But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul the ruler of demons.” Others put him to the test by asking him a sign from heaven. But he knew their thoughts. He said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is destroyed, with household against household.”
Luke 11: 15-17
The episode related in today’s gospel immediately follows Jesus teaching on prayer. As Luke Timothy Johnson points out, it presents a “polemical contrast” to that teaching. He writes:
Now, rather than asking and receiving the “Holy Spirit from heaven” (11:13), these opponents seek a “sign from out of heaven” (11:16). Rather than praying to God to deliver them from testing (11:4), they deliberately put Jesus to the test (11:16). Rather than ask forgiveness of sins they in effect accuse Jesus of the sin of collusion with Satan (11:4, 15). Rather than recognize in Jesus the one who proclaims the kingdom of the Father (11:2), they accuse him of being a minion of Satan’s rule (11:15).
The Gospel of Luke, p. 183
So, in chapter 11 Luke has demonstrated to us the contrasting dispositions that are always contesting within us: the dispositions of the spirit as prayerful and the dispositions of the false or pride form of life that asserts its autonomy and separation from its very source and life. There is a way of being and living that asks and so receives, but also one that demands a sign. There is the humble recognition of how readily we lose our real way and so prays to be delivered from a testing we are unable to withstand, but there is also the unconscious drive of competition that seeks to diminish others that we might feel superior. There is a way of relating to all of the others in our worlds that respectfully recognizes and “bows before” the spark of the Divine within them, but there is also the way depreciating all that is not to our liking and gratification.
Taken as a whole, Luke’s teaching on prayer in this chapter invites us to ponder what prayerful and contemplative presence is and is not. To “pray always” is not to build in our imaginations an alternate celestial universe, it is to practice reforming our hearts into the instruments of grace, peace, and love they are intended to be — so that in God’s time they might be transformed according to God’s will.
Christian Wiman reflects on the nature of the grief that he experienced at the passing of his grandmother:
I was pierced, not simply by grief and the loss of her presence, but by a sense that some very particular and hard-won kind of consciousness had gone out of the world. . . . there is a kind of consciousness that is not consciousness as intellectuals define it. It is passive rather than active; it involves allowing the world to stream through you rather than you always reaching out to take hold of it. It is the consciousness of the work of art, and not necessarily of the artist who made it. People, occasionally, can be such works, creation streaming through them like the inspiration that, in truth, all of creation is.
My Bright Abyss, pp. 152-3