By the Finger of God

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Every kingdom divided against itself is destroyed, with household against household. If Satan is divided against himself how can his kingdom stand (since you are saying that I cast out demons by Beelzebul)? If I am casting out demons by Beelzebul, by whom are your own people casting them out? On this point they will be your judges!  But if I cast our demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come. 

Luke 11: 17-20

For us who live, in Charles Taylor’s designation, in a “disenchanted world,” today’s Gospel passage is a difficult one. Since for us, the “kingdom of God is within,” the battle that Jesus describes is one that we see as an intra-personal one and that takes place within our own consciousness. The encounter in today’s gospel, however, is one that is understood to “play out” on a more cosmic level.

Those adversaries of Jesus in the crowd find themselves at odds with the good that he is doing because it conflicts with what they presume to be their place in their societies. Jesus, on the other hand, points out that his responsibility lies in a realm well beyond their societal conventions. Luke’s having Jesus speak to casting out demons “by the finger of God” is a deliberate allusion to Exodus 8:19, where Aaron “on the command of Moses bests the magicians of Pharaoh’s court,” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, p. 181) In the terms of the gospel, Jesus is engaged in a struggle of long standing and of cosmic dimensions. There are those who act “by the finger of God” and those who deliberately or by default serve the kingdom of Beelzebul. It is by the fruits of their actions that those serving God’s kingdom can be recognized.

So the question rises in us, “To whom are we responsible?’  Are we responsible merely to and for ourselves, or to someone and something greater than ourselves? There are signs in our current human experience of the limits of the secular model of autonomy and independence that has constituted our consciousness for the past couple of centuries. Is it not possible that the current environment crisis that we are experiencing is, at least in part, related to our lost sense of connection to creation and cosmos?

“The person who is not with me is against me. The one who does not join me scatters. ” (Luke 11: 23)  Has our tendency to absolutize our autonomy and individualism not resulted in an unmanageable state of dispersion and dissolution? Jesus makes clear that to be with him is essentially communal and that to be against him leads to disharmony and disintegration. Francis of Assisi comes to know a real affection for all creation because of his experience of communion with his “Divine Master. ” Knowing his place in the entirety of creation is what allows him to recognize that all are brother and sister to him.

We are challenged today to appreciate our contemporary consciousness but also to humbly recognize its limits. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” declares Hamlet. Perhaps our initial discomfort with gospel passages such as today’s can challenge us, individually and as a people, to recognize the limits of our own understanding and open us to possibilities for response to God and the reality of God’s kingdom that we have “never before imagined.”

Nevertheless, self-improvement on the part of individuals will not by itself remedy the extremely complex situation facing our world today. Isolated individuals can lose their ability and freedom to escape the utilitarian mindset, and end up prey to an unethical consumerism bereft of social or ecological awareness. Social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds. This task “will make such tremendous demands of man that he could never achieve it by individual initiative or even by the united effort of men bred in an individualistic way. The work of dominating the world calls for a union of skills and a unity of achievement that can only grow from quite a different attitude”. [154] The ecological conversion needed to bring about lasting change is also a community conversion. 

This conversion calls for a number of attitudes which together foster a spirit of generous care, full of tenderness. First, it entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works: “Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. . . and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6:3-4). It also entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion. As believers, we do not look at the world from without but from within, conscious of the bonds with which the Father has linked us to all beings. By developing our individual, God-given capacities, an ecological conversion can inspire us to greater creativity and enthusiasm in resolving the world’s problems and in offering ourselves to God “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable” (Rom 12:1). We do not understand our superiority as a reason for personal glory or irresponsible dominion, but rather as a different capacity which, in its turn, entails a serious responsibility stemming from our faith. 

Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 219-220

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