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10th Sunday of the Year (B), 100618: The strong man and the stronger man

Sometimes, the way you imagine someone or someplace to be turns out to be very different from the reality. You may evenconvince other people to expect someone to look the way you describe them. Sciencefiction films have developed a whole gallery of figures, both pleasant andterrifying, which might lead us to expect that such is how extra-terrestrialswill actually look.

In the history of art, Satan has been depicted in many ways: as a horned half-animal-half-man with fangs and a fork; as a formidable military figure in armour; and even in more recent times as a tailor of Nazi uniforms or, in film, as a smooth talking, good-looking lawyer. In literature and theatre, Satan has been depicted as a kind of comic relief figure, a bit like a clown. Yet probably the popular imagination sticks most with the Devil as a scary horned creature. Because such imagery is largely nonsense, it is easily and rightly dismissed. The problem is that, along with it, the idea of Satan himself is dismissed, too. Some scientists and secularists dismiss all spiritual reality as nonsense since it cannot be put under a microscope or quantified and poor artistic renderings of Satan, of Jesus, of angels and of all the rest only strengthen their rejection by these same people, not without laughter or mockery.

And there has been a definite approach inside the Church, too, to get rid of this embarrassing notion of Satan. Some – with what authority I do not know – simply proclaim that Satan does not exist, that only the evil inside and between persons exists. They argue that talk of Satan stops people from taking responsibility for their own evil by shifting it onto Satan. In other words, a more mature approach is, some believe, to emphasize exclusively personal responsibility. The result is that Satan is no longer mentioned, and certainly not preached about.

The quiet elimination of Satan from our discourse in the Church may in fact do the opposite of encouraging people to take more responsibility for evil, and even good, in their lives. Because Satan personifies evil, because he is its instigator in human history, as the Genesis reading of today makes clear, then to “eliminate” him can just as easily lead to people believing that there is no evil. The bad things in the world, and even in my life, are just “how life is”, just weaknesses or limitation or the result of social structures. Anything but sin!

But that is not the vision of the bible. It is replete with references to Satan or the Devil or Beelzebul and other synonyms, not least in the Gospels themselves. There are 35 references to Satan in the New Testament, most of these in the Gospels and on the lips of Jesus himself. He calls Satan the enemy, the evil one, the prince of this world, the father of lies and a murderer. He says that he saw Satan fall from heaven, that he has a kingdom, that evil men are his sons, that he desired to have Peter and that he has his own angels.

Other texts say that Satan is the tempter, the one who put betrayal into the heart of Judas, that he presents himself as Lucifer, an angel of light, that he deceives the whole world, that he blinds the minds of unbelievers, that he can produce false miracles and that he is the moving spirit behind apostasy or abandonment of the faith.

We would be fools to deny the existence of Satan and his perverted interest in destroying our souls, destroying the Church, destroying social harmony and, if he could get away with it, destroying creation and God himself. His hatred of God spills over into hatred of all that God loves. Since God loves his creation and especially us, Satan works with cunning determination to lead us to choose evil by hoodwinking us into thinking it is good.

The Genesis reading of today shows us the effects of his operation. He causes division: between humankind and God, and between human beings. He deceives us into thinking God is our enemy and that therefore we need to hide from God out of fear. Nakedness no longer signifies transparency but shame, so we need to hide our bodies and thus hide from each other. Through our sin comes not only shame but blame. When asked why he is hiding, Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the serpent. Here begins the oh so familiar refrain in human history, “It wasn’t me.” Just after the verses on Adam and Eve come those on Cain and Abel. Sin leads to jealousy, hatred, murder and death.

While Adam and Eve must certainly take the personal responsibility for introducing this devastation into the world, their decision is the direct result of Satan’s seduction. Through it, he gained a hold over humanity and the world, and his goal was not to bring pleasure or riches or fame or freedom, but to bring death and damnation. And so he did.

But God will not be mocked. In the Gospel reading today, Jesus uses the image of the strong man in his house with his possessions to symbolize Satan and his dominion over the world and the flesh. But he speaks, too, of the stronger man who ties the strong man up and shares out the booty. Jesus is that stronger man. To tie Satan up, or, to use the powerful image of Genesis, to crush the serpent’s head, Jesus had to enter Satan’s realm of death first. And that is why He died. To take away from him the power Satan had over sin, death and hell and to release to God all those Satan had imprisoned – if they wanted it!

The scribes from Jerusalem were saying Jesus exorcised evil spirits using the power of Satan. But to say that, would not only mean that Satan was divided. It would also mean calling evil the Holy Spirit by whom Jesus did perform his exorcisms. It is to call the good Spirit evil. To do that, is to put yourself on the side of the true evil spirit, Satan. Jesus issues the chilling warning that such blasphemy will not be forgiven. Indeed, it cannot be forgiven, for the person who sides with Satan in this way will laugh at forgiveness.

These are uncomfortable truths, but they form part of the full message of the Gospel and of the Catholic faith. Satan makes it his business to try and seduce us, to sell us illusions of happiness sweet to the taste but poisonous to the soul. He has a strong ally in large part of the prevailing philosophy of “do your own thing”, “do whatever you want.” We see it in behaviours related to the beginning and end of human life, to marriage and sexuality which, until recent decades, were universally understood as sinful in the sight of God but are now flaunted as “progress” and even legislated for as “rights.” What was understood as evil is now hailed as good. And Satan is laughing us all the way to his abode of darkness.

We must stand fast beneath the law of God. Only then can we stand fast against Satan so that, as St. James tells us, Satan will run away. He is a coward and can be shooed away like a wild cat. But if we give him room, he will be ruthless and merciless in destroying us. This is not old-fashioned nonsense or scaremongering, but the doctrine of Christ, the Apostles and the Church. We can either ignore it at our peril or we can take it to heart and the stronger man, Christ our Saviour, will rescue us and lead us safely to His Kingdom of light.