The story of the three Israelites Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and their refusal to worship the golden statue of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel is, according to many biblical scholars, fiction. What historians know of Nebuchadnezzar and his regime suggests that he was a monarch remarkably tolerant with regards to religion. His empire accepted diversity of religion among its many subjects, including the Jews. In fact, much later under Persian rule the majority of them chose not to return from exile when they were allowed to return and rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple – hardly a sign of a persecuted people!
But this does not make the story any less true.
The truth of the story we read today lies not in its facts as in the point it makes. And that point is to remain true to our convictions and not be lured by ‘false gods’ – whether we are Jews or Christians, people of other faiths or of none.
I am struck by the fact that the idol in the story is made of gold. Gold is a symbol of wealth, power and privilege par excellence. It is also a substance that, traditionally at least, glitters and has long been associated with the making of jewellery and beautiful ornaments. Like the proverbial magpie we are drawn to it.
Strictly speaking, however, it is in itself worthless, a mineral among minerals, a piece of rock. Quite useless. Yet because of the symbolic value we have attached to it – so much so that it has for centuries been a sign of wealth and the power that comes from wealth – gold is a measure of value to which whole economies have been tied. It is not surprising then that it is an idol in our story. A false god.
I think this story invites us, above all, to consider what we truly value, as opposed to what distracts us. It is easy and human – all too human – to be distracted by what glitters from what really matters. If we get distracted, we end up pursuing something that is unimportant, even untrue. How many of us have found ourselves in such a situation – pursuing power instead of service, wealth instead of love, and personal success instead of the common good?
It may seem pleasant at first, even profitable. But in the end what are we left with other than objects? What has happened to relationships – or have they been reduced to transactions and deals? What too of the values we once embraced? Beyond ourselves, we should also ask how our idolatry has corrupted others, twisted ideals and harmed those around us. People talk about ‘legacy’ all the time, but legacy is much more than what we leave behind when we die. It is the memory of us that lasts.
Being true to oneself and resisting ‘false gods’ is our greatest legacy. Do we have the courage of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to resist?