Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
“The cross of the Lord was the devil’s mousetrap. The bait by which he was caught was the Lord’s death”
– St. Augustine, Sermon 263
The modern mind doesn’t know what to do with the idea of “Satan,” and, try as I might to make it otherwise, I have a modern mind. Like many others, I don’t know if the Hebrew, S-t-n, “the adversary or accuser,” or the Greek, diabolos, “the slanderer,” can still be understood a personal, superhuman enemy of God Rather than catalogue modern answers to that question, I’ll pose a riddle: “Is Satan’s first deception persuading us that he exists or that he doesn’t?”
Pope Francis, has no trouble speaking of Satan as “Father of Lies,” “the Evil One,” “Seducer,” and “Scandalizer.” (Recall that both the Hebrew and Greek words for the Devil suggest an obstruction, something thrown across our path like a skandalon, Greek for a snare, trap, or stumbling block.) On occasion, the news industry takes note, usually dismissing such references as an artifact of the pope’s origins in “Latin America, where mystical views of Satan still hold sway in broad areas of the region.”
What many of the news industry’s theological illiterates overlook, however, is that Francis is a Jesuit (Google “Satan, Pope Francis” or “Satan, Jesuits,” and see what the blogosphere thinks of that!), and that order’s founder, Ignatius Loyola, was very much an early modern, though traditional enough to consider the Evil One a spirit whose invitations must be resisted through a rigorous “discernment of spirits.”
In Week Two of Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius writes:
It is characteristic of the evil angel, who takes on the appearance of an angel of light, to enter by going along the same way as the devout soul and then to exit by his own way with success for himself. That is, he brings good and holy thoughts attractive to such an upright soul and then strives little by little to get his own way, by enticing the soul over to his own hidden deceits and evil intentions.
So, whether you interpret “the evil angel” as a personal being, psychological process, or anthropologic mechanism, the crux of Ignatius’s concern is that evil can be so attractive as to appear good.
I mention this not to make a case for Satan either as personal being or psycho-anthropologic metaphor, but to get to this week’s gospel reading. Why does Jesus, upon the return of the seventy-two, say, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning?”
The sending of the seventy (many sources have seventy-two) comes after a very busy chapter (Luke 9) that includes the sending of the twelve, the Transfiguration, the cure of a demon-possessed boy, and warnings of suffering and sacrifice entailed in following Jesus to the cross. Chapter nine also has the story of Jesus rebuking the disciples for wanting to call down fire (see Genesis 19 and 2 Kings 1) upon an unwelcoming Samaritan village.
Luke 10’s number of disciples – seventy or seventy-two – may remind the reader of Numbers 11, in which an angered God consumes some of the camp with the fire of God’s presence, and then tells Moses to call seventy elders to receive some of his spirit and prophesy. Recall that Eldad and Medad, still back in camp, prophesied at the same time, raising the number to seventy-two.
When Joshua demands these two be stopped, Moses says, “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29). Perhaps some readers may remember that the nations descended from Noah (Genesis 10) numbered seventy (seventy-two in the Septuagint). Others may know the extra-biblical tradition that the languages after the Tower of Babel numbered seventy-two.
In today’s gospel, Jesus sends the disciples, not to call down fire and condemnation, but to prophesy peace and the nearness of God’s kingdom. Yet their marching orders are less concerned with what the disciples say than how they live.
They are told to travel simply, gratefully receive what hospitality they’re offered, and heal the sick. When they are unwelcome, they are to leave, still proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom. Judgment, condemnation, and retribution are left to God, not humans.
Luke 11:12-15 include several scathing condemnations that the RCL discreetly omits, but here, too, judgment and sentence remain God’s alone. When the returning disciples marvel that even demons obey them, Jesus reminds the disciples that power over spirits or immunity to deadly evil are less important than that God has graciously included them in the kingdom.
How, in all this, does Satan “fall like lightning?” The commission of the seventy(-two) is the polar opposite of the satanic lie. They are to gratefully receive rather than divide and accuse. They are to heal the sick, not ostracize and isolate them. They are to speak of peace and God’s nearness rather than spread scandal and slander. When they are unwelcome, marginalized, or mistreated, they are to resist the temptations of righteous indignation and retribution, leaving judgment to God.
The seventy(-two) have been graced to resist the satanic impulse that turns fear and resentment, no matter how legitimate, into scapegoating and violence. We, who too often mistake satanic division as pious purity or diabolical condemnation as holy counsel, have yet to embody this difficult grace.
In this election year, most of us can tell something’s wrong when one major party’s presidential candidate has little more to offer than a list of scapegoats while his chief opponent’s main argument is “I’m not that guy.” Perhaps politics was ever thus, but Christians have no cause to feel righteous. Christian history is riddled with scandal, division, scapegoating, and violence. We, too, have mostly failed to follow Jesus to the cross. We stray or stumble on the road to Calvary, the destination of all who take the way of peace.
Jesus’s promise that nothing will harm us (v. 19) doesn’t mean we won’t suffer and die. Countless martyrs have disproved that. Jesus’s example, however, calls us to hope that choosing suffering and death over violence and division is the path to eternal life. The cross becomes the snare by which Satan is ensnared.
Ignatius Loyola told the Jesuits to “find God in all things,” even what they feared, hated, or didn’t understand. Followers of Christ have no cause to demonize others who, for all their faults, are created in God’s image. All human divisions, including race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, nationality, and religious practice, are reconciled in Christ in ways beyond our understanding (see 2 Corinthians 5:16-21 and Colossians 1:15-23). When we embody that hope, perhaps we can finally hear Paul’s words to the “foolish Galatians” as directed to us:
May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule–peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God.
Notes: The observations above are clearly informed by the work of René Girard. See I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning, (Orbis, 2001). The image above is a detail (right panel) from the Meróde Altarpiece (Robert Campin, early fifteenth century) depicting Joseph, the carpenter and earthly (step)father of Jesus, making wooden mousetraps.