Yesterday, preaching on Luke 10:1-20, I experienced a familiar dart of irritation at the sanitisation and bowdlerisation of our lectionary. It seems that anything that is likely to upset people by offering a challenge to our easy-going liberal assumptions about scripture is, nine times out of ten, excised from the text used in worship. In the present case, vv. 12-15 were left out. This is where Jesus, after urging his disciples to shake off their feet the dust of any town that doesn’t accept the Gospel, says, ‘on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town. Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!…’, etc.
Pope Benedict has recently caused a certain amount of superior amusement by his statement that the present travails of the RC church are the work of the ‘enemy’. Whether he really believes in the Devil is still an open question, but the embarrassing fact is that Jesus, his disciples, Paul and the NT writers did, and saw the rejection of the Gospel as the result of superhuman forces of evil. We do no service to our congregations by concealing the fact that the mental universe of the NT was different from ours, and that the beliefs of a pre-scientific age cannot be normative for contemporary Christians. As Lucy Winkett has said somewhere, ‘We teach the faith in the light of what else we know’.
To discount these difficult passages, on the ground that we no longer believe in the literal existence of devils, is to avoid facing the awesome responsibility involved in rejecting the Good News. We have abandoned the imagery of superhuman beings , but as Sallie McFague has written, ‘In ways that have never before been so clear and stark, we have met the enemy and know it is ourselves’.