Two Tactics of the Devil

Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B.

There are certain scenes in movies which terrify you as a kid and amuse you as an adult. One of those scenes for me personally, is when Dorothy, the Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man finally meet the Wizard of Oz. That scene used to terrify me as a kid. The billowing smoke, the fumes and flames, the scary face and booming voice—it was all a bit much for me. As an adult, I now find that scene rather amusing. The wizard dishes out some great insults. He calls the Scarecrow a “Billowing Bale of Bovine Fodder” and the Tin Man a “Clinking, Clanking, Clattering, Collection of Collagenous Junk.” The wizard also has some great lines which would be amusing to try out when hearing confessions: “Come forward! Silence, whippersnapper! Enough! The great and powerful Fr. Nick knows why you have come! Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!” Strangely enough, I was reminded of this scene as I was reflecting on our gospel today. For both our gospel today and this scene from The Wizard of Oz offer us profound insights on how the devil operates.

The devil is a creature of extremes. If he cannot tempt us to fall in one direction, he’ll tempt us to fall in another. If pride doesn’t work, he’ll try false humility. If cowardice doesn’t work, he’ll try recklessness. If stinginess doesn’t work, he’ll try extravagance, and so on. Virtue is a narrow road that goes one way and ditches of vice lie on either side. We can drive off, or fall off, in either direction.

There are two tactics which the devil can use, then, when it comes to his existence and influence. On the one hand, he can try to convince us that he doesn’t exist or that he has no real influence on us. He can try to convince us that evil is just an illusion—just smoke and mirrors—and that there is nothing or no one behind it. He can try to convince us that there is no man behind the curtain. On the other hand, the devil can try to convince us that he is far more powerful or influential than he actually is: that evil is just as strong as good and just as likely to triumph in the end. He can try to convince us that he is in control and that no one, not even God, can stop him. He can try to convince us that he is more than just a man—or rather, a fallen angel—behind a curtain of lies and deception. He can try to convince us that he is more than just a creature and in fact on par with the Creator: a Newtonian god of equal and opposite force. The devil is willing to use either tactic, to convince us of either extreme. He doesn’t care which ditch we fall in as long as he can get us off the road.

The truth of the gospel, which is where the narrow road of virtue is to be found, is that the devil and his minions do exist, but they are not ultimately in control and they will not ultimately triumph in the end. Jesus is in control, and Jesus and His followers will win. From the moment of His conception, the devil and his minions trembled. From the moment He stepped foot on the earth, they cowered. Jesus does not have to perform some sort of lengthy ritual to expel the demon in our gospel. He doesn’t even have to speak a word of Scripture. There is no long and protracted fight, as if Jesus and the demon were somehow equally matched or in the same weight class. Jesus simply says, “Quiet!  Come out of him!” and the unclean spirit takes flight. Now, the demon does make a rather unceremonious exit when he comes out of the man, he does make a lot of noise and he throws a demonic hissy fit, but these are just the parting shots of a bruised and beaten opponent. There is a man behind the curtain—or in this case, a demon inside a man—but he is not as strong as he would like to make people believe. A lot of his demonic routine is just for show, to strike fear in those who might otherwise resist him. He’s no match for Jesus, the Holy One of God.

What does this mean for us today? While I’m certainly no historian, I think it’s fair to say that for the better part of the last sixty years the devil has been trying to convince us that he does not exist and does not have any real influence on our lives. Using this tactic, he’s been able to infiltrate our most noble and cherished institutions and influence our brightest minds. This was apparently the view of Pope St. Paul VI who, in a sermon in 1972, lamented that “[f[rom some fissure the smoke of Satan has entered the [Church].” The pope, I think, was among a small minority of people who saw what was actually happening. The reality of the devil and his influence went otherwise unnoticed. The devil didn’t have to tip-toe past vigilant guards; hardly any one was looking for him, the curtains were flung wide open, and so he could walk right up on stage.

Today, in 2021, I think the devil has changed tactics—at least in part. A greater majority of people today, at least in the Church, believe that the devil exists and that he can and does influence our lives. But now that we know he’s there, the devil tries to convince us that he is more powerful or influential than he actually is: that he, and not God, is in control, and that evil, and not good, will ultimately triumph in the end. We see the man behind the curtain, or rather the fallen angel, but the devil wants to keep us focused on his illusions of grandeur, his theatrical attempts to make us think that he’s on par with the Creator. He doesn’t want us to focus on the fact that he, though more powerful than us, is also a creature like us. The truth of the gospel, which opposes the lies of the devil, is that although the devil and his minions do exist, they are no match for Jesus or His followers. The gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church. We’ve won, and it’s high time we started acting like the winners that we are. The war is over, and if there are people who don’t seem to be aware of this fact, or don’t seem to care, it’s because we’ve failed to announce the victory, or because we’ve only announced it timidly, without joy and holy boldness.

Friends, let’s live like winners this week. Let’s not listen to the lies of the devil but remind him of the sore loser that he really is. Let’s live in the truth and joy of the gospel: that God is in control, that the devil is no match for Him, and that good will ultimately triumph in the end. Amen.