Beelzebul, St Francis de Sales and the Unity of the Church

Not quite the title you might have expected to read, but bear with me…

The gospel set for today, Monday of the Third Week of the Year (1) is from St Mark 3:22-30. It deserves careful reading, especially in light of the fact that it coincides with the memoria of St Francis de Sales this year. The RSV version reads:

And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Be-el’zebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” And he called them to him, and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man; then indeed he may plunder his house. Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” – for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Jesus cures the man with a withered handSome context – immediately preceding this episode in St Mark’s Gospel we have seen our Lord heal a man with a withered hand on the sabbath (to the horror of the Pharisees), heal others as well as cast out demons, and appoint the Twelve to preach and “to cast out demons” (v.15) themselves. Our Lord is very much setting the pace as he overturns the status quo. The status quo had been that people with disease and possessed by demons were pretty much left to themselves, with little relief from the community or from the Jewish religious authorities. We need only think of the demoniac who lived “night and day among the tombs and on the mountains… always crying out, and bruising himself with stones” (Mark 5:5), or the man who had been sick for 38 years and who could never get to the healing pool of Bethzatha when a space became free without another taking the place before he could (John 5:2-9). For all these, where others had failed, Jesus provides the remedy. And in doing so he upsets the comfortable balance of religion that had developed among the various factions in society at that time. Like most compromises, this status quo did little to benefit anyone except the adroit and the ambitious.

So the scribes and Pharisees seek to turn the tables by ascribing our Lord’s ability to cast out demons (when they could not, and would not) to the fact that he was in the service of demons himself. Beelzebul (or Beelzebub) was a pagan deity whose name meant “Prince Baal”, thus the reference by the Pharisees to the “prince of demons”. There was a belief among many at the time that weaker demons were subject to greater ones. So, Jesus must therefore be, at the very least, in the service of Satan himself in order to be able to cast out as many demons as he had – thus went the scribes’ argument.

The first thing our Lord does is to demolish their faulty theology… or rather, demonology! If Satan were to undo his own work, how could his kingdom stand? It is an illogical argument, and easily dismissed. Moreover, neither Satan nor any demon were in the habit of healing the sick, and certainly they would not have been preaching, as Jesus had been, that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Jesus’ works were very clearly not those of the devil, but could only have been those of God.

It in light of this that our Lord decrees the gravity of the sin against the Holy Spirit. The nature of that sin is to ascribe to Satan, to evil what is demonstrably the work of God. It is in essence the sin of blasphemy, a direct insult to and rebellion against God, much like Lucifer’s rebellion. While ever this blasphemy is neither recognised nor repented of, it is outside God’s forgiveness. The blasphemy is the greater when it is from the mouths of those who should know better.

Yet there is, as so often, another possible level to this passage. For while Satan does not cast out his own demons, nevertheless his kingdom is divided. It is an irony that Jesus can see that Satan’s kingdom is divided not in the way the scribes’ made out, but in that its only unity is in hatred of God and his beloved creature, man. Unity built on hatred is no unity at all. The principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend is one of short-term pragmatism, and not enduring truth or substance. This is the weak foundation of the unity of Satan’s kingdom, a house built on sand. And now that our Lord has come, Satan’s house is in fact falling, his reign coming to an end. When the disciples he sent to cast out demons returned to him reporting their success our Lord declared:

I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. (Luke 10:18)

The kingdom of God, the seed of which is the Church, has a unity not based on the negative, the nothingness of hatred, but on the great positive, the true reality of God’s abiding truth and love. So it is very disturbing to see the fruition of ecumenism in such developments as the Ordinariate for ex-Anglicans being ascribed to Vatican attempts to take over the Anglican communion, or to see those seeking to come to the Church through the Ordinariate as misogynists or one-issue Christians who are merely seeking shelter from women clergy. Surely this comes very close to a failure to ascribe to God his own works. Indeed from the mouths of some it may be a blasphemy, perhaps – as they see their little fiefdoms crumbling around them. But they crumble not in vain; out of their ruins the Church is being added to, new accommodation built, as it were, for those who are seeking unity on the Rock, to be fully one with the Vine. Our prayer must be that they do not cling to the wreckage, but seek to enter into the enduring House of God, built on the Rock; and that they might see this clearly as the work of God.

St Francis de SalesSt Francis de Sales has appeared on these pages before, here and here. In light of the above he is a worthy saint to be calling upon today. In the early 17th century he laboured as Bishop of Geneva, in the heartland of Calvinist Protestantism, to bring the straying sheep back to the Church. He did so not through threats or denunciations but through preaching the Good News. On his last visit to Paris crowds thronged to hear him preach as they had never heard “such holy, such apostolic sermons”. He lived and dressed simply, and had a great concern for the poor, and was zealous in hearing confessions. He was also a powerful writer and his Introduction to the Devout Life is still as fresh and sound today as it ever was. In other words, he preached powerfully by both his words and his life. Due to his labours thousands of Protestants came back to the Church. And in this Week of Christian Unity, that is precisely what we are praying will happen again in our day. As indeed it is, as the Ordinariate shows us. It is fitting that St Francis de Sales is the patron of Church Unity, a unity that can only be built on truth and love.

So let us endeavour always to recognise the works of God, and give him glory for them. And if we cannot do so then let us at least obey the sound principle of St Francis de Sales:

Nothing is more like a wise man than a fool who holds his tongue.

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