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The ruler of this world
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While on a family holiday in Cyprus almost 25 years ago, we made a short trip across the sea to Israel. As we went sight-seeing in Jerusalem, I found myself on the Via Dolorosa, the route taken by Jesus as he was led to his execution. I don’t know if I was standing on the actual cobble stones he had trodden on many centuries earlier. But in that moment it felt as if the grim procession had only just passed by.
It is difficult to explain, but I could somehow sense the passions that must have erupted across the city during those fateful days. They seemed to emanate from the ground beneath me like a kind of background radiation. I could detect the same primal emotion that was directed at Jesus all those centuries ago. An emotion so intense that traces of it remained in the ground itself. It was unmistakeable. It was hatred of him and everything he stood for.
Real though my experience in Jerusalem was, can I place it at the same level of authority as the established accounts of Jesus’ life and death? But even the four Gospels, the only biographical records we have, would not be acceptable to academia as valid historical evidence. As one eminent scholar succinctly put it: “Their purpose was primarily didactic, not historical.”They deal with the biblical Jesus of the Christian faith and were written long after the events they purport to describe.
Nevertheless, although it can never be proven that the Gospels constitute a true historical record, I am inclined to follow the advice of another biblical scholar who suggests that we “show a greater trust” that the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are not “random inventions”, but reflect a sincere attempt to tell the world about a remarkable man and his teachings.
So if you the reader are prepared to suspend any disbelief in your mind for the next few minutes, then off we go.
Several of the biblical narratives describe a strange event in Jesus’ life just before he became a public figure. While fasting alone in a remote place he was approached by the devil himself. Satan attempted to side-track Jesus from the mission he was preparing to embark upon.
And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’”
No doubt this story is meant to underline Jesus’ ability to resist temptation. But I draw another lesson from the reported encounter. This world is Satan’s domain, not Jesus’. Emperors like Tiberius in Rome or Guangwu in China might have imagined they ruled in their own lands. But it seems that Satan could dispose of their kingdoms without a thought if it meant getting Jesus under his thumb.
If Satan was in charge when he tried to bribe Jesus, did he remain so after their encounter in the desert?
Towards the end of his life, Jesus referred to his erstwhile tempter as still being around at least.
I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me.
The extent to which Jesus was impervious, even indifferent, to Satan’s power plays is illustrated by a story from his public life. One day he and his disciples were travelling by boat across the Sea of Galilee. During the crossing Jesus fell into a sleep so sound that he had to be roused by his followers when a violent storm threatened to overturn the craft. Jesus “rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm.”
He also rebuked his companions.
Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?
Perhaps he had already mentioned to his disciples his experience in the desert and expected them to understand that Satan is a “paper tiger” who can do no harm to anyone who serves God. Or maybe they just needed to see it for themselves.
Going back to that encounter, Satan also tried to persuade Jesus to demonstrate his own power by calling on God’s angels to come to his aid.Jesus was not tempted but the episode shows, I think, that Satan knew who the real authority was in the relationship.
Does this explain my experience in Jerusalem? It is easy to understand why Satan would hate Jesus. The latter had failed to render due deference to Satan’s position. Furthermore Jesus had shown others that they could easily defy and overcome his supposed authority.
And afterwards, when Jesus had left, did the “ruler of this world” continue as before?
In 2008 I returned to fulltime education as an undergraduate student. On my first day I attended an induction meeting at Trinity College Dublin. The speaker was Professor Ciaran Brady, then head of the Department of History where I was to study, and a brilliant rhetorician. What he said will stay with me for the rest of my days.
He described the history we would learn during our time in Trinity as truly terrible. So appalling was the picture he painted that I began to wonder if I should not turn and leave the lecture hall immediately. But as he came to the end of his remarks he made an important distinction. History itself might be dreadful, but the study of history was to be cherished.
And so it transpired. I thoroughly enjoyed my years as a student, but what I learnt about the human capacity for cruelty, injustice, and downright wickedness convinced me that, whatever this world is, it is not some benign precursor to Heaven. The litany of horrors seemed endless: bloody battles over trifles, revolutions in which one tyrant was followed by another even more terrible than the last, peaceful peoples displaced or slaughtered by predatory land-grabbers, and so on ad bloody infinitum. If anything, matters became worse when we reached the most brutal period of all, the twentieth century, half of which I lived through.
Of course it was not all bad. History tends to ignore the ordinary folk who want nothing more than to live out their lives in harmony with the land, their families, and their neighbours. The problem is the few who crave control over the many: the would-be tyrants and despots who, but for the lack of means, would have long ago transformed our already bleak world into another Hell.
And behind them all was the true string-puller, the only puppet-master, the “ruler of this world”. He does not care to whom or to what we pledge our allegiance or offer our support - as long as we pick from the cards he offers.
Capitalism or Communism
Republican or Democrat
Labour or Conservative
Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael
As Satan signalled during his encounter with Jesus, they all ultimately serve him. Even if we think, “A plague o’ both your houses!” and have nothing to do with either option, he stays put. Even if we don’t vote on election day, the government still wins.
Yes the “ruler of this world” will continue where he is - as long as we do not consider the only choice worth making.
A choice between good and evil.
God or Satan.
And that is what we are now confronted with. Not a choice between virus and vaccine, or even Green and Gold as I outlined in my recent posts. But a decision about the sort of world we want for ourselves and for our children.
The choice is ours.
Geza Vermes, The Authentic Gospel of Jesus (London, 2004), p. x.
Sean Freyne, Jesus, A Jewish Galilean (London, 2004), pp. 3, 6.
John, 14:30. Jesus made other references in the same Gospel at 12:31 and 16:11.