Shoulder Angels and Stained Glass Demons

“What would it be like if we traded our metaphors of bickering angels and demons, of being torn between right and wrong, for something different? What if we made, instead, the image of seeds and grain, of soil and nourishment, of feeding 5,000 – what if we made these the central guiding images for growing deeper in our faith?”

Sermon Preached: Sunday, July25, 2021 at Trinity Church on the Green

Proper 12, Year B: 2 Kings 4:42-44 | Psalm 145:10-19 | Ephesians 3:14-21 | John 6:1-21

Between the words that I speak and the words that are heard, may God’s spirit be present. Amen.

I imagine that just about everyone here today is familiar with the classic image of a person facing a decision, with a miniature angel and a miniature devil perched on either shoulder. We can thank Looney Toons, Disney, and even the television show The Simpsons for perpetuating this image that is all too familiar to us. Strangely, this may be one of the most frequent examples of theology that we see in popular culture. It pops up just about everywhere.

So where does this image come from? Let me tell you, first, that it does not come from the Bible – at least not directly. Some suggest that the image is derived from Freud’s psychology – where the devil is a metaphor for the id, the angel is a metaphor for the superego, and the person in the middle is the ego, making a decision between the two. However, it seems likely that the roots of this image goes back further than that. Some people point to the story of Faust as a possible origin. In that German legend, based on a historic figure, a man named Faust makes a deal with the Devil. It’s a classic story of good versus evil, though it’s a bit less clear how the characters in this story evolve into miniature beings perched on our shoulders. One blog I read online finds the roots of the angel and devil on a shoulder in the writings of Origen of Alexandria, a Christian theologian who lived in Egypt in the second and third centuries. In his twelfth homily on Luke, Origen writes: “To every [one] there are two attending angels, the one of justice and the other of wickedness. If there be good thoughts in our heart, and if righteousness be welling up in our soul, it can scarcely be doubted that an angel of the Lord is speaking to us. If, however, the thoughts of our heart be turned to evil, an angel of the devil is speaking to us.” (from The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1, ed. William A. Jurgens, 201, as quoted by Dan Salyers, “The Historical Christian,” online).

Whatever the origins of this imagery, the idea of angels and devils influencing our decisions is clearly a persistent one. In some basic way this image speaks to us human beings about the choices that we make. About our everyday struggle to choose right over wrong; to choose good over evil.

I like to think that we have our very own version of this devil-and-angel image here at Trinity on the Green – in our stained glass. The window that I’m talking about is the upper half of the Brewster Window, installed in 1968 in loving memory of Frederick and Margaret Brewster. You can see the lower half of the window in the back right corner of our church –  it’s the one in the back corner, with the distinct modern style and bold red and blue colors. The bottom half is an image of the Holy Family engaged in various kinds of work – Joseph and Jesus are involved with carpentry in the foreground, while Mary spins some kind of fiber in the back. However, the image that I am most interested in today is the upper half of the window, which you can view best from our upstairs gallery.

Upper Brewster Window, Trinity Church on the Green

This two-panelled window is a variation on the Parable of the Sower – a story that Jesus tells the disciples in the Gospel narratives of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In the story a sower scatters seed in different places – on a path, among rocks, among thorns – but only the seed in the good soil thrives. The left panel is clearly a depiction of the seed that is sown in less than ideal soil. We can see the sun scorching the seeds; we can see the birds circling to pluck them up. In the bottom left corner things get a bit less literal, and a lot more interesting, as the artist depicts a miniature demon, snatching up the seeds. This imagery hearkens to Jesus’ explanation of his own parable, as told in Luke 8. Jesus explains: “Those [seeds] along the path [represent] the ones who hear [the Gospel], and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.”

The image on the left poses a clear contrast with the image on the right, where we see what happens when the seed is planted in good soil. The wheat grows tall and golden, and the sower reaps the harvest. As if to underscore this outcome, the stained glass depicts an angel, winged in red, in the lower right hand corner – a perfect mirror image to the Devil on the other side.

Now, there aren’t actually any angels in this story. And technically there aren’t any demons either – that’s just the interpretive part of the parable. Still, both of these images appear in our stained glass, a nod to our favorite pop culture theology image of an angel on one shoulder, and a devil on the other. Again, this image is persistent! And I think it appeals to us because it gives us the illusion of a simple choice. A binary choice. Choose Good, or Choose Evil. Alas, even the parable of the sower tells us that life is more complicated than that. In this story there are multiple choices for where to plant the seed – the path, the rocks, the thorns, the soil. And there are also other stories in scripture, like the feeding of the 5,000 in our Gospel passage today, where it seems like there are no choices at all.

