Note: During Lent, our church is studying Timothy Keller's The Prodigal God. The sermons for the next few weeks will incorporate some of the ideas of the study.
In a way, Elvis Costello was right and there's no such thing as an original sin. Nearly every human sin stems from the same root and is a variation of one kind or another on the same theme: Idolatry, or the attempt to make a god of something that's not God.
We do that two different ways. The first is that we try to put stuff in place of God. That might mean stuff like our possessions or our wealth, or it might mean qualities or activities that connect to stuff, like greed or power or physical pleasure. We all know people like this (and sometimes we might be people like this), who will orient their lives towards acquiring something. Sometimes those people are rich and already have everything they need, and sometimes they are poor and are just consumed with what they don't have but want. Sometimes people desire fame and will do anything to get it -- if there's another reason to appear on The Bachelor/ette I don't know what it is, given the show's dismal track record of spawning marriages. Some people will center their lives on a particular pleasure they get from food or drink or sex, or from some kind of drug or activity that gives them a real feel-good feeling.
Another kind of idolatry tries to put people in place of God. Perhaps it's a spouse or significant other, or maybe it's your children if you're a parent or your parents if you're a child. Maybe it's someone with whom you want a relationship but don't have one, so you try to redirect your life so that the other person will notice or connect with you and set aside your own principles and ideals for theirs. Somehow, you make another person the center of your life in a way that God has said is reserved for him.
Timothy Keller quotes St. Augustine in describing this kind of behavior as stemming from "disordered love." In other words, we are to love God the most, God's people second and God's stuff third. When we elevate stuff over people, we're being jerks, but when we elevate stuff over people and God, we're being idolatrous jerks. When we elevate people over God, we're making idols of those people -- or of ourselves, because that's certainly possible as well. I'm phrasing it as making sure God is at the center of our lives, instead of something or someone that God has made.
In the parable usually called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we see the idolatry of stuff played out by both sons. They don't necessarily deal with the idolatry of people, but the story wouldn't look all that different if they did.
It's more obvious in the younger son, of course. We don't know if he was a good son or a mediocre one before the story starts, but it seems he wasn't bad enough to get kicked out of the house and must have been fulfilling at least some of his family responsibilities. Then one day something happens and he realizes he can't fulfill those responsibilities and get what he wants at the same time, so he asks for his share of the estate that will come to him when his father dies. He completely disrespects and dishonors his father by saying, in essence, I was only doing what you wanted me to do so I could get your stuff. I didn't care about you.
In our faith, we might see this as the kind of person who follows God, going to church and praying and doing all of the right things until one day they confront the reality that there's something they want or something they want to do and they can't get it or do it and follow God. They must choose, one or the other, and they choose their wants over following God. Whatever effort or energy they've put into following God wasn't for God's benefit or glory or honor; it was just a way to get something and now they've found something they want more.
The older son's response at the end of the story shows a similar idea, even if he comes at it a different way. The brothers were more alike than he wanted to admit. The younger son has returned and the father celebrates the way we would expect a parent to celebrate if a lost child came home. The family is whole again! But the elder son sees only that the younger's return means he will lose part of the inheritance that was supposed to be his, and now he disrespects the father by not even going inside the house and by counting his potential loss as more important that his father's joy. All my life I worked for you and did everything you asked, he says. I deserve better than this!
Again, in the life of faith we might see this as the times when we point to our long, unblemished record of righteousness as proof to God that God owes us something. I went to church every week, Lord! I tithed my income! I helped the poor! I prayed every night! I read my Bible! It's time to make with the blessings! You owe me!
Neither son cared as much about dad as they did about dad's stuff. And neither kind of lost person -- younger-son lost or elder-son lost -- cares as much about God as they do about the supposed benefits of a relationship with God. Younger-son lostness makes us cast God aside as soon as it seems we will find more benefit to us elsewhere. Elder-son lostness sticks with God not for God's sake but for our own.
And behind them both is the idolatrous agreement with the voice of the original tempter, as we believe that somehow the acquisition of God's stuff will make us like God.