Preached on July 7, 2019 at St. Thomas á Becket Episcopal Church.
Lectionary text: Luke 10:1-20
As I prepared for my first sermon at my very first parish this week, you can imagine my delight when I read that this Gospel lesson “has been found notoriously difficult to interpret.” Just what you like to hear folks with PhDs in New Testament studies say, right?
But let’s put that on pause for a moment and get our bearings. For some this may be tedious review of the obvious, for others the boundary markers themselves may be foreign, so let’s see if we can get roughly synced up together.
First: What year is it? Yes, it is 2019; yes for some it’s the Year of the Pig; but I’m looking for where we are in our storytelling, in our lectionary...Yes, it’s Year C. And that means...right, we’re reading the Gospel of Luke.
What does that matter? Well, that means we’re following along with Luke’s Jesus. Now, we don’t actually know who wrote this text, but we do know that their portrait of Jesus is unique, as each Gospeler’s is unique. Oversimplifying and exaggerating dramatically, here’s a quick sketch of each of the four so that we can see Luke’s contribution more clearly:
Year A gets Matthew’s Jesus: the strong-jawed in-command hero type, think Charleston Heston’s Moses. He’s got a genealogy behind him, better Scripture-memorization than young Fundamentalists, and when he dies and rises we get earthquakes, curtains ripping, and zombies.
Year B moves to Mark’s Jesus: the dark and mysterious underdog who comes out of nowhere. Nobody ever figures him out, least of all the apostles, and he’s always in action—it’s all immediately this, and suddenly that—and then he leaves before we even get a satisfactory conclusion!
Across the entire three-year lectionary structure and within the Gospel itself, John’s Jesus shows up randomly, says something deeply profound and utterly confusing, and then floats off to another part of the timeline while a narrator tries to explain what just happened.
And finally we have Luke’s Jesus in Year C.
Have any of you seen the 80’s mockumentary This is Spinal Tap? There’s this scene where the lead guitarist, Nigel Tufnel, shows off his favorite amp; unique in the world because the knob “goes to 11” rather than the standard 10. Well, Luke turns Jesus up to 11. Where Matthew requires Jesus’ disciples to love him more than their families, in Luke they must hate their families. In Mark and Matthew divorce and remarriage are frowned upon; Luke is perfectly fine with divorce as long as you don’t remarry! Divide families with swords, go homeless, don’t attend your dad’s funeral (as we read last week): it’s pushed to an extreme, amped up.
Where is all this going? Well, just look at the lesson today: We have not twelve but seventy disciples sent out, not one allowed to take food, money, spare clothes or even shoes. They are to slay demons, heal the sick, and shake their bare toes at rude folks. Then in a brief span of verses so over-the-top disturbing that the standard lectionary omits it, Jesus calls out curses against entire cities, invoking Hades, followed by a vision of Satan himself “falling like lightning.”
Luke, as you can see, takes us to the cosmic dimension, painting a little missionary outing on a tapestry as broad as the stars. This is grand world-creating Mythos in action, not simple biography or history. I get the feeling he’s trying to capture the looming spiritual significance of what might have seemed like, on the surface, in his time, as a narrative about a fairly routine wandering teacher and exorcist. Here the woes of the cities, and the figure of Satan, stretch this out to world-shaking and -shaping proportions.
I wanted to start out light today, because we’re heading somewhere very dark. We’re entering the world of the demonic, of curses and woes and Hades, and if we’ve been paying close attention to Luke from the beginning of the year it shouldn’t be a surprise. Jesus and Satan enter into the story together as a dueling pair in the desert. While Jesus wins the first three rounds solidly, Luke leaves us with an ominous foreshadowing as he says, “having exhausted every temptation, the Slanderer departed from him until an opportune time.”
This disappearing act is more ruse than reality however, as humans seem to take on the role opposing the healing and freeing work of Jesus. The upstanding and respected citizens, those with rightful claim to good standing in church and society, are outraged as Jesus begins his preaching predicting that, just as with Elijah and Naaman, it is the outsiders, the foreigners, the widows, children and diseased, who will accept this message and be healed. The listeners are so incensed that they attempt to lynch him, in clear confirmation of the demonic spirit of exclusion and pride.
The foreshadowing has its ultimate conclusion in chapter 22, when Satan enters into—possesses—Judas (a claim no other Gospeler makes) and brings about the betrayal. But here in the middle of the Gospel, just after Jesus has begun his long journey toward Jerusalem, the Deceiver is unmasked for a brief moment. This one who oppresses, persecutes, and destroys; who rules the age of humanity; Beelzebul, the Devil, the Serpent. We don’t have the time to go into the origins and development of this relatively new-coming figure in 1st century Judaism, but for Luke and most of the NT writers h’Shatan—the Accuser—was the very real and literal embodiment of evil and opposition to the kingdom of God.
