In the story book Aesop’s Fables there is a story called – The Four Oxen and the Lion:
A Lion used to prowl about a field where Four Oxen gathered. Many times the lion tried to attack them; but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another, so whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them. One day the oxen started quarrelling among themselves, and each went off alone in a separate corner of the field. The Lion then attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four. The motto of this fable was – United We Stand, Divided We Fall.
It is a motto that has been used down the centuries even today amongst Unionists when they are fighting for better pay and conditions for their members. As one employee they wouldn’t have much power at all –but united in a union they have great power. United we stand – divided we fall. So a strategy when taking on such a powerful force is “divide and conquer”. Jesus uses this principle in today’s Gospel reading when he is accused of using Satan or Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, to do the miracles he’s doing, in particular casting out demons. Jesus points out how ludicrous that is – how can the devil be against himself casting out demons? Jesus says: “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” Satan’s motive is to divide and conquer – and particularly when attacking God’s children – the church and Christians. It was the method he first used in the Garden of Eden when he tempted Eve alone. Where was Adam? It is the same question God asks in our Old Testament reading: the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” It’s the same question we ask of Adam when Satan approaches Eve – Adam, where are you! Together they could remind and encourage one another about what God had said. Alone they were perfect picking for Satan’s cunningness. That’s why when Jesus sent out his disciples he sent them out 2 by 2. To support each other and uphold one another. And so Satan knows that if he can divide, he can conquer. That’s what happened on the night of Jesus’ arrest as prophesied in the Old Testament in Zechariah: Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered. And Jesus reminded them of that too: “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: “‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ This is now Satan’s method of attack – to divide and conquer.
We see it so often in the church where division has been the greatest attack on our church. You only have to look at what we have been facing for the past 20 or more years on the Ordination question. We have a situation where our church is divided having voted 3 times in the past 15 years. The vote failed by 13 votes last time. But what we have seen is a church that has stagnated in its mission and presented a divided front where we are at each other trying to outdo each other – casting dispersions – calling names – making accusations – pointing our errors – making threats – and it just needed 13 votes to do this. We are fortunate that we are a church that has its roots in division with the 2 Synods 50 years ago and we are working hard through prayer and consultation to avoid that split again. But Satan persists and he is very active in congregations looking for ways to undermine the good work through petty squabbles. We have seen churches damaged irreparably over things like service times, new carpets, budget items; These have caused more divisions than deep theological issues. In the New Testament we see the Corinthian Church arguing over Baptism. But not on theological grounds such as whether it should be infant baptism or full immersion – but whose Baptism was better because of who performed the Baptism. But Paul reminds them – is Christ divided? No he’s not and neither should the church, his body, nor Christians, his temple.
As we hear in our Gospel reading – a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. Churches and relationships can be greatly damaged by division where we refuse to admit our error or forgive one another. That’s what Satan looks for. He looks where he can incite anger. And look how he set Adam against God – Adam against Eve. It wasn’t me! “The woman you gave me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” In our anger we can say things that hurt, including people we love dearly as we become defensive. And that’s why St Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians: “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.
It’s sad seeing the good work that churches do undone by a disagreement amongst some members that could easily be resolved through an apology and forgiveness. It’s sad to see relationships end over disputes that could be solved by showing the same forgiveness that God shows us. It’s especially sad when we as Christians who know the love and forgiveness that God has expressed to us are not prepared to extend to others. It’s sad that we can’t apply the words of Christ to others – “forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”. And it’s because of this difficulty, like Adam blaming God, blaming Eve, that we allow Satan to have his foothold into our relationships – into our churches. Have you ever had a dispute with someone you love. And you’ve fought for days – not talking – giving the cold shoulder – feeling resentful. And then one of you says sorry and the other says I’m sorry too. And you feel really great. And you wonder – why don’t we reconcile immediately? Why do we go through that anger and resentment? It’s because of our human nature and Original Sin that we have inherited and we have allowed Satan to have that foothold to do his damage of dividing and conquering.
Like the lion in Aesop’s fable, he remained patient knowing that the oxen would one day drop their guard. So too St Peter warns: Be alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Let us too be alert to the devil’s cunning as he uses our disputes, our anger, our pride to divide and conquer us. And as St Paul says to the Galatians: As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. Because it is those of the household of faith that Satan is seeking to divide and conquer.
United in Christ we stand – divided in Christ we fall.