Satan vs. Satan: Matthew 9:32-34

After they had gone away, a demoniac who was mute was brought to him. And when the demon had been cast out, the one who had been mute spoke; and the crowds were amazed and said, “Never has anything like this been seen in Israel.” But the Pharisees said, “By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.”

Matthew 9:32-34 (NRSV)

Here is yet another story that brings up the same elements we’ve seen throughout this chain of healing stories as well as some earlier healing stories in Matthew.  I’m not going to rehash them; you’re welcome to look at previous entries to see fuller developments of these themes.

But in the interest of having pointed them out, in this passage, we see:

  • A medical affliction and a demonic affliction being presented as the same thing
  • The liberation of Israel from her oppressors and a glimpse of new creation
  • Evidence that Jesus is the hoped for Jewish Messiah

These are big themes, important and central to Matthew’s gospel, but I don’t want to keep repeating the same things over and over, so I do encourage you to look back over the last few days’ worth of entries and/or the links above to some entries further back if you’re interested in seeing these discussed in greater detail.

One unique thing that gets thrown into this story is the reaction of the Pharisees who claim that Jesus can only cast out demons because the “ruler of demons” empowers him to do so.  In other words, they posit a sort of scam where the demons really want to enslave people, so they choose a champion and make it look like he’s casting them out.  People will follow this man, seeing that he is setting people free from demons and healing their afflictions, but the demons get the last laugh because Jesus is really their man and people are actually being led further down the path to enslavement.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus will turn their accusation into an apocalyptic declaration of the arrival of the Kingdom of God.  Here, Matthew just lets it lay where it is, possibly because he wants to underscore unbelieving Israel in contrast to the believing, getting healed Israel.  You have one group of people who is broken, needy, humbled, suffering, and oppressed, and they come to Jesus fully believing he can deliver them, and he does.  You have another group that is actually doing very well for itself, thank you very much, and they do not believe Jesus, and they actively work against him.

These two groups of people are pivotal in Matthew’s gospel and, in fact, form the bulk of the issues raised in the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s not surprising to find Matthew drawing those lines here as well.

But if I could allow myself a bit of extrabiblical speculation, one has to wonder about the logic the Pharisees are employing, here.

By Matthew’s account, Jesus is healing and casting out demons all over the place, wherever he goes, so much so that Matthew has to just summarize the activity, sometimes.  One wonders how a group of people could plausibly claim this was an elaborate plot by the demons themselves when the results seem so plentiful and relentlessly effective.

In theory, the principle works.  This is the whole deal behind undercover agents or double agents.  You appear to be working for one entity when the reality is your allegiance belongs to another entity.  You are earning loyalty and credibility only so that you can ultimately foil the entity that you appear to be working for.

But talk about your deep cover!  The magnitude of destruction Jesus is wreaking on the devil’s works is unheard of in Israel.  This would be like a Russian double agent in the Cold War permanently disabling all the nuclear silos in Russia to win the trust of the Americans.  It’s hard to imagine how this level of damage done in the name of “faking it” could justify the outcome of “fooling people.”  In fact, at that level, you’re not even really fooling people.  Wherever your professed loyalties might be, you’ve effectively neutralized the people you’re supposed to be working for, which is pretty much the goal of the opposing side.  Whatever you might tell yourself, the victory that you’ve handed over to America would be so comprehensive that you are, functionally, a pro-American agent.  It would be difficult to imagine what sort of damage you could do to America at that point that would make the whole exercise worthwhile.

Jesus seems to think this, too, at least in his defense in Luke, which boils down to, “If this is all a ruse by the devil, it is the stupidest plan ever.”  But no, it is not a ruse; it is the sign that the kingdom of God has come in their midst.

All this makes me think a couple of things.  Once again, these are my own thoughts inspired by the biblical text but are not actually present in the text.

First, there is an irony here, because what the Pharisees are accusing Jesus of – being a double agent – is actually how most of Israel’s religious leaders are portrayed in Matthew.  They outwardly appear to be loyal to God and His people, but in secret, their hearts belong to the present world order.  Their works actually are a ruse, when the reality is that they’re doing fine for themselves and are quite content for the world to chug along as it has been.  #NotAllPharisees, of course, but it’s still a dominant theme in Matthew.  And when the pressure is on, they run to their real allies – the Roman occupational force – and they tip their hand for the world to see.  They will destroy the healer of Israel through their alliance with the Roman Empire, thus showing that they never had the people’s interests at heart to begin with, but rather their own power and prosperity.  The facade will come crashing down in a way that’s undeniable to Matthew at least.

Second, I cannot count the number of times over the years that a Christian has described something as “demonic” that is actually destroying the works of the devil.  Whether it is a theology or a practice or a group of people (Charismatics get hit with this a lot, but they also hit everyone else with it a lot, so….), there are many times when someone is actually doing something that heals disease, helps people out of addiction, brings people out of poverty, promotes peace and an end to conflict – things that embody the new creation and a kingdom of shalom that get written off as some secret plot of the devil or just overtly ascribed to demonic activity.

I would say that those claims are very much like the claims of the Pharisees in Matthew 9 in the sense that behind them is this: someone who is not us is doing good.

In first century Jerusalem, the Temple is where you go to get sins forgiven, get prayed for, and if there’s to be any miraculous signs of God’s presence, it happens there in those walls.  Here’s this Jesus strutting around forgiving sins and healing people as if the Temple doesn’t matter.  Or, more directly, as if the people who derive their authority, status, and livelihoods from the Temple are not strictly necessary.  And whether it’s work or religion or government – as soon as you suggest that the official structures are not necessary, the hammer will come down.

People in other denominations, people with different theologies, people with different traditions, even people with different religions or no religion at all – these people all can and do work against the principalities and powers of this age, and they undo the works of the devil, whether they would see it in those terms or not.  We should probably be very careful to denounce those things as schemes of the devil.  We might find that our established conceptions of what God can and cannot do and who He can and cannot use will put us on the wrong side of what He’s actually doing.

Consider This

  1. What groups do you consider a “threat” who are doing good in the world?  Why do you consider them a threat?  What are you afraid is going to happen, and what are your reasons for believing that will happen?
  2. When you are baptized in an Anglican church, they ask if you “renounce the devil and all his works.”  What are the works of the devil?  What does it mean for your life to renounce them?