“No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”
Is the world a better place than it used to be?
Is life better than it was 10 years ago? 100 years ago? 1,000 years ago? 10,000 years ago? If it is, how is it better? If it’s not, why not?
Over the past few years I’ve heard numerous people say they think the world is a worse place now than it used to be. Some people have seen this as a natural part of life, that things get better and then they get worse and then they get better again. Others see this as a sign of the end of the world—things will get worse until they devolve into complete chaos, and then Jesus will come back.
Is the world a better place than it used to be?
That’s kind of an unfair question because, really, how could you know? None of us were around 100 or 1,000 years ago so we can’t really be certain that the world is any better or any worse.
But we can make an educated guess. According to the UN, the proportion of undernourished people in the world dropped from 15% in 2008 to only 8.6% in 2014. But since then it has risen back to 8.9% in 2019. That’s still less than it was in 2008, but it also means that something like 700 million people around the world do not have adequate food. Is that better?
In 2017, 12.5 million children in America struggled with food insecurity. In 2019, that number dropped to 11 million. Is that better? What if I told you that there are 1,400 children and 3,000 adults here in Snyder county that struggle to find adequate nourishment? With COVID those numbers are probably even higher. Is that better?
According to the FBI, the violent crime rate has dropped significantly from 2000 to 2019, yet the murder rate has increased by almost 12% since 2010. Is that better?
There are lots of things to consider. We could compare our current situation to other situations of the past. Are we better off than someone who lived during the Civil War? Are we better off than a German Jew in 1940? Are we better off than someone who fled the plague in Europe? Are we better off than the average suburban family in the economic boom of the 1950s?
Or we could compare ourselves to other people around the world. Are we better off here than in other places around the globe? According to the 2020 World Happiness Report, America ranks as only the 18th happiest place in the world, and according to the 2019 Human Freedom Index, we are only the 14th most free country in the world. Is that better?
To some extent, I think it’s a matter of perspective. The more optimistic among us might say the world is a better place and getting better all the time. The more pessimistic among us might claim the opposite. Some might argue that we are on the trajectory of progress with the world trending toward being a better place to live. A black person living in America, or a Palestinian living in Israel, or a Uighur living in China might disagree, however.
So, is the world a better place than it used to be?
Year B is supposedly the year of Mark, but we’ve spent the last seven weeks reading out of Luke and, mostly, John. Today, we finally get to step back into Mark’s gospel. Since it’s been awhile since we read from Mark, let me give you a little context. If you remember, way back in Advent when we first started reading Mark, I mentioned that one of the major themes in the gospel of Mark is the cosmic battle that’s happening between God and Satan. In Mark’s gospel, good and evil are battling it out here on earth, with Jesus at the center of the fight.
Today’s gospel reading drops us back into the middle of that struggle. Jesus has been preaching and teaching across the Judean countryside, healing the sick and casting out demons as he goes. He returns to his hometown and a big crowd follows him. His own family, hearing his teachings and seeing him heal, thinks that he’s lost his mind and begs him to come home and stop making a fool of himself. The religious leaders, on the other hand, suspect Jesus of something far more insidious than mere lunacy. They think that Jesus is Satan himself, or, at least, an agent of Satan.
So Jesus sits in a house, with crowds of people begging him to teach and heal and cast out demons, while his family and the religious authorities stand outside calling him crazy and satanic. So what does Jesus do? He tells them a parable! What else would he do!?
Jesus says, “no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” What is Jesus getting at? Just before he tells this parable, he brushes off the religious leaders’ ridiculous accusations, saying that if he were Satan, he would not be casting out demons. He then flips the whole thing on its head. Jesus says that not only is he not Satan, he is the one who has come to put an end to Satan.
In this parable, Jesus refers to Satan as “the strong man,” and that is a good name for him. When I asked you if the world was better off than it used to be? How many of you immediately thought “no”? How many of you weren’t so sure? That’s because Satan is surely strong! Satan has a powerful hold on this world. Violence, hunger, thirst, homelessness, illness, abuse, abandonment—all of these things show us just how strong Satan is.
But, Jesus says, there is someone who is even stronger than Satan. And that person is Jesus. With this parable, Jesus summarizes his whole ministry for us. Jesus has come to earth in a divine breaking and entering. He has busted into the strong man’s home, tied him up, and now is plundering his treasures, which is to say, us. Jesus has come into the world to bind up Satan and liberate us from Satan’s clutches. That is the message Jesus wants to convey to his family and the religious leaders and the crowd that surrounds him. Jesus is not Satan; just the opposite: Jesus has come to get rid of Satan.
When we look around us, it’s hard to see if Jesus really made any progress in that work. Did he really bind up the strong man? Is Satan bound and gagged in the trunk of a heavenly car somewhere? Violence, hunger, thirst, homelessness, illness, abuse, abandonment—all those things still seem to thrive in this world. Are we really better off now that Jesus has come?
How we answer that question is a matter of faith, not sight. If we are to rely only on what we can see, on what we can read, on statistics from the FBI or Feeding America or the World Health Organization, then the situation is probably going to look bleak. But that is why we do not rely only on our sight. We rely, instead upon our faith. Even though it may not look like Jesus has bound up the strong man, we have faith that he has. We look out on this hurting and broken world not with a sense that it is all going to hell in a hand basket, but with a sense that, somewhere down the line, goodness is coming. It may not come completely in our lifetime, but it is coming.
So when someone asks you if you think the world is better off now than it used to be, the faithful answer is “yes.” The truthful answer is, “there’s a lot of suffering, and it may look bleak, but I believe that goodness and mercy are coming and they are already here.”
We are called to testify to this truth. That’s what it means to be a Christian. We are the ones who go out into the world and spread the good news that God’s kingdom is coming and Satan is being tied up. It might not always look like it, but that’s the truth. And the best way we can testify to this reality is not through our words, but through our actions.
The best way we can testify to this reality is to step into those moments that seem like hell on earth and offer a piece of the goodness to come. We testify to the goodness to come by bringing a meal to a grieving mother. We testify to the goodness to come by visiting our friend in prison. We testify to the goodness to come by offering our coat to a homeless person. We testify to the goodness to come by ladling out chili at a soup kitchen. We testify to the goodness to come by offering comfort to a sick person. None of these things will change the course of history. But that’s God’s job, not ours. All these things will, however, testify to what God is doing in the world. All these things, even if only in some small way, bind up the strong man and reveal the goodness and mercy of Jesus that is both here and yet-to-come.
As Christians we are called to be optimists. When asked if the world is getting better, we have to say “yes,” not because we rely on our sight which tells us things look bleak, but because we rely on our faith which tells us that the Kingdom of God is coming and goodness and mercy are coming with it.