Confronting our demons
How can we find life from Scripture’s words of condemnation? How are we supposed to take divine threats seriously?
Readings: James 5.1-6; Mark 9.41-50
This homily was preached to the student brothers at compline. You can listen here or read below:
We came seeking a word of life, but St James seems only to give us a word of death. The Gospel isn’t so much better: ‘if you hand causes you to sin, cut it off; if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out…’
Can we take these passages seriously? We’ve all heard a sermon telling us that our Lord was given sometimes to talk in exaggerations, and there is a spiritual meaning behind the words, and we ought to try as hard as we can but what we really have to remember is that God is always ready to forgive, and so on. But that rather takes the sting out of the sayings. And some of us just can’t help but raise an eyebrow, or even a smirk, at the threats that are supposed to have terrified our forebears. Isn’t it just so morbid? Who nowadays can believe it? Has the Scripture, to use another line from today’s Gospel, lost its salt? Or what does it say about us, that we react as we do?
Reading St James’ warnings to the rich, you might think they simply haven’t come true. Wealth has grown exponentially in the last 2000 years, and the rich – which, on the global scale of things, means us – continue to hold themselves afloat by treading down the backs of the poor. The exploitation of cheap labour and ill-gotten natural resources in foreign countries have become structural necessities for maintaining our own prosperity and comfort: we rely on these for such commonplaces as bananas, chocolate, coffee, and reasonably-priced clothes. ‘If your hand causes you to sin, chop it off’: but how many of us have really thought of simply opting out, cutting ourselves off from the distant, faceless hands and feet that pick our food and make our clothes?
The lifestyles we take for granted make us all, in some measure, complicit in the world’s injustice. Part of the horror of the situation, is that it’s inescapable. There is no one person who is responsible, no one person who can change things, no solution ready and waiting to be implemented. If we recognise our complicity, and feel uneasy, there is no one we can offload our guilt onto, no scapegoat. The whole system is ridden with structural sin. That not to say we shouldn’t do what we can, in our own place, to live justly, to pay fair wages, support good living and working conditions, to help those in need. But the big problems are just too big, and they are fed by a consumption that really is greedy, but has become normalised. Something we might think about in advance of Lent…
Just as so often in the Gospel, characters in the grip of sin and illness are in fact demon-possessed and deprived of their liberty, so our global village is infected with legion upon legion of demons, and we cannot, or are not willing, to begin to name the half of them. St James is trying to communicate something of this horror, to make us see the demons, like we see them crawling over a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Just picture the scene: moths eating the clothes on our very bodies, human flesh struck with rust and catching fire, the coins in your pocket rotting like fragments of a carcass. It’s either a cause of horror, or it’s grotesque – and it’s the grotesque that I think we are inclined to find amusing. But is it horrendous, grotesque, funny, because it’s pie in the sky and at a remove from reality? Or because it shows us, awkwardly, how reality really is?
St James is speaking a word of death to call a spade a spade. There is something of the logic of going to confession here – to turn our minds to those sins for which we do more clearly bear direct, personal responsibility. Going to confession, we have to name our sins, to squirm with the discomfort of exposing them, in order for them to be vanquished; true, God’s mercy is ready at hand, but we still must feel the burden of the admission. Just as, in the same way, naming a demon – a hidden resentment, a relationship gone wrong, a violent emotion, an addiction – is the first awkward and uneasy step toward controlling and expelling it. That first step is uncomfortable because in naming the demon, you call its attention, you have to confront it. With good reason, our Lord also says in today’s Gospel, ‘everyone must be salted with fire’. The question is, which fire? The fire of God’s word, that will drive away our demons? Or will we let them drag us down into the fire that cannot be quenched?
If we heed the words of Scripture today, and join the confession of our iniquities which oppress us, to the cries of the materially oppressed, we have a chance with them of being heard and set free. A word of death may be found to give life.
Image: Christ Entering Limbo, from the school of Hieronymus Bosch, in the Indianapolis Museum of Art; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.