14 He was expelling a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the man who had been mute spoke; and the people were astounded. 15 But some of them said, “It is by Ba‘al-Zibbul” — the ruler of the demons — “that he expels the demons.” 16 And others, trying to trap him, demanded from him a sign from Heaven. 17 But he, knowing what they were thinking, said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, with one house collapsing on another. 18 So if the Adversary too is divided against himself, how can his kingdom survive? I’m asking because you claim it is by Ba‘al-Zibbul that I drive out the demons. 19 If I drive out demons by Ba‘al-Zibbul, by whom do your people drive them out? So, they will be your judges! 20 But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you!
21 “When a strong man who is fully equipped for battle guards his own house, his possessions are secure. 22 But when someone stronger attacks and defeats him, he carries off all the armor and weaponry on which the man was depending, and divides up the spoils. 23 Those who are not with me are against me, and those who do not gather with me are scattering.
24 “When an unclean spirit comes out of a person, it travels through dry country seeking rest. On finding none, it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ 25 When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order.26 Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they come and live there — so that in the end the person is worse off than he was before.”
Today the blog returns to working through the Gospel of Luke, picking up where it left off for Holy Week. This section is about spiritual powers of good and evil. It begins with the routine understanding of Luke’s culture that disabling disease was due to the action of evil powers. This understanding is offensive to our modern understanding of illness. It appears that Jesus accepted the cultural understanding, but this impression may be incorrect. Certainly he used the language of his culture, but he may have seen the social isolation of diseased people as part of the evil he was opposing. The restoration of the human person to the human community was always his aim. He was utterly opposed to the diminishment of human life entailed by disease.
The accusation of the crowd may appear bizarre to modern ears, but it expresses a common fear that anyone who deals with evil powers by entering into the taboo area in which they operate, may themselves be agents of those powers. Shakepeare’s Hamlet fears that the apparition of his father may be an instrument of evil that “abuses me, to damn me.” Jesus answers with a reduction to absurdity of their accusation. If Satan’s kingdon is engaged in civil war it won’t last long! This is effective, but note the assumption that spiritual rule is binding, dividing its subjects into warring camps. Again Jesus uses robust wit to make his point. If casting out evil spirits allies the exorcist with evil, what does this say about Pharisees and priests who cast them out?
But then comes his clinching argument: if, just suppose, he, Jesus, casts out evil powers by the finger of God, has God’s Rule not arrived amongst them? The “finger of God” is a phrase taken by Jesus or Luke (who is the only Gospel writer to attribute it to Jesus) from Exodus 31: 18 which refers to the finger of God that wrote the commandments on the tablet of stone. Moses received what was written by God’s finger but in Jesus God’s finger inscribes its goodness on human lives.
Jesus adds to this image of his battle against evil powers by imagining a strong man ready to defend his house against attack. If he is defeated it will only be by a stronger man who can then go off with his property. Jesus hints that he is “the stronger one” who by God’s power snatches human lives from the ownership of evil. Jesus emphasises that it is a battle: those who oppose him should consider what power they are serving.
The brilliant parable that follows underlines this insight, which might be expressed otherwise in the words of Bob Dylan, “It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve someone.” There is no human house, whether individual person or connunity, that has no spiritual tenant. Jesus imagines the delight of an expelled evil spirit in finding that its old house is clean and tidy and empty! Of course it wll return with others. Unless people open themselves to God’s goodness, they may be possessed by evil. That openness, in my experience, may come about through faith, but also through a fundamental choice to cherish whatever goodness life offers. I have known religious believers whose inner habitation was occupied by someone with horns and tail, and non-believers whose goodness made me wonder Who was directing my life.
Jesus’ insight should not just be interpreted in the sense of possession which leads people to harm others but also in the sense of possession which leads to self-harm of many different kinds: who is that cruel demon in the heart that leads a person to repeated acts of self-destruction? Is it the abusive parent, the authoritarian educator, the hate-filled community, the sick religion that preaches a God who loves you best when you blow yourself and others to smithereens? Such possesssion needs the rigour and delicacy of God’s goodness (the finger of God) exercised through Jesus and many other healers.
Who and what we allow into our souls is a question largely ignored by contemporary philosophy but not by those who want our allegiance or our money. In an uneasy culture that suspects its relative wealth to be at risk from others, in a world menaced by a climatic cataclysm that most deny, it is not accidental that more and more people, aided by the popular press, shout slogans of hate and violence. They should ask themselves who is speaking through their mouths.