The Finger of God

Parts of P.Oxy. LII 3679, 3rd century, containing fragments of Plato’s Republic.

27th Week in Ordinary Time, Friday (Year II)

Luke 11:15-26

Suppose there was a perfectly just man. Would he be loved, ignored, or hated?

Plato proposed a thought experiment around 360 B.C. in order to discover the true nature of justice. On one side he placed a perfectly unjust man who is thought just (a wolf in sheep’s clothing). On the other side he placed a perfectly just man who is thought unjust. By stripping the just man of all good repute, justice is isolated and observable in its purity. For the sake of experiment, praise and honor are discarded to ensure that the just man is not just for the sake of praise, but for the sake of justice alone. Plato’s experiment is similar to that of the adversary (ha-satan) in the Book of Job (see The Caliber of the Human Heart).

Here are Plato’s words and the results of his experiment:

“And at his side let us place the just man in his nobleness and simplicity, wishing, as Aeschylus says, to be and not to seem good. There must be no seeming, for if he seem to be just he will be honoured and rewarded, and then we shall not know whether he is just for the sake of justice or for the sake of honours and rewards; therefore, let him be clothed in justice only, and have no other covering… Let him be the best of men, and let him be thought the worst; then he will have been put to the proof; and we shall see whether he will be affected by the fear of infamy and its consequences… the just man who is thought unjust will be scourged, racked, bound—will have his eyes burnt out; and, at last, after suffering every kind of evil, he will be impaled.”1

Plato’s thought experiment materialized a few centuries later in Jesus Christ. Indeed, Plato’s predictions were uncannily confirmed in the life of Christ: every just act he performed was met with slander and malice.

When Jesus had driven out a demon, some of the crowd said: “By the power of Beelzebul, the prince of demons, he drives out demons.” Others, to test him, asked him for a sign from heaven.

Justice, goodness, and mercy were not apprehended in their purity. Something interfered with perception. A malevolent source, “Beelzebul,” was credited with the healing of a mute person. Those who were unsure and swayed by the rumor demanded another sign from Jesus to prove his worthiness.

But he knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste and house will fall against house. And if Satan is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? 

Even evildoers have to harmonize and cooperate in order to stand. Was not the Gestapo a brilliant piece of military and political machinery? Pure evil and division do not exist. Unity (being) is foundational, even in the case of Satan.

For you say that it is by Beelzebul that I drive out demons. If I, then, drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own people drive them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 

Jesus turned the crowd’s attention to their own exorcists. Specialists in herbs prescribed by Solomon used ancient incantations to drive out demons.2 The calumniators quick to discredit  Jesus failed to apply their logic consistently. 

But if it is by the finger of God that I drive out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you. 

Jesus alluded to the third plague in Exodus in which Pharaoh’s magicians were unable to replicate the miracle of the gnats. In their admission of defeat they proclaimed, “This is the finger of God” (Exodus 8:15).

Unlike the exorcists who relied on charms, rings, and incantations, Jesus had direct authority over the demons. St. Cyril of Alexandria identified “the finger of God” with the Holy Spirit:

“The Son is called the hand and arm of God the Father because he does all things by the Son, and the Son in a similar way works by the Spirit. Just as the finger is attached to the hand as something not foreign from it but belonging to it by nature, so also the Holy Spirit, by reason of his being equal in substance, is joined in oneness to the Son, although he proceeds from God the Father.”3

The crowd was not ready to accept it, but Jesus was manifesting his divinity. 

When a strong man fully armed guards his palace, his possessions are safe. But when one stronger than he attacks and overcomes him, he takes away the armor on which he relied and distributes the spoils. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 

The “strong man” is no match for Christ. Evil has an Achilles heel: the inability to love. The “one stronger than he,” Love Incarnate, will ultimately vanquish evil, sin, and death. In a possible allusion to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, Jesus compared himself to the conqueror who “divides the spoils” (Isaiah 53:12).4

“When an unclean spirit goes out of someone, it roams through arid regions searching for rest but, finding none, it says, ‘I shall return to my home from which I came.’ But upon returning, it finds it swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and brings back seven other spirits more wicked than itself who move in and dwell there, and the last condition of that man is worse than the first.”

The number seven is symbolic of totality and indicative of the severity of the case. Joseph A. Fitzmyer comments:

“The episode deals with the reinvasion of an exorcised person; it says nothing about a relapse into sin (recidivism), as it has often been interpreted. The teaching in the episode is couched in the protological thinking of ancient Palestinian demonological beliefs (that spirits, especially evil ones, must dwell somewhere and are not satisfied with nomadic roaming through arid, desert wastelands)… In any case, the episode adds a caution to that expressed in v. 23. The house must not remain merely in a state of readiness for reception; it must be filled with the word of God.”5

The language of demonology is very foreign to moderns, but the idea of human persons housing spirits is ubiquitous in ancient culture. The Son of God, speaking with the authority of “the finger of God,” sent us the Spirit from the Father to dwell in the temple of our body:

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body” (I Corinthians 6:19-20).

We have not even begun to scratch the surface of the mystery of our humanity, let alone the mystery of the divinity in Three Persons who dwell within the Body of Christ. May the Holy Spirit, “the finger of God,” enlighten our minds and transform our hearts into the Kingdom of God. 

-GMC

Related post: Divine Pity

1 Plato, The Republic, Book II, translated by Benjamin Jowett. 

2 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985, p. 921.

3 St. Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, Homily 81.

4 Fitzmyer, p. 923.

5 Ibid., p. 925.

One Reply to “The Finger of God”

  1. I’m reminded of this saying: the only abyss we are called to plumb is the abyss of God’s love for us, not the abyss of our own consciousness. Thank you for your reflection.

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