Satan, At Your Service

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, February 15, 1998

Readings

Psalm 52 An example of the wicked and of the righteous

Why do you boast of evil, you mighty man? Why do you boast all day long, you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God? Your tongue plots destruction; it is like a sharpened razor, you who practice deceit. You love evil rather than good, falsehood rather than speaking the truth. You love every harmful word, O you deceitful tongue!

Surely God will bring you down to everlasting ruin: He will snatch you up and tear you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living.

The righteous will see and fear; they will laugh at him, saying, "Here now is the man who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others!"

But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God's unfailing love for ever and ever. I will praise you for ever for what you have done; in your name I will hope, for your name is good. I will praise you in the presence of your saints.


Luke 16:1-14 The parable of the shrewd manager

Jesus told his disciples: "There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, 'What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.'

"The manager said to himself, 'What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I'm not strong enough to dig, and I'm ashamed to beg--I know what I'll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.'

"So he called in each one of his master's debtors. He asked the first, 'How much do you owe my master?'

"'Eight hundred gallons of olive oil,' he replied. "The manager told him, 'Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.'

"Then he asked the second, 'And how much do you owe?'

"'A thousand bushels of wheat,' he replied.

"He told him, 'Take your bill and make it eight hundred.'

"The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

"Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own?

"No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money."


Arcana Coelestia #592.2 Evil is permitted for the sake of reform

In the world of evil spirits there are evil spirits who take pleasure in hurting and punishing others; in fact, this is their greatest pleasure. Those who are being hurt and punished assume that it is sent by the Lord. But they are told and shown that not a speck of evil comes from the Lord, but that they bring the evil upon themselves. In the next life, everything is counterbalanced in such a way that evil recoils on the person who commits it, and becomes punishing evil.

Therefore, punishment is inevitable. I said before that it is allowed for the sake of correcting evil; yet the Lord is continually turning all punishing evil into good, so that nothing but good ever comes from the Lord.


Sermon

The righteous will see and fear; they will laugh at him, saying, "Here now is the man who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others!" (Psalm 52:6, 7)

Today we are going to give the devil his due.

But first I need to give some angels their due. As I mentioned last Sunday, both last week's and this week's sermons were inspired by the book Channels of Spiritual Strength, by John Clowes. I mentioned that my father revised and abridged the book for republication. My father receives my sermons via email, and when he saw my mention of him, he said to me, "Your mother should get credit too. When I was all finished, she got out her red pencil and did quite a bit of work on it." And, of course, I should mention the Rev. Leslie Sheppard of the Australian New Church, who commissioned and published the book.

Our sermon for today takes off from a statement Clowes makes that really jumped out at me when I read the book: "'The devil' is used by the Almighty to serve and effect purposes of use and blessing which could not be so fully accomplished without such ministry."

The devil serving a ministry? This goes against everything about the popular conception of the devil: a being who continually tries to destroy every good thing that God has created--especially human beings. Can there be anything of service in that?

Our reading from Luke suggests that there can be. As a result, it has been one of the more troubling passages in the Bible. Imagine the scene. Place it in today's world, if it makes it easier to envision. A rich man's business manager has been accused of squandering his patron's wealth. He is called on the carpet. "What is all this I'm hearing about you? Produce your books and records, because I'm about to fire you!"

The business manager knows he's in trouble. What does he do? He figures he's lost his job anyway, so before he does get fired, he goes about feathering his nest to make sure he has somewhere to go. How? He goes to some of the rich man's debtors and has them falsify the bills they owe by taking off a hefty percentage.

His wealthy employer finds out, and hauls him off to court. . . . No, that's what should have happened to this crook! What did happen in the parable is that the rich man praised the dishonest manager for acting shrewdly. And Jesus concludes the story by saying, "The people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings."

If this story had been told by anyone other than Jesus, there would be howls of protest. How could such fraudulent behavior be commended, and even set up as an example for good people to learn from? Of course, Swedenborg gives a spiritual meaning for this parable, having to do with using the same skill, knowledge, and drive for good ends that greedy, self-centered people use for their own ends.

But what fascinates me about this story at the moment is that it gives the devil his due! Jesus is pointing out to us that there is a reason for evil--or the devil--to exist, and that that reason has something to do with bringing us to our eternal dwellings. Of course, Swedenborgians do not believe in a literal devil. Rather, we think of "the devil" as the combined forces of human evil. But it is quicker and easier to say "the devil."

What could the devil possibly do that would help us in our journey toward heaven?

