“We have met the enemy and he is us.” Perhaps you have heard a version of that quote. The original came from an American naval officer in 1813 after the Battle of Lake Erie, but it was made popular by Pogo the Possum in several cartoon strips in the early 1970’s. Since then, it continues to resurface here and there in moments of honesty, transparency, and political expediency (Pogo’s version was the lament of an environmentalist).
This came to mind as I read the appointed Gospel reading for this Sunday. Both the quote and the reading from Mark 7 articulate a truth about the source of evil and the reality of the human condition.
As is often the case with Jesus’ teaching, this truth arose out of a much narrower and specific context. In last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus engaged in a back and forth with religious leaders about the authority of human traditions, the practice of washing hands, and what makes a person ritually unclean. At the beginning of today’s reading, Jesus expanded the audience by inviting the crowd into the conversation (perhaps they were the same people he had miraculously fed in chapter 6). “Hear me, all of you, and understand” (7:14). Then, with everyone’s attention, Jesus taught about what makes a person truly unclean. In a departure from (or, at least, an expansion of) the Old Testament Law (see Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14), Jesus declared food does not make a person unclean. What goes into the body is not the problem. It is what comes out. “Out of the heart of man come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22). Such evil comes out because it already lurks within. As Pogo says, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.”
Such evil comes out because it already lurks within. As Pogo says, “We have seen the enemy and he is us.”
This text invites you to focus your sermon on the identity of our true enemy. The timing is good, because in our increasingly polarized culture it is far too common to find mortal enemies around every corner. Who is my enemy? It is the network pushing fake news. It is the political party trying to destroy the country. It is people buying lies about the vaccine. It is the local school board, the ambitious colleague, the omnipresent screen. There are many enemies. Notice they are always someone (or something) else.
I do not know if the lectionary committee was intentional about this, but the epistle reading paired with this Gospel reading offers the potential for an interesting contrast. Unlike Jesus, who emphasized evil comes from within, the reading from Ephesians 6:12 emphasizes the external nature of our enemy. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” It is almost as if Paul is saying our enemy is NOT within, but rather far above and beyond flesh and blood.
So, which is it? Is the enemy within? Or is it without?
The answer, of course, is: “Yes.” Our enemy is both external AND internal. Outside of us AND inside of us. It is the old evil foe who prowls around us AND the old Adam who wreaks havoc inside each of us. The reality is we have two enemies (or three if you want to follow Luther and add the world to the Devil and our sinful flesh) and they are relentless.
What does this mean for the Christian life?
First, it means we are in trouble. History clearly teaches it is really hard to fight a battle on two, much less three, fronts. The message is rather simple: We need to be on guard. This needs to be said clearly and forcefully, for most of us are in the habit of practically ignoring at least one (and usually two or three) of our enemies. As a result, the evil lurking in our hearts comes out far too often in the forms Jesus mentions in verses 21-22.
Second, and this is where the good news really is good, there is one who reigns over all our enemies. He is the victorious one, the conqueror of death, the master over sin, the risen and reigning Lord Jesus Christ who has tamed the evil foe and the old Adam and keeps them both on a short, if hidden, leash. When He returns, He will end their tyranny for all time. Proclaim this promise for the strength and encouragement of your hearers.
Third, this promise of deliverance not only fills us with hope for future relief, but also transforms our lives here and now. We no longer have any excuse to give into temptation, whether it comes from without or within. Instead, we are to live by the Spirit in the victory of Christ by refusing to conform to the will of our enemies.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Mark 7:14-23.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Mark 7:14-23