Thursday, June 07, 2018

The Reality of Satan: 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time

This Sunday we return to Ordinary Time for the first time since February 11.  That was the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, but the seventh, eighth, and ninth Sundays were overridden by Pentecost, Trinity, and Corpus Christi.  So we pick up with the Tenth Sunday in Year B on this Lord’s Day.  We are still near the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, following Our Lord’s early ministry.  On this Sunday, the readings are tied together by the theme of defeating Satan.

1. Our First Reading recalls the sorry introduction of Satan’s influence into human history: Gn 3:9-15:

After the man, Adam, had eaten of the tree,
the LORD God called to the man and asked him, "Where are you?"
He answered, "I heard you in the garden;
but I was afraid, because I was naked,
so I hid myself."
Then he asked, "Who told you that you were naked?
You have eaten, then,
from the tree of which I had forbidden you to eat!"
The man replied, "The woman whom you put here with me—
she gave me fruit from the tree, and so I ate it."
The LORD God then asked the woman,
"Why did you do such a thing?"
The woman answered, "The serpent tricked me into it, so I ate it."

Then the LORD God said to the serpent:
"Because you have done this, you shall be banned
from all the animals
and from all the wild creatures;
on your belly shall you crawl,
and dirt shall you eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike at your head,
while you strike at his heel."

This is a very rich text with many dimensions to ponder.  We pick up right after Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God by eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Many scholars think that “good and evil” is a merism, a literary device that indicates a comprehensive range of data by citing the two extremes, thus, “From A to Z” means “everything from A to Z”, and “the heavens and the earth” means “everything from the high to the low.”  In the same way, “knowledge of good and evil” may mean “knowledge of everything from the best to the worst,” in other words, omniscience.  From this viewpoint, the Serpent promised Adam and Eve omniscience if they ate from the tree.  However, in a darkly humorous turn of events, the only factual bit of knowledge that Adam and Eve gain from their eating is this: their nakedness!  What a cosmic let-down!  Promised divine omniscience, their new-found knowledge instead consists only in the realization of their nakedness, which is, in part, a symbol of their vulnerability.  This makes us think of all the times in human history where Promethean advances in knowledge have led to radical realization of the vulnerability of human survival.  So Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, which soon was employed in warfare to wreak death and destruction.  Likewise, the mastery of the atom lead to the most horrific human-destroying bombs ever used in battle, and led to decades of a worldwide perpetual culture of fear that we call the “cold war.”  We could go on and on with examples.  The point is, the pursuit of knowledge apart from a relationship with God has disastrous consequences and inevitably reveals the vulnerability of human existence. 

In the aftermath of Adam and Eve’s sin, we see that God takes the initiative in attempting to restore the relationship.  Thus we see that God always takes the initiative in the order of grace and redemption.  We do not seek out God so much as he seeks us.  In hindsight, we always see that he was drawing us to himself even when we thought we were on a quest for him.  Is this not the nature of love, to seek reconciliation with the person who rejects it?  Have you not ever found yourself in the strange position that someone who has wronged you now avoids you and won’t answer your calls, even though you seek to offer them forgiveness?  So it is with God and Adam.  Not only does Adam not seek out God, he actively flees from him and hides from him, but God, the “hound of heaven,” seeks him out.  The LORD is unwilling for man to be lost. 

Sin leads to a breach of relationship and then fear enters in.  So Adam is now afraid of God, and when pushed to confess what he has done, he offers this lame excuse, “The woman whom you put here with me –she gave me to eat …”  Notice how Adam passes the buck to both God and his wife.  He did nothing wrong—no, no! He was standing here minding his own business, when his wife gave him this fruit, see –-and it’s all God’s fault for giving him the wife in the first place!  In a sense, all of human evil originates with the first husband and father being unwilling to stand up and take responsibility for a situation. 

