We don’t take the power of the devil seriously enough. From the beginning of human history, the power of the devil has sought to counteract the power of God, not by warring against it, but by infecting the way human beings attempt to defeat it. It pretends to be what it is not, and it tempts humans to use against it the very tools that best promote it. The power of the devil manifests itself in our own fear of failure.
That fear of failure makes us hungry for certainty and security. It makes us desperate for foolproof ways and means of preserving ourselves. We see forces outside ourselves that threaten us. They threaten our safety and security. They keep us from our needs and wants. They threaten our very existence. At the same time, we are frustrated because our best efforts to survive and thrive seem destined to fail. As Saint Paul wrote, “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want” [Romans 7:19]. If we think that whatever is threatening us is the devil, we’re greatly mistaken. Those threats are natural, not supernatural. They arise from the weakness of the flesh—our human condition—and the false promises of the world: wealth, power, and prestige.
Our ego looks at all these things—the threats to our comfort and security—and our human weakness and it tells us to be very afraid. It tells us we can’t trust the world, we can’t trust ourselves and, ultimately, we can’t trust God. We need to have something in place that will bring us what we want and preserve us from what we don’t. We need a structure. We need a set of dos and don’ts to guide us. We need laws. These laws need to be based on our common wisdom. Where does wisdom come from? Good judgment. Where does our good judgment come from? Experience. Where does our experience come from? Bad judgment. We enshrine our experience in laws, remaining ignorant of the fact that these laws are ultimately derived from bad judgment. The power of the devil is not in threats to our existence, nor is it in our failures to overcome those threats. The power of the devil lies in our fear of failure itself and our willingness to believe that we can overcome failure by our own ingenuity.
What can we say about laws? In one sense, laws are our failures enshrined. At some point, we failed to ensure our lives and well-being, and we set in place a guidance to help us and others avoid making that mistake again. Laws start out simple. For Judeo-Christian people, it’s the Ten Commandments. But, in fact, the Ten Commandments are only the major touchstones of the Law. They don’t cover every possibility. For that, we need the Law of Moses, the Torah, the first five books of our Bible. It’s human to think that we need laws on top of laws, rules on top of rules, regulations on top of regulations to cover everything, but, for every new rule, there’s a new opportunity to make a mistake. The devil’s victory is complete when we humans define sin as the transgression of a law. In effect, that elevates our failures to the level of offenses against God.
Saint Paul saw this clearly and wrote about it in his letters to the Romans and to the Galatians. Salvation—that is, serenity and contentment—can never be achieved through obedience to the law. What obedience to the law brings is guilt and frustration because there are always more failures and instances of bad judgement than there are laws to prevent them. It’s the very attempt to enshrine human experiences in precepts that make all laws inflexible. They can never cover every eventuality, and that’s why we find so many contradictory laws, rules, and regulations. Neither can obedience to the law save us from misery. That it can is a diabolical lie.
Jesus said to his disciples, “I leave you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another” [John 13:34]. That’s it. Jesus respected the law because, as Saint Paul tells us [Galatians 4:1-7], the law is our guardian and guide until we come of age. Yet, he called his followers to go beyond it, that is, to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit which inspired the law. For the Jewish people, circumcision meant accepting subjugation to the letter of the Law of Moses. Yet circumcision and obedience to the law was no guarantee of salvation. That’s why Saint Paul says, “For neither does circumcision mean anything nor uncircumcision, but only new creation.”
There’s a little gem hidden in today’s gospel that I missed seeing until I looked more closely at it just now. Saint Luke reports that Jesus told his seventy-two disciples, “Stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered you.” At first reading, that seems to be just another of the practical suggestions the Lord is giving them to keep their ministry simple and to avoid taking advantage of their hosts. But wait…what if the people they visit are Samaritans or even Greeks? These are people who are not under the law. In those words, Jesus was telling his circumcised missionaries to stay under the same roof with “sinners” and eat whatever they served—regardless of the dietary restrictions of the law. Jesus was never one to let obedience to the letter of the law get in the way of bringing God’s love to others.
Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled. Do not be afraid” [John 14:27]. True followers of Christ bring that peace with them wherever they go, a peace that the world, the flesh, and the devil masquerading as the stipulations of the law cannot give. Peace is salvation. It’s salvation from what ails us: our fear—fear of making a mistake, fear of doing wrong, fear of consequences, and fear of offending God. God does not take offense. So long as we are under the new covenant and have committed ourselves to obedience to Christ’s commandment of love for God and one another, we are free. We are free from the fear of transgressing the law, but, more importantly, we are free for the service of God and the service of humanity.
As a follower of Christ, commissioned by Baptism—no less formally than the seventy-two disciples in today’s gospel—you bring God’s peace, God’s love, God’s consolation with you wherever you go. Whoever receives you receives that peace. Fear of failure—the devil’s playground—haunts you no more. Regardless of what diabolical doubts may be whispered in your ear by those who would criticize you for your freedom from the letter of their laws, in the love of God in Christ Jesus, you cannot fail.