Recently, I spent the evening watching an old episode of Doctor Who. This particular story from Doctor Who’s 1971 season leaned on old tropes about “a dark and stormy night” in a quaint rural English village, a night when the Devil himself was thought to be out walking about. Being a science fiction show, it turns out what we think is the Devil is actually an alien of great power, who just happens to have the cloven hooves and horns. The Doctor and his friends discover that the Master, a frequent “villain of the week” on the show, has arrived in the village recently (disguised as the village priest!) and plots to awaken the alien from his centuries-long slumber.
As it happened, the TV production crew stayed for nearly two weeks to film this five-episode story, and they got to know the locals well. In fact, the production crew asked a number of the villagers to appear in the story’s various “village scenes”. This arrangement worked quite well until it came time to film the major scene at the end when the Doctor and his friends capture the Master.
As the Master is hauled off to prison, the assembled villagers watch on quietly. Unfortunately, this part is not in the script. As the villain is hauled off, they are supposed to “boo!” Instead, they are silent. What happened? It turns out that the villagers actually got to like the actor, and when it came time, they just couldn’t do it. They liked the actor playing the Master so much that they even “forgave” the evil character a bit.
If you like “charming and evil” characters, the summer television season has a treat for you. In a few days, viewers will encounter an old villain from the 1980s. TNT is reviving Dallas, complete with an older, greyer and not a bit repentant J.R. Ewing, played once again by Larry Hagman. Mostly new cast members surround him, yet it’s the same J.R. in a ten gallon hat and that devilish glint in his eye. (One note: If this revival of Dallas goes badly, will we wake up and find Patrick Duffy in the shower, the infamous way the original series writers used to claim the season was all a bad dream?)
Rest assured, “villains we love to hate” will continue populating the TV shows and films we watch. Why? After a long day at the office, it’s a bit of campy fun to watch a ruthless oil baron try to get away with his latest scheme or a brilliant alien genius running around causing mayhem. We like the thrill of watching the villain because we know it is just a bit of fun. At a theatre’s melodrama, we yell “boo!” as the villain twirls a mustache, soaking up all our attention, stealing the scene every time he’s on stage. We know that the villain will get his comeuppance, but it’s fun to watch all of the diabolical scheming nonetheless.
In this morning’s text, we encounter a different sort of villain, a villain that we may consider “booing” yet we also know that Jesus is not being frivolous. He is telling a rather serious parable about Satan as a strongman who has all of the treasures of the kingdom. Does anyone believe that such a powerful evil could be overthrown, let alone by the teachings and ministry of this odd rabbi and his group of even odder followers?
When Jesus tells the story of Satan, he talks more precisely of “the” Satan. In Jesus’ day “Satan” was more of a title, not a given name like yours or mine. The title became shorthand for the popular belief that a diabolical tempter is out there, drawing us off our path or the right thing to do. Today, we typically personify Satan and dress him with images drawn from latter-day myths (i.e. the pitchfork, the tail, and great taste in eveningwear). In Mark’s gospel, “Satan” appears when there’s tempting to be carried out: testing Jesus in the desert or when the disciples lean more toward believing their doubts more than what Jesus is proclaiming. Indeed, this parable of the strong man comes up when people who do not believe what he is saying surround Jesus. The scribes are there to question Jesus’ authority. And to make matters worse, Jesus finds his own family ready to haul him off back home, thinking that he has lost his sanity.
Even as he’s dismissed as a child of the Devil and not the boy we grew up with, Jesus tells a story of an evil empire divided and a strongman humiliated in his own stronghold. Why these particular stories? Isn’t the first rule of dealing with bad press to ignore the criticism and change the subject?
Jesus meets his critics head-on, questioning the logic of their charges. If he works for Satan, then why does he work against him? Jesus is in the midst of liberating the demonically possessed. Indeed, the very presence of Jesus terrifies the demons he encounters. Go back earlier in Mark’s narrative, as Jesus teaches in a synagogue.