At least Eve has the decency to speak plainly: “The serpent deceived me, and I ate …”

In response, God places a curse on the serpent, including the promise that: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall crush your head, and you shall crush his heel” (my translation).  This famous verse (Gen 3:15) is often called the protoevangelium or “first good news”, because it is the first indication in Scripture of how we will be delivered from the power of the Evil One.  The “seed of the woman” will come, who will crush the head of the serpent.  The Church’s tradition has seen in this concept of the “seed of the woman” a reference to the virgin birth.  The phrase “seed of the woman” is a bit odd, since in ancient times women were not considered to have seed, but to be passive in the act of procreation.  The one born of a virgin, however, could truly be said to be the “seed of the woman” and of no man at all. 
Most modern English translations of Genesis 3:15 read, “He shall crush your head”, referring to the “seed of the woman”, understood to be Jesus Christ. However, the Douay-Rheims and Vulgate read, “She shall crush your head”, which has always been understood as a reference to the Blessed Virgin. This has often been depicted in iconography. The difficulty probably lies in the fact that the Hebrew male and female pronouns are written similarly and easily confused: St. Jerome’s Hebrew text evidently had a feminine pronoun in this place. The stronger linguistic case, however, can be made for an original masculine pronoun. Theologically, there is no difficulty, since it is true that both the seed (Jesus Christ) and the woman (the Virgin Mary) crush the head of the serpent: the woman crushes the head by means of her seed.

Will the serpent’s head be “crushed” (Douay-Rheims) or “bruised” (RSVCE) or “struck” (NAB)? The Hebrew verb shûph is very rare, occurring elsewhere only in Psalm 139:11 and Job 9:17. Its use in Genesis 3:15 is theologically controversial because of the significance of the verse, and translations vary widely. However, in the relatively uncontroversial passage Job 9:17, almost all English versions translate “crush” or “break”. Therefore, the traditional translation “crush” in Genesis 3:15 (following the Latin Vulgate) is justified.

Biblical and ecclesiastical tradition have always seen in the serpent something more than just a snake.  So in Revelation 12:9 we have a canonical interpretation of the serpent of Gen 3:

Rev. 12:9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world …

Nonetheless, many Bible scholars dispute that anything beyond a natural snake was intended by the sacred author of Genesis 3.  Based on the work of renowned Assyriologist and Pentateuch expert Richard Averbeck, I would argue that even the ancient author of Genesis 3 intended the serpent to symbolize a personal, supernatural evil.  Averbeck points out the serpent was associated with malevolent deities in multiple ancient Near Eastern cultures, especially Egypt, where religious belief held that Amon-Re the Sun God did battle with Apep (aka Apophis) the chaos-serpent every night from dusk till dawn, until rising victorious every morning.  There are many reasons to see the early chapters of Genesis as written against the background of Egyptian and other ancient Near Eastern mythologies, in which case the ancient readers would be prone to understand the serpent as the embodiment of evil. 

Egyptian Sun God Fighting the Chaos Serpent Apep

In any event, it is de fide that our first parents, in whatever form, were tempted by Satan and rebelled against God.  This started an ongoing struggle in which Satan has continually tried to destroy the human race, often with willing human cooperation!  But the “seed of the woman” would one day come, and that is who we see in the Gospel Reading below.
P. Responsorial Psalm Ps 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8:
R. (7bc) With the Lord there is mercy, and fullness of redemption.
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;
LORD, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to my voice in supplication.
R. With the Lord there is mercy, and fullness of redemption.
If you, O LORD, mark iniquities,
LORD, who can stand?
But with you is forgiveness,
that you may be revered.
R. With the Lord there is mercy, and fullness of redemption.
I trust in the LORD;
my soul trusts in his word.
More than sentinels wait for the dawn,
let Israel wait for the LORD.
R. With the Lord there is mercy, and fullness of redemption.
For with the LORD is kindness
and with him is plenteous redemption
and he will redeem Israel
from all their iniquities.
R. With the Lord there is mercy, and fullness of redemption.

