October 24, 2012
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Matthew 12:43-45.
“When an unclean spirit goes out of a person it roams through arid regions searching for rest but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my home from which I came.’ But upon returning, it finds it empty, swept clean, and put in order. Then it goes and brings back with itself seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they move in and dwell there; and the last condition is worse than the first. Thus it will be with this evil generation.”
As usual, Jesus teachings have multiple levels. He was an exorcist, a healer of troubled people. This can be understood to mean that while he was successful in exorcising unclean spirits, most Israelites did not accept him or his mission. That evil generation would be revisited by untold misery.
But what is Jesus telling me today? I was feeling pretty good as I was reading this passage until I came to the part about the seven spirits more evil than the first taking up residence. There is no rest for the wicked, the sinful! You mean if I finally get to the point of riding myself of one demon, it’s going to bring reinforcements to overwhelm me from different angles? That’s discouraging.
However, the New Jerome Biblical Commentary offers a pragmatic interpretation that makes sense to me and lifts my discouragement. It points out that the ridding myself of one demon isn’t necessarily permanent. It isn’t destroyed; it is only driven away. Instead of emptying myself, sweeping myself clean, I must replace that void with something pleasing to God — something like “faith, hope, love, new life.” Barclay believes that a “negative religion can never be enough. A religion which consists of thou shall nots will end in failure. The trouble about such a religion is that it may be able to cleanse a man by prohibiting all his evil actions, but it cannot keep him cleansed.”
It reminds of Nancy Reagan’s message about drugs: Just Say No! We all know how effective that’s been. Barclay writes, “It’s not enough to banish the evil thoughts and the evil habits and the old ways and leave the soul empty. An empty soul is a soul in peril….It is not enough to drive out evil; good must come in.”
A soul in peril. An image of profound vulnerability. I think Jesus is telling me to think of good as a offensive force that takes the battle to evil, fighting it on all fronts, and pushing it into retreat. Good is like not a fortress, a defensive battlement that can keep evil at bay. It is not impregnable. It has to exercise its power by serving others with compassion and justice, by consciously working to bring about the kingdom of God.
It’s like God. He didn’t stay in his heavenly kingdom warding off the forces of evil. He sent His Son to the battlefront to cast out demons, to restore health, to bring God’s life-affirming love. Jesus was all about action, not waiting for evil to attack. In spite of the odds, in spite of consequences, he used God’s love like a sword against evil, against the ruthlessness, cold-heartedness of the wealthy and powerful. He was overcome; the battle for our souls was not won then and is still waged now. He will help me drive out my demons, but I can’t stop there. I have to be a potent force for good — for faith, hope, love, and new life.