Taking the Satan Seriously

Talking about the Satan makes people (including me) uncomfortable.  It’s unfashionable, certainly; who “believes in” the Satan anymore? Except the Holy Father, who talks about the Satan regularly; and not a few people who have faced square-on the nearly-incomprehensible sorts of suffering that humans all too often inflict on other humans; and people who think deeply about the tiny things that can tip over into catastrophe (a half-seconds’ delay in hitting the brake pedal leads to deaths or lifetimes of disability and pain from an auto accident, to take just one everyday example).

No one likes to think about these sorts of things.  Some mental coverup and denial is probably necessary so that we can get on with our daily lives without curling up into a ball in terror.  But the Gospels of Jesus’ public ministry (to which we return today) make it clear that Jesus thought his primary adversary was – the Satan.

(Footnote: “The” Satan because in Hebrew “Satan” isn’t a proper name, it’s a title.  Our plumber’s name might be John, but he’s the plumber.  We wouldn’t call him “Plumber” as if that’s his name.  Literally translated, ha satan – that’s the Hebrew, the ha meaning “the” – means: “the adversary” in the context of a law-court.  Thus the common translation into English as “the accuser.” The Satan is the prosecuting attorney whose target is everything good. Think of his role in the story of Job.)

So this is who Jesus sees himself up against.  A little context is helpful in understanding why.

“Who’s in charge here?!” is the understandable human response when life goes against us.  The Jewish people, from their history of God’s revelation and their experience of too-regular suffering, concluded that, whoever was in charge, they didn’t like it.  The “ruler of this world” (another of Jesus’ names for the Satan) was a malevolent tyrant whose unwilling subjects suffered from his misrule and longed for a revolution that would set a benevolent leader in charge.  (That leader/king would, of course, be the God who revealed Himself to Moses, perhaps acting through his promised redeemer or messiah.)  

There’s the setting for Jesus’ preaching.  His hearers know, from their tradition and their own bitter experience, that history is under the sway of someone/something that is out to do them harm.  (The local Roman officials, their landlords and money-lenders, and all the rest of their local oppressors are agents – knowing or unknowing – of this evil power, as are the tragic experiences of illness and death.)  Jesus’ hearers are hoping, again from their tradition, that God will someday set things right-side-up again by overthrowing this tyrant and putting a just leader in charge of history. It’s this hope and expectation that Jesus addresses.

And he says that the Satan is being overthrown, and a just rule – by His Father – is beginning.  (This is the “kingdom of God” Jesus speaks so much about: It’s not faraway, or in heaven: It’s our own world right now, now becoming subject to God’s righteous way of doing things.)

But we still in 2018 experience illness, death, corrupt government leaders, favoritism in the courts, double-crossing by supposed friends, and all the rest of the marks of the Satan’s rule.  So what’s going on?

Here we need to remember that God acts not magically, in an instant, but in time.  Just as the Satan’s rule progressively corrupted more and more of creation, the redemption of creation will also take time.  And, that redemption will take the wisdom and courage of the whole Body of the Risen Christ – you, and me, working in the part of creation God has placed us in.  Victory is assured; but we need to remember the true face of our opponent. Until next week, peace.

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