When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil (St. Luke 11:21-22).
One of the worst reasons to deny Christ and live for evil is on display in this morning’s Gospel reading. There are certainly plenty of terrible, personal justifications people pass around for denying the good news of the Gospel in order to cling to the lies of this passing age, but in our own time—filled with a seemingly infinite supply of ignorant musings available at the click of a button—we are particularly vulnerable to a slavish acceptance of whatever opinion political and cultural leaders tell us we must believe to be good people. Deep-down even the most jaded person longs to be forgiven, redeemed, loved, and those who work the gears of our broken world lean on this immutable part of our nature to bully or shame us into accepting unnatural and insane ideas only to change the requirements for communal righteousness a few weeks or months later—leaving us reeling from these little exercises of equal parts ignorance, malice, confusion, and fear. We are a fractured people because our institutions are run by men and women whose disconnection from the truth simultaneously betrays us as it benefits them. If we fail to understand this reality then we will constantly be led by the chains of fear rather than the perfect freedom of divine truth. We must always remember: most men want us to be slaves not free.
We see this exact dynamic exhibited by the ignorant and malicious religious authorities who witness Jesus displaying His power over the demonic. St. Matthew, in His version of the events, lets us know that the skeptics are led by the jealous Pharisees whose oh-so-human reaction to a blind and deaf man being liberated from the oppressive demon darkening his eyes and mouth and ears is to seek out a false but comforting narrative to explain away the most cherished prophecies of their people coming true before their very eyes. The men claim that Jesus can only cast out demons because He is in league with Beelzebub: a name for Satan which comes from a vulgar corruption of the name of a long dead Canaanite god, often cleaned up and translated as the ‘Lord of the Flies,’ but it means something more like the ‘Lord of Excrement.’ These jackals witness the power of God in their midst, and their only response is to accuse our Savior of being in league with the ‘Lord of Dung.’
Obviously, this comment is an insult, but it carries the twisted logic of the bankrupt leader desperately trying to hold on to his power: ‘Of course, Satan is just allowing Jesus to cast out this demon, so he can trick people into worshipping a false prophet.’ It’s the modern equivalent of a negative campaign ad or the infantile name calling which now passes for reasoned discourse in our world. People naturally gravitate toward these crude and emotional portrayals of reality because they are easy to understand, and they make us feel special. The other reason we are so tempted to believe the falsehoods broadcast to us is that the alternative is much more difficult to face: we would have to change. The great 20th century author George Orwell brilliantly portrayed this terrible, human failing in his book Animal Farm where again and again the animals—who represent common people—are fed complicated lies they choose to believe because the alternative (to believe the simple truth) would invalidate their earlier choices and force them to change everything about themselves. For the Pharisees, and the majority of Americans, it is just less challenging to believe that Jesus, with His life-shattering message, is simply an evil influence in the world. And if you don’t personally think the Christ of the Bible is malevolent, don’t worry, the institutions vying for power in our country are teaching that to pliable children or anyone else who will listen. We can just hear our enemies now, ‘Those hateful bigots have blood on their hands.’ Cue the ubiquitous YouTube video: ‘Bearded atheist destroys Christianity!!!!’ or the TikTok video version, ‘Scantily clad teenager dances against Christian oppression.’ Fighting against this tide of anti-Christs will break many, many churches: particularly those who care more about financial profitability or social respectability—two sides of the same ill-gotten coin.
The harder thing, by far, is to believe the evidence staring us in the face: Jesus is who He says he is. It will cost us more than just our inherited place in the world if we believe Jesus is revealing who He is by fulfilling the prophecies made hundreds of years before His advent. Promises like those God made to the holy remnant in Isaiah 57: ‘When you cry out, let your collection of idols deliver you! The wind will carry them all off, a breath will take them away. But he who takes refuge in me shall possess the land and shall inherit my holy mountain’ (Isaiah 57:13). Before hundreds of witnesses, Jesus is effortlessly defeating the supernatural enemies of God: the demons worshipped as false gods by the damned of every age. The Word of God speaks and the fallen angels flee because they know the sound of their Creator’s voice—the Creator who allows them to exist for a limited time and for a very specific purpose. But this mercy does raise the question: What could that purpose possibly be? Why would God allow rebellious fallen angels to exist even one second longer?
