What on earth could have prompted King Jereboam to erect two golden calves as objects of worship in the northern kingdom of Israel? Surely neither he nor the people he ruled could have forgotten the thorough condemnation of a similar action taken by Aaron, the brother of Moses, at Mount Sinai centuries earlier during the flight from Egypt. It seems an absurd decision; how could he have imagined that this would please the Lord?
And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Jereboam wasn’t imagining how he could please the Lord; he was imagining how he could maintain and leverage his own power. Erecting worship sites in the northern kingdom would keep his people from traveling to the southern kingdom to worship at the temple in Jerusalem, thus reducing his fears that their loyalty might shift to his rival Rehoboam, king of the southern kingdom. It was all about power, wealth and privilege – as it so often is.
Jereboam’s story illustrates the power that our idols have over us. Enticed by the perks of power, Jereboam schemed and fought to obtain and maintain it, and consequently was blind to what God wanted. And this is exactly what happens when we choose something – power, wealth, success, work, possessions, achievements, the high regard of others, or anything else – to become the central focus of our lives. We scheme how we can obtain the object of our desire, and then having attained it, struggle to maintain and keep it. We set ourselves on a roller coaster of emotion – anxiety, fear, jealousy, resentment, worry, exhilaration, pride – all depending on the current or perceived status of our attachment. It’s a tragic way to live, constantly subject to the fear of losing that which we so highly prize.
And it’s a special temptation for leaders. Someone has said that a leader who does not lead in a contemplative way will lead in a manipulative way. In other words, a leader who is not looking to God and to pleasing and obeying God, will be looking to his or her own interests and concerns, and will be tempted to manipulate others to achieve them. This was the sin of Jereboam.
But it is our sin as well. Having received the gifts of authority or wealth or success or beauty or a good reputation, we forget that we are mere custodians of them for a time and instead make them the center of our lives and the heart of our identities, idols of the soul. Then, in order to continue to be that which we have become, we cling to them, fight for them, and do everything in our power not to lose them.
God warns us of the danger of erecting idols, expressly forbidding it in the Ten Commandments, and invites us to consider instead the freedom of the children of God, who are like the birds of the air or the lilies of the field and do not worry about such things nor strive mightily to obtain or keep them, but entrust everything to God (cf. Mt. 6:25-34).
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