First of all, as Swedenborg points out in Divine Providence #250, greed and selfishness can be great motivators! As we look at society around us, one thing we notice is that almost everyone is engaged in some sort of useful occupation. (Even if we don't think certain occupations are useful, somebody does, or they wouldn't be paying for it.) Yet at the same time, we know that many people are not doing their jobs for the love of humanity, still less for the love of God. Rather, many people--perhaps especially those on the upper rungs of the economic ladder--are doing their jobs for the love of money or power.

Ayn Rand to the contrary notwithstanding, there is not much virtue in selfishness. Left to itself, selfishness would trample all over everyone else in the pursuit of its own goals. But social pressures and disapproval prevent that for most selfish people. Instead of this happening, the Lord has arranged it so that in order for people to satisfy their selfish and greedy desires without getting shot or thrown into jail, they usually have to work like crazy to make the money or get the power that they want! So the greed or selfishness becomes a motivating fire that causes these people to do a lot of constructive work. In fact, echoing Jesus' statement about the people of this world being more shrewd with their own kind than the people of the light, people who are driven by greed and self-interest often work harder and accomplish more than people who are simply good, honest people. Their self-interest drives them harder, so they work harder!

This is one way we must give the devil his due. For if greed and self-centeredness were not such great motivators, much less would be getting accomplished in our world--which has more than its share of greedy, selfish people. Still, if we look deeper, it is really not the devil accomplishing the good, but the Lord turning our greed and selfishness toward good purposes. One of the Lord's purposes in getting us to live in a good and productive way outwardly--even if we are inwardly selfish--is that perhaps some day we will take this way of life to heart and begin doing our work out of love for our fellow human beings instead of from our former selfish motives.

There is another area where we need to give the devil his due. When the devil does succeed in tearing down someone's life, it provides others with an example and a warning against going in that direction. This is the import of our text from Psalm 52: "The righteous will see and fear; they will laugh at him, saying, 'Here now is the man who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others!'"

I vividly remember an incident that happened while Patty and I were living out on Guemes Island in Washington State. At the time, we lived on a corner lot right at the southwest point of the island, where South Shore Road and West Shore Drive met. Since this was a rural area, there were no storm drains; instead, there were ditches on either side of the road that carried off the runoff from the rain.

One afternoon a pickup truck came weaving around the corner, and in some way that I still can't quite figure out, its very drunk driver managed to get his rear wheel firmly ensconced in the ditch right in front of our house. As I came out to see what was happening, the guy was sitting in the cab trying to figure out why his truck wouldn't move. Soon, one of his neighbors came along. We tried to tell the guy that the reason his truck wouldn't move was that his rear wheel was in the ditch; but he insisted quite loudly that he was not stuck in the ditch. Finally, we managed to get him out of the truck and his truck out of the ditch; I drove him home while his neighbor drove his truck home. As I was driving the neighbor back to our house pick up his car, he told me that this man had been a high-powered executive in a large corporation. And I remember him saying to me, "He should be brought into the schools so that teenagers will know what alcohol can do to a person."

It would be nice if we always heeded the Lord's warnings not to give way to our lower urges. Unfortunately, warnings are often not enough. But when we see someone whose life has been wrecked by destructive an selfish ways of living, the point is much more likely to hit home for us. Hearing that something is wrong is one thing, but seeing the way it has destroyed people's lives makes a much more powerful impression. And so, ironically, when the devil succeeds in breaking someone, it provides some of the best advertising for God!

There is one more way we should give the devil his due. As human beings, we can make a choice about how we will live our lives. The very fact that we can look at a high-powered executive who has become a barely functioning drunk and decide not to make the same mistake ourselves is evidence that we have freedom.

This freedom of choice that makes us human is founded on being able to make a choice between good and evil. Without evil, there would be only good, and that would leave us no alternative but to live a good life. Yet for it to be really ours, we need to choose a good life, not just do it because it is the only possibility. So, again ironically, the existence of the devil (or evil) makes it possible for us to be fully human, and to use our humanity wisely by choosing to love the Lord and to serve each other from love.

But let's not go overboard in giving the devil his due. After all is said and done, the Lord still has a much better game going. The devil may help to keep us on our toes and give us a few extra reasons to choose what is good and right. But it is the Lord who is the source of everything good and right. And we will find our greatest happiness if we give the Lord all the credit, and model our lives on the pattern that the Lord holds out for us. Amen

Music: Conversations with My Soul
1999 Bruce DeBoer