Well, there are at least two reasons. First, as we read in the Psalms, God really is ‘gracious and merciful; long-suffering and of great goodness’ (Psalm 145:8). The gracious mercy which holds back God’s perfect justice against His rebellious angels is the same gracious mercy which delays God’s final justice against our unfaithful, apostate race. We say to ourselves, ‘God should really just destroy Satan right now,’ because we think we are better than Satan, or perhaps, less deserving of judgment, but we are not, particularly now that the mystery of the universe has been revealed in Christ. Rebellion against God is always stupid and mad and suicidal; it is always monstrous, and humanity’s rebellion in light of the death and resurrection of Christ is the most monstrous of all.
The second reason is hinted at in our Lord’s rebuke of His cynical backbiters, ‘But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’ (St. Luke 11:20). The ‘finger of God’ is a direct quote from Exodus 8:19, where the Egyptian wisemen and magicians of Pharaoh’s court were trying to find the words to describe what was happening to their nation as it felt the raw power of God’s judgment against it. Just a few verses earlier, God describes to Moses what will soon happen in Egypt, ‘I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them’ (Exodus 7:3-5). In Exodus, God reveals Himself to both His chosen people and their captors as the supreme God who rules over the natural forces the demon gods of the Egyptians were supposed to be controlling. In today’s Gospel, this same God is revealing Himself by casting out the same old demon gods of the past thereby forming a direct and living connection to God’s mighty acts in Exodus. God the Son is using the defeat of evil, through these public exorcisms, to fulfill the rest of Psalm 145: ‘All thy works praise thee, O Lord…They show the glory of thy kingdom, and talk of thy power; That thy power, thy glory, and the mightiness of the kingdom, might be known unto men’ (Psalms 145:10-12). In the end, the crushing defeat of God’s enemies will just blend into the triumphant chords of God’s victory march through His creation. All His creatures, even in defeat—especially in defeat—will display the mightiness and glory of the Kingdom of God.
This victory is what Jesus means when He speaks of the ‘stronger’ man coming to take the spoils of the strong man. Our Lord has already shown that the tempting power of Satan was not enough to force the second Adam to betray the Father. Satan, Beelzebub, the Prince of the World, has already met Christ in the wilderness the first Adam’s sin made desolate and barren, and in that hostile environment—itself a living witness to man’s first failure—Christ refused to be co-rulers with Satan and handed the darkness its first ever defeat. He refused to be the Lord of Excrement, and that refusal signed His death warrant, putting into motion the evil plan of Satan: the temptation and betrayal of Judas, the denial and abandonment of the apostles, and the excruciating torture and death of the world’s first true son. This Son of God, who has already proven in Exodus and in the wilderness, that He is stronger than Satan and all his demons, willingly disarms himself in the incarnation and walks into the arms of His rebellious creatures, so they can murder Him and mock His pain. Why? Why not just destroy all these evil mockers? Why not just pulverize the men and women who would spit on the God who gave them all they have and know?
Honestly, I don’t know; or I should say, I cannot comprehend the strength it must have taken to be the living and dying sacrifice for a people who simply do not deserve another minute of existence, much less this titanic display of sacrificial love. What I do know is if I am to make it through this life of temptation and the valley of death through which we all must pass, then I need to be saved by the Man who wields this strength I cannot begin to comprehend. The strength to cast out devils, the strength to pillage Hell, the strength to obediently give Himself for the love of His Father, His disciples, and the new world which began at His resurrection from the dead. This kind of strength is completely foreign to us—only partially visible in those moments of heroic self-sacrifice which defy our selfish world’s cruel logic. If we read St. Paul’s exhortation from Ephesians appointed for today and feel utterly unable to be the men and women he demands that we be then we begin to recognize how desperately we need to hold tight to the walls of this ark which surrounds us and affix our eyes and hearts on the cross as it continually reveals the only strength capable of resurrecting an evil world and our evil hearts along with it. We gather together to pray for the Holy Spirit to unite us to the stronger man because we know we are weak, and He is strong. He must dwell in us, or we will remain in Satan’s prison palace—unable to imagine a home without iron bars. Let us join then with King David and say, ‘I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies. The cords of death encompassed me; the torrents of destruction assailed me; the cords of Hell entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. In my distress I called upon the Lord; to my God I cried for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears’ (Psalm 18:1-6). Let us all cry for deliverance from the stronger man, and let us laugh and sing as the kingdoms of evil fall at His hands, and the Kingdom of God shines forth forevermore.