A coffee bar in Naples, Italy, features an altar dedicated not to the Madonna but to Maradona. As in Diego Maradona, the retired soccer player.
The owner explains: “For us, Maradona is more than a man. He’s a god. We Neapolitans love soccer and live for soccer. We can never forget what he did for us.” The altar displays what is claimed to be a strand of Maradona’s hair inside a rotating, transparent box.
Maradona led Napoli to its only two Italian league titles in 1987 and 1990, plus the 1989 UEFA Cup. Since Napoli had never won anything significant before his arrival, he was treated as a savior. “We saw with our own eyes the miracles he created,” the bar owner claims.
Down the street from the bar, you can find a figurine of Maradona for sale alongside figures of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. The city’s soccer stadium is revered as well. A former player notes, “In Naples, football is like a religion, and the Stadio San Paolo is the church. . . . Sometimes, football feels like it is the only thing that matters.”
The lure of transactional religion
One of Bob Dylan’s songs says, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody / Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord / But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
We were created by God for relationship with him. As a result, every culture known to history has worshiped something or someone. When I lead study tours to Israel, we always stop at Megiddo and look out over the valley of Armageddon. Then we note the nearby Canaanite altar that dates to 2,700 BC.
If we do not worship and serve the one true King, we will worship and serve pretenders to his throne. It might be a star athlete, a celebrity musician or actor, a politician, or a wealthy business leader.
But when we worship someone other than God, we’re really worshiping ourselves.
Soccer fans in Napoli worship Maradona because doing so causes them to remember when their team was great and makes them feel empowered as a result. Canaanites worshiped pagan gods so the gods would then give them what they sought. Greeks and Romans did the same. You placed a sacrifice on the altar of Mars when going to war so he would protect you in battle. Or you offered sacrifice to Athena when needing wisdom so she would guide you.
Such transactional religion is enticing for Christians as well.
We can be tempted to worship God on Sunday so he will bless us on Monday, to start our day with the Bible and prayer so he will bless our day, to give him money so he will bless our money.
Jesus seeks not a transactional religion but a transformational relationship. He calls us to deny ourselves “daily” (Luke 9:23) and to submit every dimension of our lives every day to his lordship (Romans 12:1–2). We are to worship him not so he will love us but because he already does. We are to serve him not so he will bless us but because he already has.
Gratitude motivated by grace expresses genuine Christianity. Greed motivated by transactional religion does not.
Are you serving Jesus for his sake or for yours today?