man's eternal temptation to seek salvation in the ‘work of his hands’ and place his hope in wealth, power, success and material possessions is clearly depicted in these verses.”

The psalm concludes, Pope Benedict XVI pointed out, with a liturgical blessing.

“The liturgy is a special place where God's word is heard and where the Lord's saving deeds are made real, but it is also the place where the community, gathered in prayer, celebrates God's love,” he said. “God and man meet in a saving embrace that finds its fulfillment in the celebration of the liturgy.”

Quoting St. Augustine, Pope Benedict recognized that some people today are still bound to idolatry, but noted that each and every day many people, convicted by Christ's miracles, are embracing the faith.

The Liturgy of the Hours’ evening prayer divides Psalm 135 — a song with paschal overtones — into two distinct passages. We have just heard the second part (see verses 13-21), which ends with an alleluia, an exclamation of praise to the Lord that also opened the psalm.

After commemorating the Exodus — which is at the heart of Israel's celebration of Passover — in the first part of the psalm, the psalmist now provides a very concise contrast of two different visions of religion. On one hand, there is the figure of a living and personal God, who is the center of genuine faith (see verses 13-14). His presence is efficacious and saving. The Lord is not some lifeless and abstract reality, but a living person who “defends” those who are faithful to him, “shows mercy” to them and sustains them with his power and love.

On the other hand, there is idolatry (see verses 15-18), which expresses a spirit of religion that is distorted and misleading. Indeed, an idol is simply the “work of human hands,” the product of man's desires. Therefore, it is powerless in overcoming our limitations as creatures. Although it might have a human form with a mouth, eyes, ears and throat, it is inert and lifeless, just like any inanimate statue (see Psalm 115:4-8).

The fate of those who worship these lifeless objects is to become like them — powerless, fragile and without life. Man's eternal temptation to seek salvation in the “work of his hands” and place his hope in wealth, power, success and material possessions is clearly depicted in these verses. Unfortunately, he faces a fate that the prophet Isaiah described in a very effective way: “He is chasing ashes — a thing that cannot save itself when the flame consumes it; yet he does not say, ‘Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud?’” (Isaiah 44:20).

After this meditation on true and false religion, on genuine faith in the Lord of the universe and of history, and on idolatry, Psalm 135 concludes with a liturgical blessing (see verses 19-21), which spotlights a series of figures who were present during worship as practiced in the Temple of Zion (see Psalm 115:9-13). A chorus of blessing rises up to God, the Creator of the universe and the Savior of his people, from the entire community gathered together in the Temple, expressed in a diversity of voices and humility of faith.

The liturgy is a special place where God's word is heard and where the Lord's saving deeds are made real, but it is also the place where the community — gathered in prayer — celebrates God's love. God and man meet in a saving embrace that finds its fulfillment in the celebration of the liturgy.

Commenting on the verse of this psalm regarding idols and how those who trust in idols begin to resemble them (see Psalm 135:15-18), St. Augustine makes the following observation: “Indeed, my brothers, believe that there is a certain likeness in them to their idols, that is not expressed, of course, in their flesh, but in their inner man. They have ears but do not hear, no matter how much God cries out to them, ‘Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear!’ They have eyes but do not see, for they have eyes of flesh and not eyes of faith.”

Likewise, “they have noses but do not smell. They are unable to perceive that aroma of which the apostle says, ‘We are the aroma of Christ everywhere’ (see 2 Corinthians 2:15). What does it profit them to have noses if they are not able to breathe the sweet fragrance of Christ?”

Augustine acknowledges it is true that there are still many people today who are in bondage to idolatry: “But everyday there are people who embrace the faith, convicted by the miracles of Christ Our Lord. Everyday the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf are opened, noses that were blocked at first begin to breathe, the tongues of the mute are loosened, the limbs of paralytics are strengthened, and the feet of the crippled are straightened. From all these stones, the children of Abraham are raised up (see Matthew 3:9). To all these, therefore, let it be said, ‘House of Israel, bless the Lord!’ Bless him, you leaders of the Church! This is what ‘House of Aaron’ means. Bless him, you servants! This is what ‘House of Levi’ means. What about the other nations? ‘You, who fear the Lord, bless the Lord!’” (Esposizione sul Salmo 134, 24-25): Nuova Biblioteca Agostiniana, XXVIII, Rome, 1977, pp. 375, 377).

(Register translation)

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