This extremely beautiful psalm is one of the “Psalms of Ascent” (Pss 120-134), which were probably pilgrimage psalms for going up to the rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem after the end of the Babylonian exile.  This Psalm in particular praises God for his mercy:

 If you, O LORD, mark iniquities,
LORD, who can stand?
But with you is forgiveness,
that you may be revered.

This recalls all of God’s mercy at the moment of the fall of our first parents.  God could have slain Adam and Eve, or forgotten and abandoned them, leaving them to their own devices.  But instead, he seeks them out, spares them from the immediate death their deeds deserve, and kills an animal in their place to clothe them with its skin—a foreshadowing of the cross (Gen 3:21), thus covering their nakedness and enabling them to survive outside the garden. 

So the LORD does not mark iniquities, and offers us forgiveness.  That leads to a curious statement by the Psalmist: “With you there is forgiveness, therefore you are feared (Hebrew)”.  Why would God be feared because he offers forgiveness?  Wouldn’t it be just the opposite?  Actually, there is a profound lesson here.  First of all, “feared” in this context means “worshiped,” as the NAB rightly recognizes.  Secondly, God’s forgiveness leads to worship, because if God did not forgive, there would be no point in worshipping him!  One might as well just give up and run away, because only fearsome judgement can be expected!  But that is not the kind of God we have.  He is merciful, and therefore worship is both possible and also an obligation of justice in light of his kindness toward us.  Worship is the appropriate sign of gratitude for what God has done for us.
2. The Second Reading is 2 Cor 4:13—5:1:
Brothers and sisters:
Since we have the same spirit of faith,
according to what is written, “I believed, therefore I spoke,”
we too believe and therefore we speak,
knowing that the one who raised the Lord Jesus
will raise us also with Jesus
and place us with you in his presence.
Everything indeed is for you,
so that the grace bestowed in abundance on more and more people
may cause the thanksgiving to overflow for the glory of God.
Therefore, we are not discouraged;
rather, although our outer self is wasting away,
our inner self is being renewed day by day.
For this momentary light affliction
is producing for us an eternal weight of glory
beyond all comparison,
as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen;
for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal.
For we know that if our earthly dwelling, a tent,
should be destroyed,
we have a building from God,
a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in heaven.

This passage may be understood as a commentary on the whole sorry situation of humanity that our first parents brought down on us.  Because of their sin and our own, we experience death and decay in this world, and our “earthly dwelling” will be “destroyed” inevitably.  Nonetheless, because of the work of the “seed of the woman”, we have the promise that our bodies will one day be like his glorious body, and this resurrected body is the “building from God … a dwelling not made with hands.”  This phrase “not made with hands” is significant.  In the Old Testament, sacred structures could not be defiled by human hands.  Therefore, originally, altars had to be constructed of unhewn rock, that is, rocks not marred by human hand.  Because of this, there arose a strong tradition that God cannot ultimately dwell in anything made by human hands. The human body, however, was made by the hand of God.  Therefore, the resurrected body is a very suitable dwelling place or Temple of God.  So what we have here is body-temple imagery, which is very common in St. Paul, esp. in Ephesians (see Eph 2) and elsewhere.  It is St. Paul who says, “Do you not know that your body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit?” (1 Cor 6:19).

For this reason, Eve is said to have been “built” (Heb. banah), not “made” (Heb ’asah), from Adam’s side.  Why “built”? Because she was a temple.  But Adam and Eve both lost this temple-nature as dwelling places of the “breath of life” (Gen. 2:7; i.e. the Holy Spirit) when they sinned.  But in Christ, the Holy Spirit is poured out into our hearts once more (Rom 5:5), constituting us the dwelling place of God and therefore his Temple.
G. The Gospel is Mk 3:20-35:
Jesus came home with his disciples.
Again the crowd gathered,
making it impossible for them even to eat.
When his relatives heard of this they set out to seize him,
for they said, "He is out of his mind."
The scribes who had come from Jerusalem said,
"He is possessed by Beelzebul,"
and "By the prince of demons he drives out demons."

