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In both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels we read the story of an attempt to create fear of Jesus in the masses by those who had much to lose if his social, political and economic teachings were embraced. There are elements in this story which aren’t immediately obvious for us in our context today. Yet if we take a moment, this story still offers us much. Let’s begin with the texts themselves.
“While they were going out, a man who was demon-possessed and could not talk was brought to Jesus. And when the demon was driven out, the man who had been mute spoke. The crowd was amazed and said, ‘Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.’ But the Pharisees said, ‘It is by the prince of demons that he drives out demons.’” (Matthew 9:32-34)
“Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.’” (Matthew 12:25-38)
“Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. But some of them said, ‘By Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.’ Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: ‘Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebul. Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.’” (Luke 11:14-15, 17-20)
If we are going to get our heads around these passages, we first must to step back into the worldview of the writers. As we have covered before, a Jewish apocalyptic worldview holds a dualistic view of this world and the cosmos. There are earthy powers for good and evil and there are also parallel cosmic forces for good and evil that the earthly powers are simply a conduit for. First Century Jewish apocalypticism added to this a belief that they were the earthly expression of the cosmic good. They would have also viewed their foreign oppressors (Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Media, Persia, Greece, and finally Rome) as earthly expressions of evil. They and their oppressors would have been connected in some way to cosmic forces of good and evil: the Jewish people to YHWH and their oppressors to evil (the satan, Beelzebul, demons, etc.)
Ever since the days of Jeremiah, many Jews had interpreted their exile and foreign occupation as punishment from YHWH for Judah’s sins. They longed for liberation, which they referred to as YHWH’s forgiveness of those sins, and they viewed this liberation as YHWH taking on the cosmic powers of evil and evil’s earthly conduits and working out a victory that would be expressed or reflected in their political, social, and economic freedom.
In the minds of the early gospel writers, Jesus represents the earthly hope of YHWH’s cosmic deliverance. I want to be very careful here. Jesus did not fulfill all of the Jewish hopes for a coming Messiah. Rosemary Reuther rightly states, “he announced this Messianic hope, and . . . gave signs of its presence, but . . . also died in that hope, crucified on the cross of unredeemed human history” (To Change the World: Christology and Cultural Criticism, p. 42). In this light, the cross interrupts Jesus’ saving work and is overcome by the resurrection. The early Jewish community of Jesus followers continued to proclaim that hope, and also to begin to experience its presence. Yet they also, like Jesus, did so under “the cross of unresolved human contradictions.” (Ibid.)
In this week’s saying, Jesus represents liberation. Yet he is being accused, instead, of being an earthly conduit of cosmic forces of oppression, even while engaged in activity that his own community would have normally seen as liberating.
The Satan & Beelzubul
I want to say a few words this week about the satan and Beelzubul. “Satan” in Jewish apocalypticism is not a name but a title or a label. It’s more accurately “the satan,” the adversary. So Jesus’ question in this saying could be more appropriately understood as “If the adversary is divided against himself then how will his kingdom stand?” Here, Jesus objects to the logic of claiming that he is an adversary of the people and yet against their adversary. A house divided against itself will fail.
Finger of God
Luke’s use of the “finger of God” in his version of the saying has an interesting history behind it. In Jewish history, this is the phrase used by Pharaoh’s magicians when they recognized the cosmic power of good behind the earthly conduit of the liberation of the oppressed in the figure of Moses:
“And the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God!’ But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, just as the LORD had said.” (Exodus 8:19)
The author of Luke would have wanted to connect Jesus in the minds and hearts of the readers not only with the liberation symbol of Moses but also with a slur. The Egyptian magicians could recognize YHWH’s liberation work when they saw it, yet the people in Jesus’ society could not. Their understanding of earthly events and their ability to perceive the cosmic forces behind those events was lower than even their Egyptian oppressors. The Jewish portion of Luke’s audience would have been highly offended by this.
TodayPositive social changes as the end of slavery, racial integration, the end of patriarchy and egalitarianism, and justice for the marginalized (including the LGBT community), historically have not come from within the church, from our intrinsic process, but rather have been imposed on the church from outside forces.
If the church is meant to be such a power of good in our society, why is it that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. used to ask, the church too often is not the headlights of our society but its taillights? Both the church and the world still haven’t rejected classism, but in the areas, I have just mentioned, our secular society is far ahead of the church.
I recently had the privilege of sitting in the audience of a congregation thought to be special because it was the first in its own faith tradition to ordain women to ministry. Then they mentioned the date: 1995. Let that sink in for a minute. 1995. 1995! That’s 76 years after the United States Congress passed the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women a right to vote in American society. Seventy-six years!
For this congregation to be celebrating its work is two-edged. Yes, it’s good to finally celebrate that things have come around. (I should also mention that right now within that same tradition, administrators have agreed that churches that ordain women and their respective territories should be censured for a year and required to cease, desist, and reverse the ordinations of women that they’ve conducted since 1995.
The other side of this double edge is that 76 years is nothing to celebrate when many other denominations crossed this Rubicon over half a century ago.
So why do churches only embrace positive, liberating changes within our society when forced to? Many of these changes can be traced back to the very story Jesus that many Christians would say is at the center of their tradition. I think it’s anachronistic to say Jesus was a feminist, but he did challenge some of the societal assumptions about women in his day. He did regard women as made in the image of God as equally as men. Yet churches that desire to follow Jesus are not pioneering on these issues. They aren’t even bringing up the rear: many are digging their heels and refusing to change. (The same can be said regarding race and LGBTQ equality, as well.)
If history teaches us anything about the struggle between sectors of our society who practice faith and the larger secular sectors of our society in matters of justice, violence and oppression (see Susan Jacoby’s Freethinkers: A History of Secularism in America), it’s that many faith groups are only going to shift the dynamics within their structures when forced to. I can’t help but think of the myriads of Christians in my own region who, as I write this, continue to make excuses for the extremely sexist, misogynistic, racist and violent language which continues to be used in U.S.’s politics, rather than being social pioneers of the path to systemic sex, race, class and LGBTQ justice. Which part of Jesus, I wonder, does any of this even look like?
Too often, we mean well, yet aren’t well informed by or even exposed to the experiences of those not like us. Instead of seeing the parallels between liberation movements in the time of Jesus and those in our world today, movements about survival, liberation, resistance, restoration, and transformation; and instead of seeing the parallels between these movements, these brave people, and their Jesus, some of us see these movements as somehow threatening, evil, and something to be minimized and even removed.
Just this week more fear was being stoked among the masses toward the voices in publicly elected office that are calling for an egalitarian change in the context of societal justice for certain marginalized communities. Once again, causing fear among the masses is being attempted. This doesn’t just happen in secular politics but church politics as well. Inciting fear is a most successful tool for excluding voices for egalitarian change inside the church, as well.
In this context, our passage is striking for me. Whether the “demons” we’re casting out from our societies are racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, or other kinds of evil, this week reminds us that those privileged in this society frequently view liberation movements as the work of “Beelzubul” rather than of “YHWH.” They fail to perceive the finger of God when it works for the liberation of those under our thumbs, liberation that would change the entire world for everyone.
It is one thing to be deceived and mistake something evil for something good. It is an entirely different matter to be threatened by a change for good, accuse it of being evil and of the devil, and fight against it to keep it from influencing your world in spite of how much suffering it would end for so many. Too often, those who claim the name of Jesus have labeled Black liberation, women’s liberation, poor people’s liberation, LGBTQ liberation movements, and a myriad of other liberation movements as evil. It would be well to contemplate this in the context of our above story, lest we find ourselves repeating this same history from a desire to preserve the status quo today.