May my words be in the Name of Almighty God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In our Gospel reading today our Lord says something that has always intrigued me - 'I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.' To remind you of the context … he has sent out 70 of his followers two by two to the towns and villages he plans to preach to prepare the way for where he plans to go to himself shortly. And he has given the men he sent authority – not just to preach, but also to heal and to exorcise evil spirits. And when the men return, they are joyful for they have experienced for themselves the great power of God, for they have found that even the demons, those minions of the Evil One, are subject to them in the name of their Lord, Jesus Christ. And it is when they are rejoicing that he tells them he saw Satan fall from heaven.
Now, this is a mysterious phrase that has caused people to ponder down through the ages. What exactly does our Lord mean – is he speaking metaphorically or literally? The Church Fathers have tended toward the literal, while more modern scholars lean to a metaphorical explanation. Myself, I tend to put more faith in the opinion of the Fathers – both in general and in particular in relation to what Jesus says here. But let us consider the possibilities.
If Jesus is speaking metaphorically, it could be taken to mean that he is praising his disciples … they have gone out into the world, preaching the Good News and casting out evil spirits in his Name. They are doing God's work and the forces of darkness are being driven back by it. It is as if Satan is being cast down by all they do.
But if it was intended to be a metaphor, there is something wrong with it, I think. For our Lord does not say he saw Satan driven back, but cast down; and not cast down from some place of earthly power but from heaven. And Satan, we know, was cast down from heaven long ago, by God himself.
So our Lord is talking literally here, of seeing Satan fall. But when?There are two possibilities. Considering the first, his disciples have just come back from the mission he sent them on; and they tell him that they have been casting out demons in his Name. Does he mean, then, that as they were out their in the towns, villages, and country places, he could see Satan being thrown down as a result? I do not think so for the reason I already mentioned – that Satan was cast out of heaven long ago. Also, he says 'saw' – past tense, as if it were an act that was completed … as if his men by their work have defeated Satan in the world … and we know that this is something that is manifestly not true … the powers of darkness are at large in the world even today.
So that leaves us with only one interpretation of what our Lord is saying: he is making a statement of literal fact; he is saying he saw Satan fall from heaven; he is saying he witnessed when Lucifer attempted to rise up against the God of heaven and was cast out for his unpardonable sin of thinking himself equal to the one who made him and rebelling against him. He is saying he saw something that no human eyes could have seen, for that rebellion in heaven took place before the creation of man and his own Fall. It is, therefore, a divine claim; for while no man could have seen it, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, the Son, could. And so when Jesus stands before his disciples as a man and tells them he saw Satan fall from heaven he is telling them that he is himself God.
But why does he choose to mention this to them on their return from their mission? This is what has always intrigued me; and again, I think we must look to context for the answer. They have returned from their journey to the towns and others places where they have been sent – and they are rejoicing that the demons have been forced to submit to them in the name of Jesus. And Jesus it seems sees that there is a danger that they will be seduced by the power of casting out demons, of bending these evil spirits to their will, and think it more important than the work of spreading the good news. For he says to them after that they should not rejoice that the spirits are subject to them, but rather that their names are written in heaven. Our Lord sees they are at risk of being proud of the power he has given them, and being glad of it for its own sake, rather than for what it signifies – that they are obedient followers of Christ, and through their faithfulness they will end in heaven. And so he reminds them of Satan – the one who was proud, and as a result of his pride lost heaven for all eternity – to warn them of the dangers that they face.
For pride is a very great danger indeed – so great that a person can even be doing God's work in the world, but because they do so with a prideful spirit, giving glory to themselves rather than to God that they gain no benefit for their own souls for what they do, even if all the world thinks them a great hero of the faith. It is in this way that Satan can lead even holy people astray; which is why Christ warns of the evil to be avoided, the evil of pride, the evil of following in the devil's footsteps. Instead we must follow in those of the Lord, and be meek and humble of heart. He will give you the grace to do so; so that you may, as our Lord wishes for his disciples and all who follow him, find that in the end your names are written in heaven. Amen.