Sunday, June 10, 2018

10th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Genesis 3:9-15; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35

When Jesus speaks of Satan in today’s Gospel,
he doesn’t use the imagery of a serpent,
as our first reading might suggest,
or of a devil with horns and tail and a pitchfork.
Rather, he speaks of Satan as the “strong man”
whom he has come to bind
and whose house he has come to plunder.

Jesus is making the perhaps obvious point
that if you are going to break into someone’s house
and take their stuff
then it is a good idea to tie them up first,
particularly if they are strong enough to try to stop you.
The home-invasion motif is a bit disturbing,
but the point Jesus is making
is that his work of casting out demons,
which the scribes accuse him of doing
through demonic power,
is actually God’s work of binding Satan,
a prelude to his taking from Satan
what Satan has stolen from God:
the human race.
Satan is strong,
but Jesus is stronger.

When it comes to talking about Satan,
it seems to me we can face two difficulties.
For some, any talk about Satan
seems hopelessly old fashioned,
tied to infantile ideas
that no modern person could take seriously
and which were probably invented
to scare the uneducated into being good.
But it seems to me that this fails to take seriously
the fact that evil is something more
than the sum total of bad human decisions—
that evil has a kind of personal cunning
by which it seeks to tempt us and oppose God.

On the other hand,
some find the idea of Satan
not only handily explains
the character of evil in the world,
but see in Satan himself
a kind of romantic character:
the original rebel without a cause
who thumbs his nose at God,
the ultimate authority figure.
This is Satan the anti-hero of Milton’s Paradise Lost,
who says that it is
“Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
This is the opposite error
from those who would dismiss Satan as infantile myth.
This is not granting Satan too little,
but too much.
Satan is not a force that stands
on equal footing with God.
Nor is Satan a dashing figure of rebellion,
moved by a desire for freedom,
but rather a vicious beast
that lives only to destroy God’s work
out of petty motives of envy and resentment.
In calling Satan a “strong man”
Jesus is not giving the devil his due,
but ironically pointing out his weakness.

In our modern political discourse,
the term “strongman” has come to mean
a national leader who operates in an authoritarian way,
more by personal whim than societal consensus—
a self-aggrandizing leader who imposes his will
rather than seeking the common good.
Jesus may not have this kind of figure in mind
when he spoke of binding the strong man,
but the modern political strongman nonetheless
offers a pretty good image of how Satan works.

The strongman rules
by projecting an image of strength
that people find reassuring in times of uncertainty.
Whether this uncertainty comes from an external enemy
or from internal factors,
like crime or a weak economy or ethnic conflict,
the strongman exploits this sense of vulnerability
to assert his own authority
and present himself as the solution.
He preserves his power
by making sure that people continue to feel vulnerable,
constantly finding new threats,
new enemies to engender fear.
In the story of the garden,
Adam and Eve hide after eating the forbidden fruit
because they realize that they are naked,
which in the Old Testament is connected
with the idea of vulnerability:
to be unclothed is to be exposed to danger.
The serpent, tempting them with lies and empty promises,
suggesting to them that they will only be secure
if they grasp at god-like power,
tricks them into a state of ongoing fear;
it is this fear, this sense of exposure,
that will lead human beings again and again
to turn from God and seek protection elsewhere:
in foreign gods, in kings, in weapons, in warfare.

Even if he controls the military,
the strongman ultimately rules by means of fear
and by the image he projects of his own personal power.
That image is rooted more in bluster than anything else,
which is why strongmen love
the outward trappings of power:
military uniforms and parades,
hobnobbing with the rich and famous.
Satan, too, rules by trickery and illusion,
by projecting an image of false strength;
for he has no power over us unless we let him,
unless we let fear master us and rule our lives.

Jesus’ binding and plundering of the strong man
involves dispelling his illusions of power
by giving us a better hope.
Jesus does not deny
that the world is a dangerous place,
but it is also a place of joy
if we embrace God’s kingdom,
if we embrace in faith and hope
the strength of God’s love.
The resurrection of Jesus
binds the power of our ancient enemy
and takes us from his house where we are captive
by showing us that nothing,
not even death,
can separate us from the love of God
revealed to us in Jesus,
showing us that we need no refuge in our fear
other than the power of disarmed love.

In baptism,
we renounce the illusion of fear and power
that the strongman peddles,
and plunge headlong into Jesus’ own path
of life through death and resurrection.
We arise from the waters
no longer nakedly fearful
but clothed in faith,
bearing the “eternal weight of glory
beyond all comparison.”
We arise to live that faith
and to reveal that glory
by embracing life in all its joy and danger,
trusting in the strength of God’s love.