I grew up in a very financially conservative house. Some might say we embodied the “Dutch” way of life. My parents discouraged my brothers and I from frivolous purchases. If we ever did buy items that did not meet a need, have a function, or further advance our skill in a specific area, it had to be with our own money. Where did our money come from? Well, a very small portion of that came from doing chores around the house ($5 a month age 7-10, then I think for 2 years it was around $10 a month… with inflation that makes it out to … still not much), but the main portion came from having a job.
During high school I had a few jobs– I detasseled corn during the summers, took gate at soccer games, sold football and basketball programs, dog sat, helped dig a C-Wall for a guy down the street, and also did janitorial work at the local Youth for Christ. Oh yea, and then one year I helped put on a youth basketball clinic.
Whenever an item was purchased, my father challenged us boys to see if we had something that we could give up. Or to put it another way, why buy a new shirt unless you have an old one which you no longer wear.
During my high school years I remember hearing my father talk about a letter he was writing to a congressman about the national debt continuing to rise. It really bothered (and continues to bother) him that our nation seemed to laugh at the concept of a balanced budget. There always seemed to be a new expense that the government had to tax the citizens to cover. In my father’s letter he told this congressman:
“Don’t be afraid to slay the sacred cow.”
This has always stuck with me, whether in a personal budget, a sport budget, or a church budget, I try to ask what the purpose of all of it is, and what might have to go in order for the budget to be accomplished. What items am I unwilling to cut?
This picture of a sacred cow really became cemented in my mind while in Chennai, India. When I was there, it was completely common to drive by a cow wherever we went. This doesn’t seem abnormal at first read– shoot, I see dozens (even hundreds) of cows when I take any drive out here in Fulton County, Illinois. In fact, almost every running route that I take will go by a field of cows. So what is the difference?
Chennai is a city of 7 million people. Imagine seeing cows while driving in New York City? Even crazier, imagine seeing them in the road.
Cows are sacred to the Hindus. This is due to their belief regarding reincarnation. You cannot kill a cow–because that would be bad karma. That would be offending the sacred order of things.
My father, when he says to “slay the sacred cow,” his phrase is rooted in the notion of sometimes having to gut a budget of a favorite item, a pet project, or an untouchable item in order to make sure the debt doesn’t happen.
This colloquial phrase came to mind as I studied 1 Kings 12 for my sermon last week (which was also our church’s annual Cowboy Sunday… cows cows cows…). Jeroboam, in a fear of losing the political high ground built places of worship in Dan and Bethel. He couldn’t take the thought of people going “up” to the temple in Jerusalem (this is a geographic idiom since Jerusalem is on a mountain range and one must ascend in order to go up), so he establishes places of worship along major trade routes/ high ways at the northern most and southern part of Israel. After this, the writer of Kings states that he “also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among the people, who were not of the Levites. And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eight month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar” (1 Kings 12:31-32a ESV).
I have been to the remains of the temple in Dan. While there, I even had a conversation with a lead archaeologist about the site. The temple dimensions, layout, and animal bones recovered all point to the same rituals taking place as the ones prescribed in the book of Leviticus. This place looked just like Jerusalem. So what was wrong?
This is where the issue of the two sacred cows comes in to play, but not in the way you might think. Many scholars give an apologetic for Jeroboam. These calves/ bulls might have a huge resemblance to the story found in Exodus 32, and therefore easily identified as idolatrous, but that is a grave oversimplification. The reality of the matter is that these golden bovine could simply have been a representation of the attributes of God’s strength and virility. Because God could not be physically represented, you have to make something symbolic of Him. These bulls were his footstool, or his pedestal, or his vehicle. It is arguable that people would have actually said, “this is what God looks like.”
A crucial issue is that this is not how God prescribed for himself to be worshiped, but rather this is how Ba’al is described as being represented in the mythology and iconography of the surrounding cultures. Yet, read 1 Kings 6 & 7, and let me know if you don’t also see some cows and other animals represented in Solomon’s temple. .. .. Hmmm
Clearly, though, when you read the rest of 1 Kings, as well as 2 Kings & the Chronicles, these high places, altars, and temples set up by Jeroboam (and many of the later kings in both the Northern and Southern Kingdoms) were major causes of sin. God did not approve of them, nor did He approve of how worship was practiced there. It is the motivation behind why Jeroboam built them– and his attempt to make them look orthodox that really struck a nerve with me.
Terence Fretheim, a professor of Old Testamant states it this way:
It is important to note that all of Jeroboam’s sins are connected to worship in some way. There are no signs that he violated the principles of justice for the oppressed upon which his rebellion was grounded (with God’s approval). In regard, from both political and theological perspective, Jeroboam’s work is commended. Jeroboam’s religious violations, however, which are used to serve personal and political ends (a universal way of using religion), subvert the positive political effect. Political liberation cannot stand by itself if the worship of God is not in order. This seems exactly the opposite problem addressed by later prophets, where the worship was appropriate, but justice was absent (Amos 5:21-24; Isaiah 1:10-15). Neither religion nor justice can go it alone; both are necessary for life and well being. The temptation will be to fall off the horse on either side or the other.”
Jeroboam established sacred cows that helped bolster his political standing. God used him as a catalyst for judgment upon the lineage of Solomon for Solomon forsaking God for the gods of his many women. The women of Solomon were a result of political expediency rather than full dependence upon God for protection and provision. Jeroboam, even in rebellion against Rehoboam and the Solomonic oppression, fell right in line with the age old sin of using God for personal gain.
This passage has caused me to think about the sacred cows which are in my life. What are the things that look like right love, right worship, right justice, but are in all reality just idols that are pulling me away from God? As a pastor, am I about the business of removing the high places like Josiah and Hezekiah, or am I placing them as stumbling blocks in front of others? Have I been duped into thinking that my worship at a golden calf is the same as the real worship of the Eternal Creator? Have I traded the Lion of Judah and the Lamb Who was Slain for a donkey or an elephant? Do I justify pride and vainglory because, well, I need to look good for God to look good (narcissism comes in many ways)? Do I try to be perfect instead of relying upon the perfection of Christ?
There are so many ways that we can have sacred cows in our life. The question becomes are we willing to slay them– and take the pain and confusion that goes hand in hand when we tear down an idol that has become our identity. This is tough business, but Jesus is great. He is worth it.