Today’s Gospel contains one of my favorite Gospel injunctions, or at least one of the few commandments of the Lord I have observed scrupulously: “Whatever town you enter and they welcome you, eat what is set before you.” I have no trouble keeping this commandment, unfortunately.
Anyway, today in the Gospel Jesus tells us “Behold, I have given you the power to tread upon serpents and scorpions...” Hmmmmm. Well, we certainly have serpents and scorpions here in Texas. Usually we try to NOT tread on them. Sometimes they walk on two legs. Fortunately we mostly have ants and crickets.
However, let me assure you that Jesus is not playing the divine Orkin Man here. This is not about controlling varmints and pests. Obviously Jesus is using this language in a poetic way to talk about evils, about “demons”. Two sentences before this reference to serpents and scorpions, the 72 returning missionaries declare, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” Jesus is talking about power over demons.
The word “demon” has the connotation of something spooky and weird, something dramatic and fantastic, like the movie “The Exorcist”. Evil can be dramatic and unusual, but most of the demons we confront are all too common, very ordinary, indeed boringly banal.
But they are still demons: like that inability to keep my mouth shut when I want to speak a cutting, hurtful, put-down word. Or the envy that seeps into our hearts and spoils the enjoyment of our blessings by continually comparing ourselves with others. Or the demon of holding on to past hurts and grudges, continually chewing on them over and over again so that our life gets blocked in some unresolved spot that we can’t get passed. Or the demon of lust that keeps tricking us into viewing pornography on the internet, thinking we are somehow going to find satisfaction and pleasure, when over and over again it just leaves us feeling empty and dirty. Or the demon that tells us we are no good, that we don’t deserve anything good, and keeps fooling us into acting in self-destructive ways. Or the demons of pride, or alcoholism, or gambling addiction, or hatred, or racial prejudice, or arrogance, or greed and selfishness, or the coldness of heart that prevents us from feeling compassion and acting in solidarity with those in need.
And there are many, many other such mundane and common demons that we discover - not far away - but deep inside us.
The Gospel today is a message of great hope: “Lord, even the demons are subject to us because of your name.” This means that these demons that haunt us and degrade us, and which we are so often too weak to control and stop; these demons are no match for the power of the name of Jesus Christ.
This is Good News, for we long to be our better selves: to exorcize the bitterness and lies, the carping and the caustic comment, the impatience and the lust, the self-pity and the self-righteousness, the greed and selfishness, and all the other demons that beset us. When we admit our need, and turn to the Lord, and call upon Him to liberate us and set us free, He responds as in today’s Gospel: “Behold, I have given you the power to tread upon serpents and scorpions...” The Lord gives us the power to crush the demons that inhabit our hearts, so as to live freely as the beloved children of God.
And Jesus goes further. For there are bigger demons that live, not in us as individuals, but in us as a community: demons like war, pollution, systems of abuse and exploitation, class conflict and racial hatreds, all forms of discrimination and injustice. Even these are subject to the power of Jesus. He assures us, “Behold, I have given you the power to tread upon serpents and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy And nothing will harm you.”
The “full force of the enemy” is indeed very powerful: we’re talking Aushwitz, or Gulags, or slavery, or genocide, or the 9/11 terrorism attacks, or Abu Graib, or abortion or the destruction of the environment. Even these horrors are ultimately subject to the power of Jesus’ name.
All the old power of evil is conquered by the power of Jesus Christ. We are set free to live a new way: of solidarity, of concern and compassion, of service, of love. We are still hurt, no doubt about it, just as Jesus hurt on the cross. But ultimately we can live as the children of God, in integrity and in love, and nothing will be able to keep us from our destiny.
We see this conquering power of Christ in today’s second reading. St. Paul says: “For neither does circumcision mean anything, nor does uncircumcision, but only a new creation.” In the power of Christ’s death and resurrection, the old barrier of circumcision, the mark of the Covenant given by God to Abraham, that separated God’s chosen people the Jews from all other peoples, the Gentiles, even that ancient barrier is broken down and conquered. That division is removed in Christ.
Further, circumcision, which in the Bible always means male circumcision, that is, the cutting off of the flap of skin at the end of the penis, was also a division between men and women. Because, obviously, only men could be circumcised. Only men could participate in the sign of the old covenant. Women could only enter into the covenant through a man, either as some circumcised man’s daughter or as some circumcised man’s wife.
But now that does not matter. The only thing that matters is being a new creation in Christ. And that is why Paul earlier in this same letter to the Galatians proclaimed: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (3:28). Those ancient differences – so important still in the secular world - no longer matter in Christ. They are overcome.
In this week when we as a nation celebrate our political independence and liberty, the Scriptures speak to us about a much deeper and greater liberation - not from foreign monarchy - but from something far more sinister and evil and much closer to us: from the demons that dwell inside our hearts.
“Behold,” Jesus exclaims. “I have given you the power to tread upon serpents and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy, and nothing will harm you.” In this deeper and more profound sense, every Sunday is Independence Day, a celebration of freedom from sin!
Happy Independence Day! AMEN.