But just before we get to the vision of Satan defeated, there’s this litany of curses raining down on cities: Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. These are all villages in Jesus’s hometown area, solidly Jewish and solidly Galilean. How could he compare them negatively to Tyre and Sidon, his audience would certainly gasp, the great examples of pride and excess wealth going back centuries in the prophets? And even worse, Sodom! Sodom and Gomorrah, synonyms for all that is evil pre-dating the nation of Israel and the giving of the law, how can these good Jewish people be compared to Sodom?
The common thread with which Jesus ties the judgement together is simple: inhospitality; mistreatment of and/or refusal to help the outsider, the itinerant, the one who is “not my neighbor.” As the prophet Ezekiel wrote, “Look, this was the iniquity of [Jerusalem’s] sister [city] Sodom: She and her daughter had pride, fullness of food, and abundance of idleness; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy; and they were haughty...” The very next story after this section is the familiar parable of the hated and despised Samaritan who ends up being the good neighbor to the robbed and beaten Jew. Luke is relentless in portraying Jesus as the champion of the outsiders and challenger of the insiders—what we preachers sometimes call “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”—and this series of curses makes that strike home with sensational strength.
Finally Jesus releases his seventy, chosen to represent the number of nations in the world according to Hebrew tradition. They go out, and then return rejoicing, celebrating their success in driving out demons in Jesus’ name. In response Jesus utters these cryptic, mystical words: “I was watching the Satan fall like lightning out of the sky—look, I have given you the power to tread...on all the power of the enemy and nothing at all shall harm you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice...that the spirits submit to you, but...that your names are inscribed in the heavens.”
Only a chapter before, Jesus’s very own inner circle could not evict a demon and they became jealous of a successful outsider. What changed seems to be how they encountered the world; as humble and vulnerable people reliant on others for help, rather than as proud self-important “disciples.” Is it possible that the very position of encountering the outside world from a self-centered, self-justifying posture is aligned so with these “forces of darkness” that all religious language, all pious intention, all surface polish is ineffective in the face of the ruler of the “evil age”?
We’ve spent a lot of time entering that world 2,000 years ago this morning; now it’s time to see if there’s something we can bring back with us to apply today. And here’s where that line at the beginning comes back even stronger: “notoriously difficult to interpret.” After all, what do we moderns and post-moderns in the 21st century do with the Satan, demons, curses on cities, and all the rest? They are simply not part of the majority worldview and perspective in the recent mainline tradition. I’ve wrestled with this a lot in recent years, trying to understand how to keep these stories speaking today. The best reading I’ve found has roots in liberation theology, and it’s really helped me think more clearly about my world and how it works right along with the best sociological and psychological research.
Here it is, for your consideration: there are times we experience something evil in the world that seems to literally take possession of our fellow humans. You might think of how strange it seems from the outside for the good upstanding Christian Germans in the 1930s to quickly and almost uniformly demonize Jews, Gypsies, and more. Or think of our own country’s root sin of racism and white supremacy: how can one explain the continuation of the KKK and the resurgence of true believers in neo-Nazi groups, where seemingly normal neighbors start spouting harmful conspiracies and bizarre delusions? What force, entirely non-physical yet frighteningly real, has possessed our fellow humans, whispering words of hate and inciting violence almost as if it is a contagious virus? These virulent ideologies seduce—just like h’Shatan—they falsely accuse, they tempt, they lead to persecution, oppression, and destruction, and they are always turned against “the other,” those outsiders who can be easily blamed for what lies within us that we do not wish to face.
I saw this most in action this last week in the unveiling tragedies at the border, in standing-room-only concentration camps where babies sicken, toddlers are traumatized, and people beg for basic needs such as nutrition and toothbrushes after having come as refugees from war-torn poverty to the wealthiest nation on earth. Yet in the face of such transparent need and abuse, there comes this surging force, this accusing voice, which is picked up by millions of our citizens, saying that basic human care is reserved only for us “insiders.” What is that but the voice of Beelzebul, Lord of the Flies, the ever-resurgent demon-spawning monster?
We do not fight against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers; this is, for me, what this means. Our enemy is not our neighbor—neither white racists or desperate refugees—but the disembodied yet very real evil that tempts us all and infects many of our loved ones.
What will it take in our time for Jesus to yet again call out “I see that Satan, he’s falling, falling like lightning!”? It seems to me it will take some humbling, some softening and willingness by US citizens to see that it is us as insiders who are possessed, and welcome the help of the outsiders to reveal a deeper, truer, more loving self that embraces without demand, that gives without requiring,
May that day come soon. Marathana Lord.