4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,
‘One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
When I went to Egypt on my cross-cultural trip while in seminary, I had the opportunity to see first hand some of the most beautiful iconography I’d ever seen. Icons in the church, though, have not gone without controversy. The question becomes, “Does the icon reach the level of idol?”
I will admit, I have wrestled with this commandment – to not make “graven images” or to worship idols, because it isn’t clear in the biblical text what God means by either the concept of a graven image or an idol. And in some cases, the prohibition to do either one of these things seems contrary to the idea of humanity being made in the “image” and “likeness” of God. Some would even argue that this is a good reason to elevate human form – it is made in God’s image.
Historically, iconography was at the center of one of the most heated controversies in the church. There was a movement that began in the Eastern church in the eighth century that had lasting repercussions. This movement was called iconoclasm. “The controversy began in 725 CE when Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurian ordered the destruction of an image of Christ that supposedly had miraculous powers. This was soon followed by a series of imperial edicts against the use of images (or icons) in worship” (Gonzales, Essential Theological Terms, p. 81).
So, what was Leo III upset about? What was he responding to?
Commandment number 2 of the 10 Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”
There is harsh punishment for anyone who engages in this behavior. Clearly God was serious about restricting the worship of objects. But let’s get clear about the difference between an idol and an icon.
An idol is an object of worship that replaces God – the object is worshiped as a means of accessing God, or as a way to have a living replica of God that is tangible.
An icon is not worshiped but is venerated. Worship is defined as “to recognize, celebrate, and praise God’s majesty;” to recognize our place in the cosmos and our need for God’s grace. Worship has often centered on the Eucharist, the representative meal that expresses the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and our need to be reconciled again and again to God.
To venerate means to hold in high esteem, to revere.
Idols can most certainly be icons, but icons don’t necessarily have to be idols. How an image is used determines whether it is an idol or not. Also, the practice of iconography, that of creating icons, was also instrumental in creating many of the symbols that represent various aspects of Christianity or religious life in general. The ichthus fish was an early symbol of Christianity just as The Dharma Wheel is a symbol of Buddhism.
We use symbols all the time to create shorthand in communicating ideas. And there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that. However, when those symbols become the object of our worship, as in the golden calf being worshiped as the entity that brought the Israelites out of Egypt, then we have a problem.
In our passage today, we see a different kind of idolatry. Jesus is being offered a chance to change his circumstances by changing stone into bread. Those stones become the object of his desire for what they can do for Jesus, for what they can alleviate in Jesus – his suffering. In this sense, Jesus is looking to a created object to take the place of God’s sufficient grace. We might ask ourselves, “Yeah, but would God really punish us for turning stones into bread (if we could) especially if we were that hungry? I think this is actually a great example of how common, ordinary items can become idols.
The tempter seems to have a grasp of how idols can impact us spiritually. When the tempter asks Jesus to turn stones into bread, there is an assumption on the part of the tempter that the stones will take the place God’s sustenance. If we are separated from what God gives us to sustain us; mentally, physically, or spiritually, then we are lost to that thing. Jesus’ hunger might have tempted him to turn stones into bread, but Jesus understood that physical bread would only last a moment. There isn’t anything that we can make that can take the place of our Creator, the one who made all living things.
By place objects at the center of our being, by worshiping objects that have no inherent value, we usurp God’s connection with us by placing something else in love’s path. If we were to inventory our lives regarding the various idols that have taken resident in our spirit, we might be surprised at how much time and attention we give those things and how little attention we give God.
In the Buddhist tradition, one of their key focuses is on the fact that all things in life are impermanent. Everything that we can hold in our hands will one day fade. Even things in the natural world do not stay the same forever. Rocks erode; trees decay; and grass grows and burns. Nothing stays the same.
God, however, is eternal. I need to learn to trust infinite God rather than my finite self and the finite objects around me. May you wrestle your idols to the ground and discard them for the one who made all things and sustains all things.