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Matthew 6:9-13

“Do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” (NRSV)

Historians tell us that during times of plague there is a resurgence of popular belief in demons as people seek an explanation for the evil that has befallen them.  Some may think this no longer happens in the modern world, assuming science and education have exorcised all demons. But the demons we fear are not little devilish beings that invade our consciousness, they are self-inflicted social constructs like racism. Because in times like our own, people seek scapegoats to blame for what is happening and then demonize them.  These demons then control our consciousness, shape our perceptions, and fuel our fear.  We become “demon possessed,” driven to irrational and harmful actions which some, shirking personal responsibility, blame on the Devil, the ultimate evil Other who lurks in the background pulling the strings like the Darth Vader in Star Wars or Sauron in the Lord of the Rings.

In biblical mythology, just as angels do the work of God, so demons do the work of the Devil or Satan (the “accuser”), the primordial archangel who fell from grace.  At our baptism we Christians traditionally pledge to fight “the Devil”, yet the more “enlightened” among us have difficulty in accepting his reality.  But if we had to exorcise the Devil from the pages of the New Testament, the poems of John Milton or the novels of Dostoevsky, we would leave gaping holes in the text.  Did not Jesus struggle against Satan in the Wilderness, and teach us to pray that God would “rescue us from the evil one?” (as translated in the NRSV).  A prayer we regularly repeat even if we deny the Devil’s existence.  Yet we cannot easily expunge our sense and experience of evil as a constant force at work in the world, however we explain it.

Just as our images of God are usually totally inadequate because they are anthropomorphic, so are our images of the Devil.  God does not literally sit on a throne somewhere above the clouds, neither does the Devil have horns. The idea of the Devil as a powerful being co-existing alongside God is rejected by Christianity. The word God represents the personification of ultimate love, beauty and goodness revealed in Jesus Christ, whereas the Devil represents the personification of absolute evil. This is revealed on the faces of the crowd bellowing crucify him, mobs lynching blacks, soldiers herding Jews into cattle trucks and gas chambers, guards torturing prisoners, and neighbours hacking fellow neighbours to death in acts of genocide.  I certainly saw the face of the “evil one” when I witnessed vicious police dogs and their handlers attacking non-violent protesters during the struggle against apartheid.

We can also see the face of Satan on those who order the bombing of innocent civilians and hospitals in the Middle East, those who leave refugees fleeing terror to drown in the Mediterranean, drug lords plying their trade, police murdering innocent victims on the road-side, agent provocateurs instigating acts of wanton destruction, gangs raping women, and parents or priests abusing children.  And let us not forget the complacent and smug faces of corrupt politicians and business tycoons who destroy rain forests out of greed, and those who lust for power for personal gain.  And because, according to Jesus, the Devil, though often disguised as “an angel of light”, is the “father of lies” (John 6:44), the face of the “evil one” is seen among those who spread fake news and propaganda. Indeed, the Devil is both a “roaring lion” devouring whatever takes his fancy (I Peter 5:8), and an habitual liar.  And, sadly, his face is revealed when political leaders, who start out as champions of the people, become despots and tyrants. All these, as Bonhoeffer put it, resemble the image of Satan, not God.  For just as God works through human agents who share God’s love in serving others, so the power of evil becomes personified in the works of those who perform evil deeds.  

But let us be aware lest we who claim to be the followers of Jesus might agents of evil even while claiming to be angels of light and love.  Jesus does not only teach us to pray “deliver us from the evil one”, but also “do not bring us to the trial” or “lead us not into temptation.”  God help us, so we are praying, that we do not become agents of evil, or silent bystanders and beneficiaries watching evil at work from a safe distance.  God help us not to demonize and dehumanize others, even our enemies, for that is not loving them as Jesus requires.  Indeed, may God save us from using the Devil’s tools in fighting the Devil!  That was at the heart of Jesus’ own struggle when confronted by Satan in the Wilderness, the temptation to gain the whole world in God’s name but losing our souls. So, in our witness to social justice, in our ministry of healing and wholeness, and in our struggle for peace and reconciliation, we must resist self-righteous arrogance, otherwise we fail to see the face of the “evil one” when we look in the mirror. For the Devil is most sly in his attacks on ardent believers who end up burning heretics and killing prophets. After all, Jesus’ religious accusers called him the agent of Satan even while he was casting out demons! (Matthew 12:22-32).

But, in the end, if we take the Devil and fight him seriously, we need to learn how to laugh in his face.  He may be powerful, but his time is up.  He may take himself very seriously, but we need not take him too seriously for even a tiny virus can dethrone him.   Like all bullies and tyrants, the Devil cannot laugh at himself, nor can he stand us laughing at him!  Julian of Norwich knew that very well, as Isobel tells us in one of her many poems about Julian and her Revelations.

Dark and sombre the mood,

mother and siblings hovering,

wiping her fevered brow with cool cloths;

the priest holding aloft the crucifix

on which her eyes are fixed,

all watching for her last breath,

while longing for the next laboured one,

and the next …

when, suddenly, she laughs out loud,

so merrily, so spontaneously,

that they all are infected and

all of them burst out laughing.

In a moment the room is awash

with waves of mirth, death forgotten,

life ascending.

Hushing again as Julian talks,

for this needs some explaining:

“By this the Fiend is overcome!”

she proclaims, turning her gaze again

on the crucifix, “By Christ’s Passion,

by his blood pouring out so plentifully”.

We can laugh at the Devil,

that poor impotent creature,

and scorn him as nothing,

while we still seriously oppose

whatever he tries to do.

                        May 2012

John de Gruchy

Volmoed.11 June 2020

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