Satan Falls Like Lightning

Proper 5B-24 – Semi-continuous

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Jesus must have been really, really, tired.  Just three chapters into Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ itinerary is exhausting: Jesus has gone from his hometown, to the wilderness, to Galilee, to the sea, to Capernaum, to a house, to a deserted place, and back out to the towns of Galilee, (we’re still in the first chapter), then back to Capernaum, and to home, then to the sea again, to Levi’s house, though the grain fields, and to the synagogue, back to the sea, where he got into a boat to teach, up a mountain where he appointed the twelve apostles, and then, finally, now, finally he is home again.

Yet, he doesn’t even have time to eat.  Dinner with the disciples is interrupted by a crowd inside the house who surrounds him with requests for healing. Then here comes his mom and his brothers, criticizing him in their own (loving) way, who are there to do some kind of family intervention. They are there to restrain him. (The Greek word used here is “an aggressive Greek verb that can mean ‘seize,’ ‘grab,’ or ‘arrest.'” We’ll hear Mark use it again when the authorities come to arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane.)

And now a group of religious leaders accuse him of being in league with the devil. The people are clamoring for Jesus to touch them or to teach them; others are clamoring to control him or to kill him. Such was the chaotic setting for Jesus’ first parable. He answered them all with a riddle. Tell me, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” Jesus asks. “A divided kingdom cannot stand” (Mark 3:23-26).

Today’s gospel may evoke memories of Abraham Lincoln’s ‘House Divided’ speech from three years before the start of the Civil War (June 16, 1858).  Lincoln’s words might be more famous than Jesus’ words.  ‘A house divided cannot stand. The government cannot endure half slave and half free.’

The lesson Lincoln drew from today’s gospel was about the necessity of national unity and integrity to values laid out in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal.” (The U.S. Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776).

All deference to Abraham Lincoln aside, exhausted Jesus’ riddle aims at an even bigger point. Jesus is addressing the chaotic and acrimonious situation he found himself in—and that we also so often find ourselves in.  He likened himself to a thief breaking into a house and tying up the occupier before ransacking their goods. “No one,” he said, “can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered” (Mark 3:23-27).

In other words, Jesus was getting ready to plunder Satan’s house. Jesus is going to pick the devil’s pocket. The devil and all the forces that defy God; the powers of this world that rebel against God; the ways of sin that draw you from God will be dispelled like a fever dream by the gospel medicine of grace.

The truth Jesus means us to see is that the human way of trying to keep our house together will never ultimately work because it always relies on expelling someone or being over against someone. In fact, “Satan casting out Satan” is the briefest description of the mechanism which has ordered human community since its beginnings. It describes the sinful ordering of our origins; it names our Original Sin (Paul Nuechterlein, Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, Proper 5B). Jesus has come to expose and expel this sin which operates mostly at the level of our subconscious. This riddle about Satan is the first glimpse.

By contrast, Jesus comes proclaiming the kingdom — the household — of God—a home for all built on the stone the builders rejected. Jesus will let himself be cast out under the satanic accusation, in part, to reveal to us how God can build a more stable and sturdy home for us based on forgiveness. Satan’s reign is at an end. Satan simply evaporates like the dew on the morning grass when it is exposed to the sun of God’s grace.

This is because Satan is not divine. Satan is not a demi-god. Satan is not like some Marvel comics character. Satan has no reality outside of our human relations. In naming him we allude to something essential to human life. ‘Satan’ is a name for the way human beings are often not aware of the circular destructive processes in which they are trapped. We read an example from 1 Samuel. The people demanded to have a king. The people got their way. And for four hundred years, Israel will be governed by kings who, with few exceptions, “will rule them into ruin” (Jo Ann Post, “What Happens When Samuel Reads the Fine Print?” The Christian Century, 5/19/21).

If we were to organize differently, Satan’s power would disappear. Jesus came inaugurating that different way of organizing, around forgiveness rather than accusation. By unveiling these satanic powers Jesus dealt them a death blow. How does the power of the accuser operate among us today?

The poet Wendell Berry has said the “dominant theme of our time is the violence done against human life and the land.” Or perhaps Satan now goes by a different name called ‘the invisible hand of the free market,’ which is another way of not taking responsibility for the consequences of our complex collective actions. But Satan is losing his transcendent powers; Satan’s house is being plundered. Satan falls from heaven like lightning, bringing an exhausted Jesus, and all of us, some peace and quiet.

World renowned scholar and theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, died this week.  In his book, Theology of Hope, Moltmann said hope is rooted in the conflict between the present and the future. Jesus transfigures and transforms the present into something new. He does this is the most unimaginable way.

Jesus is beaten down, humiliated, stripped, and flogged, made a symbol of utter failure, of the inability for the reign of God to bring about a new world. This is the terror of Rome’s cross, that in Jesus God appears as dying, as dead, as void. The crucifixion is as much a mirror for our present moment as it is an insight into the life of Jesus. We experience the crucifixion today in the total rejection of queer people from the life of Christian faith. We experience the crucifixion today in the attempt to totally obliterate Gaza and Palestinians, and for it to be done in the name of religion, in the name of God, in the name of the God of Jesus of Nazareth.

We see it in the despair of Mary who wept over the death of Jesus. There at the tomb, she faces the crucifixion in its haunting silence. She experiences the failure of her religion. She sees only the present. Then she hears Jesus’s voice and Satan’s house is plundered.

This is the impossibility God now makes possible. It is the gift of a future that is not limited or determined by the past. When grace abounds the future that opens before us would seem to be contradicted by the present.  It is the possibility of a future even after the world has turned God into nothing. For Moltmann, this is the ground of our Christian hope.

The gospels proclaim the oncoming of despair. And just as we feel this finality, resurrection takes the despairing world into itself and transforms it entirely.  (Colton R. Bernasol, Sojourners Magazine)