On Matthew 17:14-23
Demons are real. They’re not merely metaphors or symbols, but real spiritual beings, which shows us pretty clearly that it’s no good to be “spiritual but not religious.” Demons are spiritual too, and they’re no good. They hate you. They hate me. They hate the boy in today’s gospel. The demon torments him and causes him to fall often into fire and often into water, just to hurt him, or even to try to kill him.
Demons want us to suffer. They are our enemies. They want to hurt us in any way that they can. Most of all, they want to separate us from God. They want to convince us to put our trust not in God but in them or in ourselves. They want our obedience in whatever small thing – so long as we are obeying them and not God.
It would have been a small thing for Jesus to eat bread, having fasted for forty days in the desert. He was hungry, but it was the devil suggesting he eat and satisfy himself. Jesus knows that we live not by bread alone but by every word from the mouth of God (Matt 4:4). Let us obey the word of God rather than the words of Satan. Life comes from the mouth of God, not from filling our mouths with the devil’s food.
When we are fasting, as we will be for the next two weeks in preparation for the Dormition, the devil suggests we should eat. The fruit of the tree looks good to us – good for food, delightful to our eyes, desirable to make us wise (cf. Gen 3: 6). The fruit seems like such a small thing. Yet God commands us not to eat it. And disobedience, which is not hearing or receiving the word of God, always ushers death into the world. And this is what the demons want. They want to destroy us and to kill us. And they’re pretty good at it. This is the bad news.
But I’m not here to preach the bad news. I’m here to preach the good news – the gospel of Jesus Christ. And the good news is that Jesus is an exorcist. Today, he rebukes the demon, casts it out, and cures the boy instantly (Matt 17:18). And today, in Christ, we also can be victorious over the demons that afflict us.
Demons plague us like flies – but they are easily swatted by the God-bearing angels and saints. Λογίσμοι – the pesky distracting thoughts and demonic provocations that buzz around our heads like flies can be rebuked and cast out by the name of Jesus and the Jesus prayer, if we are watchful and vigilant. Yes, there are demons and they are our enemies and they would be formidable enemies, except for the fact that we have Jesus on our side.
If you’re not on the side of Jesus, if you have not been baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, or if you’re outside of God’s Church, you are more susceptible to demonic influence. There is a reason that before every baptism, we perform an exorcism. At baptism, we are receiving into Christ people who have not until now been in Christ and so have had no authority over demons. In the early years of the catechumenate, exorcisms were read often, even daily, over the catechumens. At baptism, we put on Christ, who drives out demons.
The demon in today’s gospel often threw the boy into fire and into water in a mockery of our baptism in water and in fire, of baptism into Christ and in the Spirit, of baptism and chrismation.
In ancient Israel, the water was a scary place – especially the sea. It was a place of dark depths and unknown horrors. The place of Leviathan. An abode of demons. And so today the demon tries to throw the boy into water.
Now, we lower our own babies three times into water and by this baptism, we overcome the power of the devil, who vainly tries today to use these good things destructively. Baptism is the undoing of all infernal attacks. It is the reversal even of death, the last enemy. We are baptized into the death of Christ Jesus and through death Christ destroys the devil “who has the power of death” (Rom 6:3; Heb 2:14). Baptism is our first death and also our first resurrection.
In Christ, we’re not afraid anymore. Water may have represented the dark and frightful unknown, but now we go into the water ourselves. Having been exorcized and having exorcized also the water, we go into the water and chase the demons out. We confront them head on. Christ gives us authority over them, if we have faith, if we pray and fast. We go into the realm of the demonic and we tell it to get out. The gates of hell cannot stand against our invasion force. We go into death and we come out alive and we live in Christ forever. This is the good news.
But baptism isn’t a like a magic spell that eliminates demonic activity in our lives from that point on. In fact, sometimes the more we seek God, the more we encounter overt demonic opposition. Those whom the devil has already deceived, he’ll often leave alone in their deception. It is therefore necessary for us to discern spirits.
John tells us not to believe “every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God…. Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God, [but] is the spirit of antichrist” (1 John 4:1-3).
It’s really rather simple, if a spirit is not of the Lord, then it is an evil spirit. There is not in the incorporeal spiritual realm the ambiguity that we experience as humans. We are good and evil at the same time, but the angels and demons, as simple spirits, are necessarily absolute and immediate in their determination for or against the Lord. And, as the Lord says, “he who is not with me is against me” (Matt 12:30). And, in another place, “Because you are lukewarm…, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Rev 3:16). So, there can be no neutral angels.
Whenever there are unseen powers at work, we have to ask who is doing this. Not “what,” but “who,” because all spiritual forces, energies, and powers, have their source in persons – either in the uncreated divine persons of the most holy Trinity or in created persons – whether human or angelic, who may be good or evil. If a power is not of God, then it is demonic. Many increasingly popular occult and New Age activities are in fact demonic. And many of the false and pagan gods are nothing more than demons in disguise (cf. Ps 95:5, LXX; 1 Cor 10:20).
Therefore, approach spiritual gifts carefully. Do not be immediately enticed or distracted by miracles or apparitions, but be hesitant and careful. The first thing an Orthodox bishop does when there is a myrrh streaming icon, for example, is not veneration, but exorcism! Only after demonic influence is ruled out, do we venerate such an icon.
When discerning spirits, just ask, does it draw you closer to God? Does it bring you to repentance for your sins? If not, then it is not of God and we must have no part in it.
One of the Desert Fathers was praying in a cave and an angel appeared to him and said, “Prepare yourself, for in three days they are coming to make you a bishop.” Well, the monk didn’t just go along with this announcement. It appealed to his ego, so he rebuked the angel and told him to get out. The next day, the angel came again and said, “The emissaries are only two days away. Prepare yourself, for they’re going to make you a bishop.” And again the monk rebuked the angel, saying, “I am a sinner, and you’re trying to tempt me to pride.” In other words, the monk accused the angel of being a demon! Only when the angel came the third time, he told the monk, “You are indeed a sinful man, and the Lord is going to punish a sinful people by making you their bishop.” And then the monk said, “Alright, now I can believe you.” Because this was a finally a message that brought with it an awareness of his own sinfulness and an inspiration to repentance, the monk believed, and he packed his things.