Did Satan fall in my backyard?
Gospel: Luke 10:1-20
After this the Lord appointed seventy  others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. 2He said to them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest. 3Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. 4Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. 5Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” 6And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. 7Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. 8Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; 9cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”[Or: is at hand for you] 10But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, 11“Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.”[is at hand] 12I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.
13 ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14But at the judgement it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 15And you, Capernaum,
will you be exalted to heaven?
No, you will be brought down to Hades.
16 ‘Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.’
17 The seventy [or 72] returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’ 18He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 20Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’
Did Satan fall in my backyard? (Podcast here.)
This week, I had a passionate discussion with a colleague I respect. It was not an argument; we were seeking to understand each other rather than prove a point, and were careful in our conversation. We like each other; there was no malice. But we were astonished at how far apart in our understanding we are. The conversation left us distressed with each other and ourselves.
The issue we were discussing is literally life and death for some of my friends. The whole affair added to the storm I feel like I'm in at present. It's one of those moments where considered decisions haven’t turned out as expected; there's been some unexpected interactions between them, and I am fragile, and becoming sick.
So today, I am at home with the lectionary of Luke 10:1-20 where I find joy and fragility are jammed together in the tight teaching narrative of Luke. I'm not sure if he reassures me, or simply shines a brighter light on my distress!
The window into this text comes through Job 1.
6 One day the sons of God (this is the Hebrew phrase which NRSV translates as the heavenly beings) came to present themselves before the Lord, and satan— the accuser— also came among them. 7The Lord said to satan, ‘Where have you come from?’ Satan— the accuser in Hebrew understanding— answered the Lord, ‘From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.’ 8The Lord said to satan, ‘Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.’ 9Then the accuser answered the Lord, ‘Does Job fear God for nothing? 10Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.’
The heart of Luke 10 might be that in the imagination of Job Chapter One, the accuser sits in heaven, and has God's ear. He can bring about our downfall, with God's connivance. But in Jesus' imagination of reality, which he calls The Kingdom of God, satan has fallen from heaven like lightning. The accuser has been removed. It is without power, for we live now in the time of the sons of peace. (ᾖ υἱὸς εἰρήνης in Luke 10:6 is translated by NRSV as anyone, not just males ... who shares in peace.)
But in my current heart-ache, I wonder if satan has crash-landed in my backyard!
Let me explain. The accuser is a real force. There is a potency and immediacy here which makes the personification of the satan as an actual being completely understandable.
What the accuser does is question our imagining of reality, often by attacking us and diminishing us. All culture is self-serving in that it sees some things and filters out others to enable its survival. Any culture is hostile toward, and attempts to dominate, other imaginings or frameworks used to make sense of reality. This is because those other imaginings threaten its existence, and therefore, threaten the existence of its members; that is, you and me. So the culture accuses us if we step out of line.
All this can lead to the uncomfortable realisation that many of our cherished societal values are held and shared not because of human nobility, and not because we have discovered a concrete foundation in something Real (with a capital letter R), but because they serve our comfort and privilege. They shore up that joint imagining of reality which we call our culture, or even, The American People. (As we Australians have become less secure in the world, "the Australian People" has crept into the lexicon of our politicians.)
The hostile defensiveness of a culture is why a reasonable, likeable, and even admirable person can suddenly become unreasonable, repugnant and petty in our eyes: your different imagining of reality threatens my own. Choose something I hold especially dear, and you threaten my being. You become a satan to me. You accuse me. The satan is us and our way of being a society.
What Jesus, and then the twelve, (in Luke 9:1-11) and now the seventy of Luke 10 are doing, is disturbing the status quo of their culture. And that means that in a world where the kingdom has only come near, satan is resurgent. The world is on the defensive because it is unable to hear Gospel; the Gospel, in its disturbing the status quo is heard as accusation.
So in the remainder of the text there is witness to an enormous tension which is still clearly observable in our own towns and villages. Firstly, there is a harvest; people long for meaning and for rescue in a frightening and hostile world. There is an "hysteria just below the surface." And yet to go into the fields with good news— to speak in any way which challenges our cultural foundations, is like being a lamb being sent among wolves. For, if you miss the love, or do not want the cost of being loved, which is to accept that God is, and that it is upon God that we depend, then the gospel is itself an accusation. It seems as evil as satan.
The imagining of the kingdom coming is counter-cultural in Luke 10:
Rather than equipping the disciples for “Holy War” against [unbelievers], Jesus “de-equips” them of the requisite travel paraphernalia: “Do not carry a wallet, a travel bag, or sandals; and greet no one along the way” (Luke 10:3; cf. 9:3). The absence of standard traveling equipment [and the ignoring of social mores in greeting people they meet] indicates the total dependence of the disciples on the Sender. (Mikeal Parsons)
If I go into the harvest with my own cleverness and wisdom, what will I do? I will end up defending my point of view, justifying it, protecting it. I will, in effect, be the satan Jesus rebukes, because I will accuse those others I am unable to dominate with my charisma. The power of ministry must come through my weakness.
The second tension is between the places of peace and the places of rejection. Mark D Davis speaks of "the reification of peace." In the text, "Pronouncing “Peace” is not just speaking a word or expressing a sentiment, it is conferring a real entity that either rests on someone or returns to someone." How often does the notion of 'peace' in our culture degenerate into some kind of absence of war which we can't really articulate? Jesus seems to speak of something concrete, almost touchable, certainly perceivable, about a place and person. I've been in such places and known such people.
If there is no welcome, there will be no peace. There is no converting this, I suspect. We are simply to walk away. Wiping off the dust was a cultural insult and judgement, but more than that, it was and is, an act of grief. It is an admission that there is no way into further relationship. There is no peace to be seen.
