Salvation for a Demon

March 2, 2010

Salvation for a Demon

In the center of a once-great city there stood a magnificent cathedral that was cared for by a kindly old priest who spent his days praying in the vestry and caring for the poor. As a result of the priest’s tireless work, the cathedral was known throughout the land as a true sanctuary. The priest welcomed all who came to his door and gave completely without prejudice or restraint. Each stranger was, to the priest, a neighbor in need and thus the incoming of Christ. His hospitality was famous and his heart was known to be pure. No one could steal from this old man, for he considered no possession his own, and while theives sometimes left that place with items pillaged from the sanctuary, the priest never grew concerned; he had given everything to God and knew that these people needed such items more than the church did.

Early one evening in the middle of winter, while the priest was praying before the cross, there was a loud and ominous knock on the cathedral door. The priest quickly got to his feet and went to the entrance, as he knew it was a terrible night and reasoned that his visitor might be in need of shelter.

Upon opening the door he was surprised to find a terrifying demon towering over him with large dead eyes and rotting flesh.

“Old man,” the demon hissed, “I have traveled many miles to seek your shelter. Will you welcome me in?”

Without hesitation, the priest bid this hideous demon welcome and beckoned him into the church. The evil demon stooped down and stepped across the threshold, spitting venom onto the tiled floor as he went. In full view of the priest, the demon proceeded to tear down the various icons that adorned the walls and rip the fine linens that hung around the sanctuary, while screaming blasphemy and curses.

During this time the priest knelt silently on the floor and continued in his devotions until it was time for him to retire for the night.

“Old man,” cried the demon, “where are you going now?”

“I am returning home to rest, for it has been a long day,” replied the kindly priest.

“May I come with you?” spat the demon. “I too am tired and in need of a place to lay my head.”

“Why, of course,” replied the priest. “Come, and I will prepare a meal.”

On returning to his house, the priest prepared some food while the evil demon mocked the priest and broke the various religious artifacts that ate the meal that was provided and afterward turned his attention to the priest,

“Old man, you welcomed me into your church and then into your house. I have one more request for you:will you know welcome me into your heart?”

“Why, of course,” said the priest, “what I have is yours and what I am is yours.”

This heartfelt response brought the demon to a standstill, for by giving everything the priest had retained the very thing that the demon sought to take. For the demon was unable to rob his of his kindness and his hospitality, his love, and his compassion. And so the great demon left in defeat, never to return.

What happened to that demon after this meeting with the elderly priest is anyone’s guess. Some say that although he left that place empty-handed he received more than he could ever have imagined.

And the priest? He simply ascended the stairs, got into bed and drifted off to sleep, all the time wondering what guise his Christ would take next.

——————————

There is so much in this parable to digest, I absolutely love it. Briefly, I want to mention another version of this story Pete has told which ends slightly differently. After the demon asks to be let into the priest’s soul and the old man says yes, the demon tries to go in, but finding nothing to grab onto, no darkness in him, since all had been replaced by the light of Christ in the man, the demon ran screaming from the hut. I like that ending, too.

Let’s change the parameters of this story around a little bit. Pete talks about a demon, but one of the great things about parables is that they’re a slate with basic parameters that let people read meaning into them. So who are your demons? Muslims? Catholics? Liberals? Conservatives? Gays? Illegal immigrants? Terrorists? Abortion doctors? Would you invite them in, lovingly, and let them trash everything you had? Would you demonstrate radical generosity to these people? Would you let them into your metaphorical church to desecrate the place? In this story the priest is so generous, so self-sacrificing, that there’s nothing for the demon to take. Everything’s been given to God.

The first part of Les Miserables contains another example of this radical, Godly generosity. The pages Victor Hugo devotes to describing the life of Monseigneur Bienvenu are some of the most moving elucidations of living Christianity I can think of. Seriously, go pick the book up and read it. About fifty pages– maybe more, maybe less, its a long book– into the story, the good priest encounters Jean Valjean, an escaped criminal. He welcomes Valjean into his home, gives him a meal and a place to stay, sanctuary. During the night Valjean runs away again, stealing the Bishop’s only valuables, some silverware. Valjean is hauled back in in the morning by some gendarmes, and seeing him the Bishop explains that the silverware was a gift and that Valjean had forgotten to take the candlesticks. This is the fulcrum on which the rest of the story pivots. From here, Valjean is redeemed, all because a merciful man freed him.

The beauty of these radical acts is the space they allow for all sides to consider the work of redemption. Jesus’ exhortations to non-violence in the sermon on the mount (roughly recounted in the last parable) also had a practical edge; they forced the oppressor to consider their oppression and gave the oppressed a way to re-humanize themselves. It is in this space, when unthinking spite is replaced by reflection, that reconciliation can take place. That can’t happen when people reflexively defend ever smaller spaces of religious turf. What if churches agreed to host meetings of local humanist societies? Gave sanctuary to illegal immigrants? Displayed prominently the flags of countries suffering under the weight of first-world oppression? Invited leaders of other religions in to preach? What if churches allowed themselves to be evangelized rather than constantly evangelizing?

One of the beautiful things about being honest with ourselves about who we are is that insults don’t stick anymore. The same can be true of institutions. When someone tells me I’m an arrogant jerk, I have to allow that that is indeed a true statement. I am an arrogant jerk. When someone says the Church has been inhospitable and hateful, the Church should admit the truth. It has been and sometimes still is hateful and inhospitable. We’re still working o that. In the meantime, would you like to come in for a drink of water and some food?

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2 Responses to “Salvation for a Demon”

  1. Evan said

    First of all, Chris, I have to go ahead and say that these parables are all quite interesting and provide some interesting ideas to ponder. I’m fairly conflicted about this recent post, however. I understand the point your trying to make about being radically generous and I agree with you in principal, but I’m not quite sure about some of the examples you use. Of course, if we consider ourselves Christians, we need to be able to show the love of Christ to the people of this world. For example, we can, as you suggest show love to the members of humanist societies, but we have to be careful that we don’t allow fundamental Christian beliefs to be distorted. I realize, of course, that showing love to others is a fundamental Christian tenant…but I think you understand what I’m driving at here.

    In addition, I would have to agree that we need to be honest about who we are and who we have been. This has to be done as a result of a genuine desire to improve our particular institution. We have to be able to examine our past and our future in light of what we know to be biblical, not just as a result of a sense of guilt imparted to us by those outside of the church. Now I don’t mean to imply that lessons can’t be learned or advice can’t be heeded that comes from those outside of the church, but we have to be careful because there are plenty of people who would point out these mistakes in the hopes that it would lead to the destruction of the church.

  2. Katie said

    Chris, on a not-super-important note, I love that you mention Les Miserables, because that is exactly what I thought of when I read this parable before, and it came to mind on this re-reading.

    Also, I must share that both times I have read this one it has presented a greater challenge to me than all the others, as far as pushing the boundaries of my open-mindedness goes. The whole idea of the demon being invited in to the priest’s heart makes it very murky water for me. I mean, as you’ve mentioned, it is a metaphor, and I get the point of the story and it really makes me think, so that’s good, but the extremity of this illustration does make it tough for me to want to hear the actual message. Anyways, that’s just what I observed of my own reaction…

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