Summoning them, he began to speak to them in parables,
"How can Satan drive out Satan?
If a kingdom is divided against itself,
that kingdom cannot stand.
And if a house is divided against itself,
that house will not be able to stand.
And if Satan has risen up against himself
and is divided, he cannot stand;
that is the end of him.
But no one can enter a strong man's house to plunder his property
unless he first ties up the strong man.
Then he can plunder the house.

The fact that Jesus can cast out evil spirits indicates that he has already “tied up the strong man,” that is, somehow overpowered Satan.  Therefore, Jesus is the “seed of the woman” come to “crush the serpent’s head,” i.e. defeat Satan.  Jesus’ exorcisms prove this, and the Church continues to exercise the power of exorcism in his name, because “all things are under his feet, for the sake of the body, the Church” (cf. Eph 1:22-23).  In fact, the sacraments have exorcistic power, especially Confession. 

The image of “a kingdom divided against itself that cannot stand” is actually taken from Israel’s history.  Rehoboam provoked the split of the Kingdom of Israel in 1 Kings 12, and thereafter both parts of the kingdom declined until destroyed and exiled.  Jesus is a better Son of David than Rehoboam, who has come to restore the Kingdom of Israel, which he transforms into the Church. 

Amen, I say to you,
all sins and all blasphemies that people utter will be
forgiven them.
But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit
will never have forgiveness,
but is guilty of an everlasting sin."
For they had said, "He has an unclean spirit."

This raises the question of the “unforgivable sin.”  To understand this hard saying of Jesus, we must understand “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” as referring to a conscious rejection of the work of the Spirit, and/or an attribution of the Spirit’s work to the Devil himself.  This cannot be forgive if one perseveres in it, for the simple reason that the Holy Spirit is the ontological agent of forgiveness, as we see in many passages, like John 20:22-23: “Receive the Holy Spirit: whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, whose sins you retain are retained.”  The ministry of the Holy Spirit is, in fact, what forgives you, so if you reject the Holy Spirit, you cannot be forgiven!  It’s like saying, “He who rejects soap cannot be cleansed.”  But if one does not persist in this rejection, one can, of course, receive forgiveness. 

His mother and his brothers arrived.
Standing outside they sent word to him and called him.
A crowd seated around him told him,
"Your mother and your brothers and your sisters
are outside asking for you."
But he said to them in reply,
"Who are my mother and my brothers?"
And looking around at those seated in the circle he said,
"Here are my mother and my brothers.
For whoever does the will of God
is my brother and sister and mother."

Jesus’ cousins are called “brothers and sisters” in this passage, following the pattern of Hebrew and Aramaic language, which has no word for “cousin” but refers to all relatives as “brothers and sisters.”  We can show, for example, that “James and Joses”, who are called Jesus’ “brothers” (Mark 6:3) are actually the sons of a different Mary (Mark 15:40), not the Blessed Virgin.  (The reason for all the Marys in the New Testament is that Herod the Great’s most popular wife was named Mary, and in that generation large numbers of Jews named their daughters after her.)

Jesus makes the point here that true kinship with him is spiritual, not physical.  This point is made elsewhere in St. Paul (e.g. Romans 2:25-29).  This is the mystery of divine filiation: unlike every other religion of the world, Christianity teaches that we can truly become the children of the Creator God by sharing in his Spirit through the work of Jesus Christ.  Divine kinship surpasses natural kinship.  We say “blood is thicker than water,” but in terms of the sacraments, the opposite is the case.  Baptismal water establishes a kinship that is prior to and superior to any form of blood-kinship.

Non-Catholics use this passage to dispute the significance of the Blessed Mother to salvation history, so this allows us the opportunity to make a clarification: the Church honors the Blessed Mother not primarily for her physical bond with Our Lord, but for her holiness.  She truly is “the one who does the will of God.”  In her sinlessness, she did the “will of God” perfectly from the first moment of her conception to her glorious assumption.  Therefore we honor her as worthy of being the Mother of God the Son.  At this Mass, let’s ask her intercession that we, too, may be worthy to be called the brothers and sisters of Jesus. 


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