Thursday of the Third Week in Lent: Jeremiah 7:23-28, Luke 11:14-23.
In today’s readings, we hear a lament from Jeremiah about the faithlessness of the Jewish people coupled with a gospel reading where Jesus’s exorcism of demons is met with skepticism. I am struck by a few things: the reluctance of humanity to accept God’s guidance and help as well as the stubbornness of humanity in believing we know what’s true and what’s not. But what jumps out at me most today are the final words from Jesus: “whoever does not gather with me scatters.” This tells us much about what God is trying to do and why. He offers us unity, and in unity, strength to rebuff the devil. This is the action of the Good Shepherd, to gather the sheep and save them from being scattered (the action of the wolf/devil). The Word of God today provides the logic of establishing the Church, and it is a fantastic lesson of love for humans caught in a spiritual battle with the forces of the devil.
In the gospel reading, Jesus drives out “a demon that was mute” and the man who was possessed begins to speak. Skeptics said, “By the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he drives out demons.” In some ways, we can all identify with these skeptics. Charlatans and carnival tricks are nothing new — in fact, Jesus and later the apostles warn Christians about being taken in by charlatans pretending to be sent from God — and in our science-driven age, we are taught to mistrust things until they are examined thoroughly and (dis)proven via the scientific method (or Sherlock Holmes-level sleuthing). This is an unavoidable reaction to miracles, which is why true miracles, especially those accomplished by Christ, always have a greater divine purpose than just “amazing” people. Every miracle done by Christ primarily serves to point to His own divinity as the Son of God come to earth, but each also has a deeper spiritual lesson. Today, the demon is mute, and we learn something about freeing our lips in response to God’s presence in our lives.
Jesus delivers His lesson in response to lips that have been freed by things other than God — namely, worldly mistrust, sewn, as we know, originally by the serpent in the Garden of Eden. He points out the ridiculousness of their logic: “Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste and house will fall against house. And if Satan is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?” He is pointing out that Satan is always seeking to divide and pervert humanity, and that he would never come to the aid of a human to heal another human. It is against his nature and what’s more, he could not maintain “his kingdom” on earth if half the time he was helping humans and the other half he was harming them. No, Satan would never be party to his own undoing.
After dispelling their logic, Jesus proclaims, “But if it is by the finger of God that I drive out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you.” He wants them to be open to the possibility of the truth in front of them. It’s an interesting, patient way of engaging them. He acknowledges their skepticism but points out their flawed logic. He opens the possibility of the Kingdom of God having come upon them. And then he talks about Satan as a strong man, fully armed and guarding his possessions (humans). Jesus accepts their belief in Satan as someone so strong he can work wonders on earth and then trumps it completely. He says, “But when one stronger than he attacks and overcomes him, he takes away the armor on which he relied and distributes the spoils.” This is the Lord on earth, pointing out that Satan can never stand in the Face of God.
Then comes the line that jumps out at me: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” The first half of this sentence is stark and absolute. It makes me shudder a bit because it has been used since 2001 in reference to our “war on terror” (first by Hilary Clinton, then George W. Bush; more recently by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan). The great difference of course lies in Christ’s actions and in the second half of the sentence. Christ heals, Christ loves, Christ sacrifices Himself, and Christ gathers his sheep. Our political figures use this phrase when employing aggressive campaigns of violence, essentially the work of the devil in the world even if it is sold as “for the greater good.” This may upset some people reading this, but Christ is unequivocal in His teaching to uphold the commandments (you shall not kill); everything He does nurtures and builds up humanity so that we can find our way to God.
If everything Jesus does as the Way, the Truth and the Light is to gather and bring people to God, anyone who is not helping in this work is truly against that gathering action. This is why He says, “whoever does not gather with me scatters.” There are two main ways that “scattering” is used in the New Testament. In the positive sense, we read about seed being scattered in the Parable of the Sower (“the seed is God’s word,” Jesus tells us). The Greek word here is related to sowing/planting: σπείρειν (speirein). But there is another, negative sense of scattering that means to waste something, disperse it, or dissipate it. This is an entirely different word, which we encounter here in today’s gospel: σκορπίζει (skorpizei). The root word here is skorpios, or scorpion – clearly a negative connotation, and possibly the connection is the concept of penetration or the way scorpions scatter when you come upon them.
It does make me think about the way the devil operates in the world, this skorpios scattering. He works by tempting us, inflating our pride, making us operate solely out of selfish concerns. Looking at humanity from the 100,000-foot view, we see a mass of scorpions lashing out at one another’s dignity, each on his or her own self-determined path. The prince of the world thrives on us being scattered and without a purpose greater than our own selfish desires.
God provides us with the great antidote to the scorpion’s venom in the form of His Son. This new Way, this brilliant Light, is a uniting force that gathers us to work together as we honor the Father. Indeed, one of Jesus’s other references to skorpios scattering occurs in the Parable of the Good Shepherd:
Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. … Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. … I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters [skorpizei] them. (Jn 10:7, 9, 11-12)
Here the devil (the wolf) is much more clearly identified with the skorpios scattering. And Christ the Good Shepherd protects us from Satan’s scattering by not leaving His sheep, by laying down His very life (which allowed Him to vanquish Satan and death in Hell). We also see a clear connection to today’s reading in Luke where Jesus says “whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Jesus is completely consistent across all gospel accounts: His action is to gather the sheep, the Children of God, to Himself so that through Him (the gate), they can enter the Kingdom. What He tells His listeners today is that their response to Him has eschatological implications. If they believe in Him as the Son of God and follow His Way of gathering, then they are with Him and have access to the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, if they are skeptical — worse yet, if they encourage others not to believe in Him — then they have joined the devil in his work of scattering humanity.
This brings us back to the mute man being given his voice in this miraculous exorcism. God always lets us have our voice, our free will. By giving this man his voice and engaging the skeptics in their arguments, Jesus is posing the question to us: what will you use your voice for? Will you join Him in gathering people to the Way? Or will you join the devil in scattering people away from the Kingdom? The choice is yours.
One last item: we can start to understand the divine logic behind the Church as the mystical Body of Christ, still at work in the world gathering humanity and providing a Way to the Father. Christ very deliberately establishes the Church and from the Apostolic Age onward, our saints and doctors of the Church have rigorously defended the need for the Church to remain united despite evils from within and without. The unity of the Church in its spiritual mission as the Body of Christ means that either we are with it in gathering people to God or we are against it in our scattering effect with the devil. May all Christian denominations understand this fundamental concept and find their way back to the one, universal Catholic Church.