In the Lectionary

February 16, Epiphany 6A (Matthew 5:21–37, Deuteronomy 30:15–20)

Idolatry is the desire to manipulate God.

I’m always fighting the temptation to think of God in transactional terms. To think that morality is the currency of God’s relationship with me, with us, and that God has rules we’re supposed to learn—rules about how God operates, how God lives with us, how the divine happens in the world.

For example: God punishes people not because God wants to, but because God has to, because God is committed to some kind of cosmic law that God must obey. So the point of life is to learn God’s rulebook so we don’t get punished—in this life or the next—and instead can figure out how to get rewarded for our goodness, accredited for what we confess with our mouths and believe in our hearts. According to this logic, if we do good, then God is good to us, and if we do evil, God punishes us. To think like this about our relationship with God turns obedience into a way to achieve our best life now, to get what we want out of God.

All of this imagines God as a cosmic cash register—as if morality is a form of economics, as if ethics is a form of capitalism. We pay God with good deeds and justice, with right thinking and correct beliefs, and God gives us love and acceptance and blessings, multiplied a hundredfold. Morality becomes our currency—the money we use to pay God to get what we want out of this life.