Two very dark readings from Holy Scripture last Friday. The first, from the prophet Joel, which we usually read on Ash Wednesday, is a call to repentance and prayer, asking God to save his people from the day of destruction (Joel 1:13-15, 2:1-2).
The Gospel reading from Luke is about people accusing Jesus of being an agent of Satan when he casts out demons (Luke 11:14-26)! These two Lessons are about as far removed from the “real world” that we live in as you can imagine! Or are they?
Thousands of Americans participated last Monday in an interfaith “fast for peace and an end to the war in Iraq.” The idea originated, I think, from Arthur Waskow – a progressive rabbi very involved in interfaith dialogue. It was picked up by the National Council of Churches and by Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and people of no faith at all. In some communities the breaking of the fast was observed at Islamic centers with an “iftar” dinner on the “Night of Power,” holiest night in Ramadan.
I had to participate in it rather privately since I was at Kanuga for a small church conference. But then, Jesus says something about doing your prayer and fasting privately so as not to bring attention to yourself, so I felt OK about that. Fasting is an ancient spiritual discipline shared by many of the world’s religions. It seems to add “seriousness” (for lack of a better word) to our prayers and also allows us to experience (if only symbolically) the reality most people in this world live with every day – hunger and thirst.
So, Joel’s announcing of a fast does have contemporary relevance. But what about this strange story of Jesus and the demons? Well, at its core, the story is about a man being so misunderstood and so misinterpreted by people consumed with fear that he is accused of evil when all he’s trying to do is good! These people were so frightened of the evil forces they felt within themselves and others that they could only assume Jesus’ power somehow came from his being in league with the Devil.
He points out the folly of that argument basically by saying that “any kingdom divided against itself cannot stand.” In other words, look at the results of what I’m doing! If the results are positive and you can begin to see glimpses of the Kingdom of God in my life and ministry, how can you say I’m being motivated by the Evil One?
In the final analysis, that’s all any of us can do. Even if people misunderstand you and ascribe motivations that are actually contrary to what you’re trying to do, you have to rely on the eventual outcome. If the fruit ultimately turns out to be good, then the tree is good. If not, then – and only then – can it be judged to be rotten.
While waiting for those fruits to emerge, we can be sustained by the words of the Psalmist: “…you have maintained my right and my cause; you sit upon your throne judging right…as for the enemy, they are finished, in perpetual ruin… But the Lord is enthroned for ever…It is he who rules the world with righteousness; he judges the people with equity.” (Psalm 9)