“JESUS was casting out a devil, and it was dumb. And it came to pass, when the devil was gone out, the dumb spake; and the people wondered. But some of them said, He casteth out devils through Beelzebub the chief of the devils. And others, tempting him, sought of him a sign from heaven. But he, knowing their thoughts, said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and a house divided against a house falleth. If Satan also be divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand? because ye say that I cast out devils through Beelzebub. And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your sons cast them out? therefore shall they be your judges. But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you.”
The events of today’s reading occur at an important juncture in the ministry of Jesus. St. Luke begins his Gospel with an extended narrative of Jesus’ birth and childhood—the longest such account of the four Gospels. Then in chapter 4, Jesus commences his ministry in Galilee, where he will remain up until the end of chapter 9. His fame grows continually as he teaches, preaches, heals, and performs exorcisms and other miracles.
Verse 51 of chapter 9 marks a significant turning point:
“And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
At this point, Jesus begins a long, slow journey to Jerusalem—a journey which will result in his crucifixion on Good Friday. Along with this shift in direction, the gospel writer also shifts his focus. Accounts of Jesus’ earlier miracles explain what Jesus does in detail, while the astonished responses of the crowds and the rapid spread of his renown are briefly summed up in a sentence or two. After 9:51, the focus shifts from the miracles to the reactions of those around him. Luke now reports division among the crowds, and he highlights individual comments along with generalized reactions. Jesus’ ministry, we now see, evokes not just amazement but also animosity and anger. We will begin to see, too, how threatening Jesus’ healings and teachings are to some, and we will start to understand how it is that Our Lord will come to be crucified.
Ultimately, we will find ourselves confronted with the same challenge and the same choice as those crowds. Then as now, Jesus does not permit indifference or neutrality. We cannot respect him at a distance while maintaining our own comfortable and independent lives. As Jesus so intolerantly declares in our Gospel reading, “He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.” We must choose to follow him on his Lenten journey or to reject him.
Today’s reading includes the first miracle performed by Jesus since he began his journey towards Jerusalem. By contrast with earlier miracles, the event itself is described briefly:
“JESUS was casting out a devil, and it was dumb. And it came to pass, when the devil was gone out, the dumb spake; and the people wondered.”
The next twenty-two verses, however, are devoted to the miracle’s aftermath—a back-and-forth between the crowds and Jesus. By contrast with earlier accounts, Jesus’ actions result in not just wonder, but wonder paired with ambivalence, resistance, and rejection.
Interestingly, no one seems to dispute that something miraculous occurred. There are no skeptics suggesting that perhaps the man wasn’t really ever possessed in the first place, no “Jesus truthers” positing that Jesus and the mute man were in cahoots. As Fr. Gene alluded to in his sermon for Lent I , skeptics from our own day and age tend to attribute Jesus’ exorcisms to scientific ignorance—just as they attribute the Resurrection to pre-modern credulity, as though we needed the Enlightenment to tell us that dead people stay dead.
German scholar Rudolf Bultmann believed that what he called “the New Testament world of spirits and miracles” reflected the worldview of a pre-scientific age. He urged Christian preaching not to insist on a literal interpretation of the miraculous because he believed that lightbulbs and radios and penicillin make modern persons literally unable to believe in miracles.
As Fr. Glenn has pointed out before, Bultmann is simply wrong. The number of professed atheists in America today remains far smaller than the number of people who believe in the miraculous. The modern world does not render us incapable of believing in miracles. But it does make belief harder. I know that my immediate response to non-biblical accounts of miracles is skepticism and doubt. I suspect that I’m not alone in that reaction. The modern person is, to a certain extent, inoculated against belief in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.
Bultmann’s deeper failure, though, is that he sees such disbelief as proof of the modern world’s superiority. He sees disbelief in miracles as the natural, indeed inevitable, outcome of a rational and scientific worldview rather than seeing this skepticism for what it is: a limitation on our ability to comprehend the world as it truly is, an impediment to our grasp of reality.
Jesus’ audience in today’s Gospel reading suffers from no such limitation. Again, no one seems to have doubted what they saw and experienced. A man rendered mute by a demon is freed from demonic possession by Jesus and can now speak. All seem to assume the reality of this event.
So what happens next? Every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord, right?
Wrong. Some in the crowd accuse him of being in league with the devil, while others demand “a sign from heaven.”
But how can this be? Isn’t an exorcism sign enough? They’ve experienced a miracle! And isn’t experience the surest form of knowledge?
As a child I recall staying up in bed at night wrestling with doubt. And I cannot tell you how many times I asked for a sign from heaven—just one little, private miracle, I thought, and I’d have no more doubts. I was aware, by the way, that you aren’t supposed to demand a sign from heaven, but I took great comfort in the story of Gideon getting away with it multiple times—and I was also a little annoyed, since he got three miracles on demand, and I was only ever asking for one!
So it has always been hard for me to wrap my mind around biblical accounts of disbelief in the face of the miraculous. But these stories are all over Scripture. The Israelites under Moses get the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, water flowing out of rocks, manna from heaven, and a host of other revelations of divine power—and yet they still doubt God. The prophet Elijah performs wonders that frighten King Ahab, but they surely don’t result in repentance. The raising of Lazarus from the dead leads to some worship but also to death plots—against Jesus and against Lazarus!
So were the Israelites, King Ahab, and the Pharisees just impossibly stupid?
Well no, not really, because as today’s Gospel teaches us—and the whole of the biblical narrative seems to shout—experience does not automatically lead to faith and faithful living. Seeing miracles is not enough. Even receiving miracles is not enough.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus goes on to tell a story about an unclean spirit departing from a man, only to return later with “seven other spirits more wicked than himself.” Now, remember the setting and the scene. Presumably the man freed from his demon is standing right there amidst the crowd, and I have to think the message came through loud and clear to him: having a demon cast out of you does not necessarily put you—or keep you—in a state of grace.
Our reading then concludes with a woman crying out a blessing upon Jesus’ mother. St. Luke’s Gospel makes it abundantly clear that Mary is indeed “blessed among women.” Yet here Jesus responds, “Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.” St. Augustine comments, “Mary was more blessed in accepting the faith of Christ than in conceiving the flesh of Christ… her maternal relationship,” he says, “would have done Mary no good unless she had borne Christ more happily in her heart than in her flesh.” In a sense, then, being the mother of Jesus is in-and-of-itself not enough.
Taken alone, experience is meaningless. The Blessed Virgin Mary bore the Word of God in her body. She witnessed the astonishing events of his incarnation, birth, infancy, and ministry. And yet: “Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it.” Mary’s experience demanded an interpretation and a response. She responded, as St. Luke’s Gospel tells us more than once, by treasuring up all these things and pondering them in her heart. And actually, as Gabriel’s conversation with her and the Magnificat indicate, Mary’s total trust in God was the necessary prerequisite for becoming the Theotokos, the Mother of God, in the first place. And as this magnificent icon will now remind and instruct us, her faith and faithfulness still point us to Christ.
She reminds us that today, now, in this Lenten season we are daily confronted with the choice—to order our lives wholly around Jesus and his living body, the Church, or to forsake him. We can seek the glory of God or the glory that comes from man. We can live for ourselves and serve our appetites, or we can follow Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem. Lent reminds us that this journey will bring us to Golgotha, and to join him on it means taking up our cross and dying to self. The finger of God casts out devils. The kingdom of God is come upon us.