Mark 1:23-26 reads:
Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.
The scribes try their best to suggest “guilt by association”, yet the stories being passed around about Jesus among the peoples of rural Galilee point to someone out to get Beelzebul and the rest of the demons, not in league with infernal forces. The scribes refuse to see what even the demonic see clearly. Nerves are fraying around the demonic realm. Simply the sight of Jesus unsettles those that thought they had everything under control.
Jesus drives his point further claiming that the Tempter is losing not only his edge his kingdom is about to crumble! The strongman will be bested by the Stronger, i.e. Jesus and those who follow his ways. Nothing will be left, other than a distant memory of powerful tyranny made pathetic by Jesus.
As the strong man trussed up, the treasures he hoarded are carted off. It is the last defeat, as the wealth amassed (usually by any illicit means necessary) must be fabulous, if the strongman is the ultimate “boss” of this level of the game Jesus plays with the demonic. But what are the treasures?
The treasures may not be what we imagine them to be. Jesus does not choose the obvious things we tend to prize or hoard. Jesus is not after status. He has that (cf. the demon’s frightened calling out to Jesus as “the Holy One of God”). Jesus is not after power. He already has it, speaking as one with authority and possessing a humility that perplexes the scribes, the Pharisees and even the Temple priests. Jesus has no need for gold or crown. Jesus looks nothing like the powerful of Empire and Temple, yet he is the one causing demons to tremble and the poor and marginalized to receive their dignity and due.
So if this parable is supposed to give us a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God is all about, what are its treasures, the ones formerly claimed and hoarded up by the strongman, aka the Satan/Tempter? Jesus gives his critics another puzzling answer:
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
His own family may think him mad, yet Jesus finds his welcome and his identity as Messiah and Son of God affirmed by those who follow Him and take the gospel seriously. His “family” members are those willing to seek this Kingdom of God, even if it means questioning the powers and persuasion of the Strong Man.
Like many stories in the gospels, the disciples serve as a “stand in” for the reader, asking questions and showing what sort of responses people can have to the gospel’s events. Their challenge is our challenge. Do we believe or do we doubt? What do we believe in more: the way the world tends to be, or the way the world could be, if the gospel is made known? Most days we tend to see only the disaster of life-as-we-know-it more readily than the rose-tinged vision the parables and teachings of Jesus recast the world. Can we trust that the shadows will not overtake us, nor shall God leave us to ruin and decay? The tempter does not stop at tearing down the optimism and the good the gospel seeds throughout the world. It is up to us to decide whom we will trust as the “final” authority. Is Jesus stronger than the Strong Man?
In the wonderful film Romero, the late actor Raul Julia portrays Oscar Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador in the 1980s. The film traces Romero’s appointment to the high office of bishop when he was thought to be a safe candidate, unlikely to question the political and military regime in charge of this Latin American country. Through a series of eye-opening events, Romero becomes increasingly aware of the severe challenges in his country and the moral authority he could claim if he chose to speak up. Romero becomes a controversial figure, quite at odds with the corrupt government authorities. Indeed, the film ends as Romero’s life ended with an assassin (likely government hired) shooting Romero dead at the altar as he serves the Eucharist.
In one powerful scene, Romero finds himself lost out in one of the many poverty-stricken areas of his country. Not quite sure where he is and far from the safety of the bishop’s residence, Romero finds his heart broken as he encounters again and again the rather sobering scenes of what the average El Salvadoran lives with every day in grinding poverty and under the constant threat of brutal violence. After this experience, Romero drops to his knees in a posture of prayer (or perhaps it is repentance?) as the poor villagers walk up to him and surround him as he kneels.
One might say the scene is “pure Hollywood” in its dramatic retelling of Romero’s life. The gospel of Mark claims otherwise. Is the scene a sign that the Strong Man still reigns or that yet again, Christ’s gospel is at work, calling the faithful to the work of God’s Kingdom, no matter how powerful the demonic’s grasp might seem upon the world?