So: let’s return to that Gospel passage that we read today, and consider how the image of the angel and the demon, whispering into our ears might inform our understanding of what this story – the feeding of the 5,000 – has to teach us in our faith today.

Looking at that story, I was surprised by how easy it is to imagine it as a Saturday morning cartoon, with angels and demons chiming in at different parts of the dialogue. Jesus and his disciples arrive on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and they are suddenly surrounded by people – more people than they are prepared to feed. Jesus names the problem, and he does this in order to test them, the scripture says. He asks the disciples, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Immediately, the voices of the disciples kick in. “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little,” the first voice says, stepping in for the devil on the shoulder. But then, a more optimistic voice comes in, saying: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.” Then again, the voice of doubt comes in, “But what are they among so many people?” We can feel the push and pull of the decision process. We see how possibilities open up, only to close down again.

Origen, in his 3rd century sermon as mentioned earlier, gave these conflicting forces a name and a description – they are the angel of justice and the angel of wickedness. I think we can do the same – but in light of our Gospel passage for today, I will give them different names. The devil on our shoulder is the voice of “not enough,” and the angel on our shoulder is the voice that says “all you need is here.” 

In this story there is no specific decision that the disciples have to make. It’s not as if Pluto the cartoon dog is deciding whether to chase a kitten, or Homer Simpson is deciding whether or not to eat a donut. Instead the disciples feel that they have no decision at all – no way forward. And so the voices that resound in and among them aren’t about action. Instead they are about attitude. On the one hand there is an attitude of scarcity, impossibility, and selfishness. On the other hand there is an attitude of resourcefulness, hope, and community. Ultimately, the disciples do not have to make a decision – because Jesus already knows what he is going to do. He tells the disciples to “make the people sit down,” and he begins to work a miracle – turning five loaves and two fishes into food for thousands of people, with even more left over.

Jesus tells the disciples to “make the people sit down” – and in those words, it’s almost as if I hear Jesus telling our inner demons and our inner angels to sit down too. The prevailing metaphor of the day isn’t one of angels and demons bickering on our shoulders. Rather, the prevailing metaphor of the day is one of sustenance, of bread, of growth, of nourishment for all. Ultimately, the task before the disciples is not a matter of choosing between angels and demons; between good and evil. Rather, the task before the disciples is all about being receptive to Jesus – being open enough (trusting enough!) for the seeds of a miracle to take root and to grow. The Parable of the Sower tells us that when the seed was planted in good soil it yielded thirty, and sixty, and a hundred fold (Mark 4:8). Surely that is what we see in the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus planted the seed of a miracle, and the people were just ready enough to receive it, and to make it grow enough to feed a multitude – five thousand people!

What would it be like if we traded our metaphors of bickering angels and demons, of being torn between right and wrong, for something different? What if we made, instead, the image of seeds and grain, of soil and nourishment, of feeding 5,000 – what if we made these the central guiding images for growing deeper in our faith? So often the culture that we live in can feed us a cartoon version of what it means to be a Christian. But there is something much better, and far more sustaining to be found through our faith in Jesus. In Jesus we encounter a God of flesh and blood, of seed and soil, of growth and harvest. It is not surprising to me that these are the images that Jesus used to teach his disciples about a new way of living – a way that is not dictated by binary choices, but rather rooted in trust, and growth, and love.

I invite you today to be intentional in how you think about your faith. Faith isn’t about choosing between our lesser angels and our lesser demons. Rather, faith is about cultivating an attitude of hope and possibility. Faith is a matter of trusting God to grow potential in us – potential for goodness that is beyond what we could ask or imagine. Faith is a matter of becoming good soil in which God can grow new life.

Our shoulder angels and shoulder demons may have served us well for a time, teaching us the boundaries of the moral high ground and the moral low ground. But it’s time to move on to a more mature vision of faith – a broad field where we are all gathered together, working together, to bring about the work of God within us and around us. I pray that we would be rooted and grounded in the love of Christ, as Paul writes in our reading from the Book of Ephesians today. I pray that God would tend the seeds of holiness in our hearts, so that they might grow thirty and sixty and a hundredfold. And I pray that God would bless the gifts that we have to offer – our loaves and our fishes – so that our lives might be a blessing to the multitude. Amen.

Works Referenced

Salyers, Dan. “Origen: The Angel on the Right Shoulder and the Devil on the Left.” The Historical Christian (18 March 2015). Online. https://dansalyers.wordpress.com/2015/03/18/origen-the-angel-on-the-right-shoulder-and-the-devil-on-the-left/

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