Ps 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9
1 Cor 7:32-35
We Americans have a rather complicated, even fascinating, relationship with prophets and demons.
Many people, of course, scoff at the idea that someone might have the ability to foresee the future; if asked, they will most likely reject the possibility of prophetic powers as superstitious and unscientific. And yet certain types of prophets make regular appearances in our culture. For example, a tremendous amount of trust is often placed in the forecastings of experts in the fields of economics, demographics, and the climate.
We are told of impending economic recessions and recoveries and warned of impending doom due to either population explosion or global warning. It was only a few decades ago that some experts—secular prophets, I would call them—claimed that the rapid growth of population would decimate the earth by the year 2000.
Beliefs about the existence of Satan and demons are especially revealing. A 1991 study by Evangelical pollster George Barna found that 60% of those polled, regardless of their religious beliefs, thought Satan was just a “symbol of evil”, while just 35% believed he is “a living being.” Amazingly, seven out of ten Catholics polled said they thought Satan was only symbolic in nature.
These numbers were repeated in a 2002 poll, which found that 75% of Catholics rejected the Church’s clearly stated belief that Satan and demons are real, not just symbolic. Meanwhile, a 1993 poll by Time magazine found that while less than 50% of respondents believed in the existence of “angels or devils,” almost 70% believed in the existence of angels.
Today’s readings show us, by way of an Old Testament prophecy and an exorcism performed by Jesus, that there are actual prophets and real demons. There are important, implicit connections to be made between the two. Moses gave a prophecy about a coming prophet—really, The Prophet—who would speak with the authority of God. This true prophet is contrasted to false prophets, those who speak “in the name of other gods.” As G. K. Chesterton noted in The Everlasting Man, his study of the Incarnation, “In the ancient world the demons often wandered abroad like dragons. They could be positively and publicly enthroned as gods.” In other words, the Israelites understood that false prophets were under the power or influence of living, evil forces who were in opposition to the one, true God.
The very first false prophet was the serpent in the Garden, who spoke—that is, prophecied—against God. “Behind the disobedient choice of our first parents,” remarks the Catechism, “lurks a seductive voice, opposed to God, which makes them fall into death out of envy. Scripture and the Church’s Tradition see in this being a fallen angel, called ‘Satan’ or the ‘devil” (par 391). The devil, the false prophet, is intent on the destruction of man and rebellion against God. The two, in fact, go hand in hand, for every rebellion against God leads to the destruction of man. Jesus came to break the power of this diabolical and destructive kingdom. “Indeed,” the Apostle John wrote, “the Son of God was revealed to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8).
St. Mark’s account emphasizes both the authority of Jesus and the urgency of his work. The unclean spirit, face to face with the Prophet of God, could only acknowledge the truth: “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” In their torment, the demons recognized who Jesus is. Yet they refused to believe; their choice had been made long before, outside of time, when they “radically and irrevocably rejected God and his reign” (CCC 392).
It is sometimes argued that the demons cast out by Jesus were not really living, evil beings, but symptoms of illness. Yet St. Mark clearly distinguishes between those who “were sick with various diseases” and those possessed by demons (Mk 1:34). Demonic oppression is just as real as physical illness. Thankfully, the Prophet, the Holy One of God, came to save us from both real evil and false gods.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the February 1, 2009, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)