Friday, October 11, 2013

Jesus did cast out demons

"Is the Devil for Real?" was a question that Fr. James Martin, SJ took up recently in Time magazine. I think, on the whole, his article is a balanced and informative piece, especially given its length and the complexity of the subject. Judging from the beginning of the piece, Fr. Martin wrote in response to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's professed belief in the devil, a belief he divulged in a recent interview with Jennifer Senior for New York magazine (click on the link and type the word "devil" into your browser's "Find" feature- you'll be in for what I would describe as a treat).

I do think Fr. Martin provides one glaring example of the kind of eisegesis (meaning to interpret a text by reading one's presuppositions into it) the Holy Father took aim at in his homily this morning. The passage in question is one found in all of the synoptic Gospels (i.e., Matthew 17:14-20, Mark 9:17-29, and Luke 9:37-43); the father of a boy who exhibits epileptic symptoms bringing his son to Jesus for healing.

It is important to note that none of the synoptic accounts describe the boy as an "epileptic." In Matthew's account the troubled and weary father tells the Lord his son is a "lunatic" (in Greek seleniazomai). Martin uses the word "epileptic," even putting it in quotation marks. It is true that some modern English translations use this word (the English Standard Version, RSV, NRSV, whereas the NAB does not- to cite a few examples). Nonetheless, "epileptic" remains anachronistic to the biblical text. Based on this, Martin asserts, appealing to William Barclay, a Scottish commentator whose New Testament commentaries remain very popular, "Here the ancient mind attributes to a demon what we now attribute to a physiological condition. It conflates possession with illness. (We should also remember that the Gospel writers were not diagnosticians.)"

But even in Matthew's account we are told that Jesus, after being informed by the boy's father that His disciples had been unable to heal the child, rebuked them for being "faithless and twisted," told the father to bring his son to Him, then "Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly" (v. 18).

If I am not mistaken, I think the Holy Father today sought pose a few questions about this manner of interpreting Scripture: How does one know the mind of the inspired author, "ancient," or otherwise, apart from what is in the text? Do the Gospels do a poor job of conveying Jesus' acts to us? Above all, was Jesus Himself so spiritually undiscerning that He could not tell the difference between a natural illness and a supernatural affliction?

Most importantly, I believe Pope Francis was calling on us to engage reality according to all the factors that constitute it. We ought not judge God's word, but let ourselves be judged by it.

I recognize the potential dangers in taking a such a view of Scripture, but it is easy enough today to insist that before any sort of exorcism takes place that all natural explanations be satisfactorily eliminated and that nobody forego medical treatment in favor of casting out demons. We certainly cannot expect anyone else to be as spiritually discerning the Lord.

What I think is truly dangerous is to decide for ourselves what is inspired and what is not, especially when it comes to the Gospels. According to Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei verbum-
It is common knowledge that among all the Scriptures, even those of the New Testament, the Gospels have a special preeminence, and rightly so, for they are the principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our savior.

The Church has always and everywhere held and continues to hold that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin. For what the Apostles preached in fulfillment of the commission of Christ, afterwards they themselves and apostolic men, under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, handed on to us in writing: the foundation of faith, namely, the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (par. 18)
Pope Francis has stated more than once that we must know Scripture and the Catechism. In the latter we learn,
Scripture and the Church's Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called "Satan" or the "devil". The Church teaches that Satan was at first a good angel, made by God: "The devil and the other demons were indeed created naturally good by God, but they became evil by their own doing."

Scripture speaks of a sin of these angels. This "fall" consists in the free choice of these created spirits, who radically and irrevocably rejected God and his reign. We find a reflection of that rebellion in the tempter's words to our first parents: "You will be like God." The devil "has sinned from the beginning"; he is "a liar and the father of lies" (par. 391-392)

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