A Word about the Readings (Reflection #2)
by Father Gethin
(The readings may be found here)
Our readings this Sunday expand our Trinitytide reflections on our progress in God’s work of salvation, to include the fundamental voice of opposition to that work, our adversary, the devil. “Be sober, be vigilant;” writes St. Peter, “because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about seeking whom he may devour.” That ‘father of lies’, whose program of rebellion and falsehood has opposed our race from the beginning, tempting Eve with vain words in the garden, continues to advance his cause of an anti-God world governed only by its own godlessness. Against such a world, and against the devil’s constant assault on the Truth, we must patiently resist, and constantly refute, if our spiritual life is to know any peace or goodness. So it is as a welcome encouragement that we take time this week to recall just what that holy resistance means, and just what position the devil’s attack assumes.
In the first place, we must always remember that the devil is not a sheer force of evil, as though God faces an equal and opposite power in the universe. All things are God’s creation, and the devil’s place remains defined by his created nature: he is an angel, which is to say, a spiritual messenger—only, according to his free act of rebellion against God’s good purpose, he operates no longer as the bearer of truth, but rather as the bearer of lies. He seeks only to obscure the divine way with another story; it matters little to the devil if the story is terrifying and violent, or attractive and orderly, so long as it is false. And that is the sense of St. Peter’s warning to us, that the devil constantly seeks to ‘devour’ whom he may.
The character of a lie requires that it be presented as the truth: once a lie is exposed it no longer has any force or significance. The only way to conceal a lie is with other, more subtle, lies, so that gradually a false position, which began with one small rejection of truth (no doubt with ‘good intentions’) turns into a life-consuming effort of delusion and betrayal. The devil has no power over us, or over anything—he is a messenger, nothing more. (And therefore, if we would be free of his wiles, we need only do as St. James reminds us: ‘resist him, and he will flee from you’.) But if we permit his seeds of doubt and darkness to settle into our souls, we will find ourselves overwhelmed, consumed by the effort of hiding ourselves and the world from our devilish vanities.
This is how we ought to hear Christ’s teaching about the lost sheep and the lost coin. In the spiritual landscape, to be lost means to have reached the point where we are no longer able to discover or establish a place of truth on which to stand and live our lives. The vain things we freely choose no longer have even an illusory power to satisfy us, as we carry the heavier and heavier burden of protecting our lies with more lies. The path that brought us to such a dark place is lost, we cannot retrace our steps, and our doom settles in. Such is the devil’s desire for us, and such is our fate, left to ourselves. Eventually we all succumb to some falsehood—‘all we like sheep have gone astray’ – and without aid, are incapable of recovery. That is the sense of the word ‘fallen’. We are all fallen into some version of the untrue. Yet we need not remain there: because Jesus comes to carry us back to home and truth again. And we must be clear: it is His labour, on our behalf. He bears the burden of our lies, and ultimately suffers the consequence of such love, His own life, freely given. In this way He confronts our lives, freely lost, with the mercy of God, freely offered. Our only responsibility is to accept His offer—to repent, which is to say, to turn around from the endless project of lying to ourselves, and confess our need of His love to save us. When He comes, we must receive Him. Just so we find in today’s Gospel how the sinners “drew near to Him”. And those who draw near with faith are fed, not with empty fruit and vain words, but with the living Word of God, ‘whose flesh is meat indeed, and whose blood is true drink.’ “Draw near with faith, and take this holy sacrament to your comfort, and make your humble confession to Almighty God, meekly kneeling on your knees.” (BCP, p.76)