Which brings us to the third tension, which is between Kingdom and Chorazin. For the one healed, the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. For the one who has been unwelcoming, judgement is the result. I understand judgement not as God determining to punish us in some way, or reject us. Judgement is us turning our backs on "what can be known about God." (cf Paul in Romans 1) Judgement is the damage we do to ourselves, and we should fear it.
Again, there are questions of weakness and strength here. I see some similarity between my younger self and Israel Folau. Like him, I was desperate to do right by God. Like him, I was manipulated by the satanic voices which accused me of not doing the right thing by God. Like him, I was changing and growing; I was becoming faith full. Unlike him, I was useless at footy, not rich, not connected enough, and not smart enough, to take one of the accusations made against me and make, on the national screen, a long play from which it will be hard to come back. What is there to protect a rich man who is not weak?
The 70, whom I suspect reflect the experience of Luke's community, and can speak for us, "returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!" Here there is a fourth tension. The demons submit to us, and yet we are heart broken. Demons were understood as "personified forces that had the power to control human behavior." (Malina, Demons/Demon Possession, 4:31-37 in Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) Our society typically misunderstands them in two ways. One is to say that such things don't exist; it's all in brain malfunction or down to superstition, and the other is to seek to honour the truth of the biblical text but, in fact, to literalise the demons as some kind of disembodied beings not too dissimilar to you and me. Both views remain blind to the clutch of social conventions which constantly push and prod us, not to mention accuse us, as they bring us under control. Looking back to the man living in the tombs in Luke 8:26-39, Jesus asks,
What is your name? The text is clear that Jesus asks him this question, not the demons. Who are you, as a whole? What is your predicament? And the man says. "I am Legion. I am pushed, pulled, battered, powerless. I do not own myself. Save me!"... If I refuse the Spirit's offer to inhabit me, then the whole lot of me, the whole clutch of ideas, desires, and fears which hold me body and soul, is lost to wander among the tombs of the unfinished and partial creation. I sink under the weight of the chains. (One Man's Web)
I have been blessed to be in a place of the peace where people who are poor and battered down nonetheless gain in their fellowship a freedom from the prodding accusations of life. The demons submit to them. Yet they, and I, are heart broken. Wreckage is all around, the daily demands of existence constantly pull at us, and it can seem that despair and fear keep trying to trip us up. Did Satan fall like lightning?
How do we live in this? Jesus says to the 70,
‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 20Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’
The ancient traditions imagined that the names of the people that God loves are written in Heaven. All that matters is that our name is written, not that we can execute acts of power.
Indeed, it seems to me that to be faithful will diminish much of what we have learned to be power. Andrew Root has an interesting article summarising some of Charles Taylor's work.
We all live inside the immanent frame, the socially constructed framework that imposes levels of attention that make divine action questionable even for those of us who do not define ourselves as atheists or unbelievers.
Taylor’s point is that we all live in that immanent frame. There is really no way out of it if you live in the West. God is in the background, and our day-to-day, moment-to-moment attention is on material things.
Root sees prayer as a way through this.
Prayer is the broadening of our attention on the world around us, looking for the arrival of God, who announces himself (sic) by speaking to us and calling us to pray for others in and through the actions of ministry... Prayer disconnects our attention from false gods not by way of a slap on the hand or a mocking condemnation but in and through the ethos of ministry itself.
Prayer is a reflective action which by its nature brings us to the attention of the accuser. It is, by its nature, refusing to be dominated by the culture, so it is a threat.
Prayer is also subject to subversion.
Some people and pastors use prayer as a way to double down on their observation blindness and pursue success or rescue as it is defined in the immanent frame. From The Prayer of Jabez to the prosperity gospel, prayer has been used as a way to continue to focus on the immanent acts of counting dollars, possessions, and followers—or else as a way to insure yourself against bad luck. This is not really prayer but wishful thinking cased in religious language. Prayer disconnected from ministry is a self-serving strategy which doesn’t need God. (My emphasis)
And our protection in all this is that we "pray for others in and through the actions of ministry." Ministry is not about being down the front as the lead singer or preacher. It is about service in the place of wolves. It is about weakness and compassion which carries with it the peace to which some people will respond with joy, because in that peace they feel love, not accusation. And it costs us. There is not ministry without pain. It especially brings us to the attention of the satan.
What can one do? Talking with a friend about where our call to service had taken us, and the pain it has caused, I said, "But you wouldn't want to be blind to your calling, would you? You wouldn't want to be someone else?" The reply was instant: "Of course not." I think where we sit as Christians is found a few verses after the Sunday reading:
23 Then turning to the disciples, Jesus said to them privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! 24For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.’
What crashes down in my backyard with satan is one particular accusation: You are not upholding the image of a God who promises unending and guaranteed happiness. And in the words of a mailing list acquaintance, “sometimes you really need a God who promises more than just unending and guaranteed happiness.” You need a God who has written down your name.
Andrew Prior (2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also on One Man's Web
Luke 10:1-20 - Hospitable Mission (2010) which includes this quotation from Bill Loader:
Loader says about this strategy, and the people involved, that
They were never meant to be above the locals, but rather to engage them in the same mission. Their lifestyle was a statement against prevailing values, a kind of protest which defied the normalcy which insisted people remained bound to their locality, family and station in life and treated it as their reward. The strangeness of these early patterns may be accounted for by the vast chasm of time and culture; it may, however, reflect a high level of estrangement on our part from the values which drove them. (My emphasis)
Luke 10:1-20 - Jesus Trumps Brexit... by not playing the game (2016) This post looks in much more detail at the Girardian interpretation of satan that informs this post in 2019