“Thus says the LORD, ‘What wrong did your fathers find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthlessness, and became worthless?’” [Jeremiah 2.5/ESV]
God’s people have always seemed to struggle with faithfulness. It’s not very radical to suggest that God’s picture of the relationship he desires with his people is marital, romantic even. Only a few verses before this, the Lord is recalling the early days in which Israel lived with “love as a bride.” And despite his faithfulness to provide and care for his people, the Israelites chose to engage false gods and worship the work of their hands [see Jeremiah 1.16].
While we may be able to simplistically (and wrongly) dismiss the charge of idolatry, I think we can all relate to the idea of worshipping what we can produce or manufacture. Whether it’s just a good, happy life, or that bigger house in the better neighborhood, we’re so quick to find satisfaction in things we can seemingly produce for ourselves. I’ve found that the most wholesome “things” in life make the most alluring and covert of idols. Being a better father and husband. Being a better friend. Learning to be a better listener. Handling my finances with wisdom. And so on.
But to the extent that the pursuit of these things is primarily about my benefit and my betterment, I’m an idolater. The moment I choose to pursue one of those things at the cost of obeying Christ – I’m reminded of the man in Jesus’ crowd who wanted to go home and bury a relative [Matthew 8] – I’m not really a disciple, am I?
And the linchpin here lies in identifying the nature of the idol we pursue. In Jeremiah, the false gods are identified as worthlessness. Now on one level, that might actually be an untrue statement. It wasn’t uncommon for these idols to be made of valuable materials like silver or gold (see Isaiah 2.20). Since when is gold worthless? And in the same vein, since when has being a better dad been worthless? Well, my sense is that while things like gold and fatherhood do have a certain intrinsic value, when they become an expression of our idolatry, they are stripped of their value altogether! How sad that something which holds such potential for richness can be so quickly degraded by the motivation of the person involved. Gold can be used to make an idol OR to gild the Ark of the Covenant. Fatherhood can be a means of impressing others OR a real-life expression of how God wants to interact with humanity. One is the embodiment of “worthlessness”…
The kicker here is that when the Jews pursued worthlessness they became worthless. A people who were formed to show forth the reality of Jehovah by being distinct from all the other people groups, had devolved into utter conformity, and consequently, lost their worth (in that regard). They had no value to those around them – they had nothing unique to offer! Much like the gold in a small idol, the Israelites still had value in their quality (they were humans after all!), but had no value in their context (being the distinct people of Jehovah). They had been transformed by what they were pursuing!
All of this makes Jesus’ invitation that much more powerful: “Follow Me!” What is true in the negative – becoming worthless by pursuing worthlessness – is also true in the positive. As we pursue Jesus with passionate consistency we will begin to discover that we are steadily transformed into his likeness. And it is in proportion to this transformation that we become of great value to the people around us. As we become more like Jesus, we will become unavoidably distinct from the ruined creation in which we live. That’s a good thing…