Matthew 16:21-27, 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
A few years ago, I watched a film called “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” I expected a full-blown horror movie in the tradition of other Exorcist movies, complete with all the scary special effects like 360-degree head turns, shaking beds, and lots of vomiting. Instead, to my disappointment, with the exception of a few scenes, the movie wasn’t all that scary. It wasn’t even really a horror movie, strictly speaking, since the scary parts were relegated to flashback scenes. To my surprise—but pleasant surprise—the film turned out to be a religious movie in disguise; in fact, it turned out to be a deeply moving and spiritual experience.
Based on a true story, “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” is about a college girl, Emily Rose, who came to believe that she was possessed. At first she experienced nightmares, and then she began seeing things like faces of people turning into demons. She also started speaking foreign languages. After medical care failed to solve her problem, her family asked for the help of their priest. An exorcism was performed. But not only did the exorcism fail, but Emily also eventually died. The movie is about the trial of her priest who was accused of negligent homicide.
For me, the strangest scene in the film is also the most important. It comes near the end, after the failed exorcism, when in a vision, the Blessed Mother appears to Emily and gives her a choice: “Recovery or suffering?” If she chooses recovery, the demon will be exorcised, and her life will return to normal. If she chooses suffering, she will die, but her case will be known and will provoke people to ask questions about the existence of demons and spirits that many in the world today deny. If she chooses to continue to be under demonic possession, her case will lead many to think about and perhaps even recognize the existence of God himself.
According to the testimony of her priest, Emily chooses suffering and virtually becomes a martyr of the faith. She embraces pain and death so that strange as it may sound, others may recognize—in the terrible suffering she undergoes because of demonic possession—the existence of spirits in the world and ultimately the existence of God. It’s the strangest thing: a girl deciding to endure demonic possession until her death to do something good.
I remembered this movie when I read the gospel reading today. Our Lord talks about his upcoming suffering and death, and Peter quite understandably takes him aside to discourage him from going through it. Our Lord then turns to him and utters what may be some of his harshest words he has said to his friends: “Get behind me, Satan!”
By comparing Peter to the devil, our Lord here seems to be saying that like the devil in the desert, Peter is also tempting him. But tempting him to do what? When you think about it, Peter is not asking the Lord to commit any sin. There is nothing wrong or sinful about thinking and acting sensibly in order to avoid getting killed by his enemies. But I guess this means that temptations refer not only to those situations when we might commit a sin, but also those in which we might not choose the greater good. Maybe we can call this a temptation of the “lesser good.”
It’s true, isn’t it? When it feels good to do good, we experience no hesitation and have no difficulty about doing so. But when doing something good is going to cause us some pain, that’s when we experience the temptation to do something “less good,” and we begin negotiating with the Lord.
In a sense, Emily Rose must have been tempted to do something less good too. After all, she certainly can’t be faulted if she had chosen healing over continued demonic possession. Who wouldn’t prefer to finally be rid of the demons that possessed her especially after all the suffering that she and her family had gone through? But instead she opted to remain possessed because she could accomplish a greater good through this choice. Emily Rose rejected the temptation to do the lesser good, and like our Lord, she told Satan to “get behind her.” But in an ironic sort of way, she did this by choosing to remain behind with Satan. What a brave and loving decision!