The person who is not with me is against me. The one who does not join me scatters. Whenever an unclean spirit departs from a person it passes through waterless areas looking for a resting place but finds none. So it says, “I will go back to the house I left.” When it arrives, it finds the house swept and tidied. Then it goes and assembles seven other spirits worse than itself. They come in and settle down there. The last state of this person is worse than the first!”
Luke 11: 23-6
Most of us experience the sense of well being when we order, clean, and simplify (“de-clutter” as we’d say today) our living space. Somehow life always seems more settled and coherent in the midst of a clean house. This everyday experience gives us a way into understanding the otherwise quite strange mini-parable that Jesus relates in today’s gospel. To tidy up one’s life without being “with Jesus” exposes one to scattering. In terms of our own experience, unless the space we have “tidied up” becomes a space of hospitality, that is, welcomes a guest or guests, it will be worth nothing but to become disordered and dirty again.
As a child I had something of a penchant for order. We had a space over our large old garage that served as a wonderful clubhouse. As we attempted to create our means of associating with each other, we would come to grips with the very different ways of being of each person and inevitably have to bear with a given amount of both physical and relational disorder. This “messiness” I found extremely difficult. So, I, and some like-minded friends, attempted to create a quite lengthy list of rules and regulations for the next incarnations of our association. We quickly learned, however, that no matter how hard we worked to create good order by means of these rules, that the rules themselves could not create and even, in fact, inhibited, the kind of friendship and association we sought. In a way we could not have understood at that age, it was our friendship and care for each other, our reason for being together (what we’d now call our mission) that would bind and animate our community. I learned through painful experience that if my primary value was to have order, to have things the way I wanted them, then I would, in the end, find myself alone and scattered.
The “crowd” who encounter Jesus in today’s passage stands in contrast to others who are “astonished” by him and praise his birth (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, p. 182). They rather put Jesus to the test. They are the ordered and upright who stand in judgment of Jesus and the others, as opposed to those who sincerely and openly are hospitable to his message. Instead of attending to and trying to appropriate the truth of his words, they are constantly “putting him to the test.” Their attitude was the one I saw in myself as a young person. They wanted others, they wanted God, but on their own terms. They wanted a place for the Kingdom in their lives, rather than to find their place in the Kingdom.
We all want to build a coherent life. Today Jesus reminds us that the harder we work at that order from the confines of our own functional potency, the stronger we’ll experience the “demons” that are hellbent on disorder. Yet, these forces, are largely demons of our own making. Luke’s name Beelzebul “derives from the Canaanite God Baal” (Johnson, p. 181). It is our insistence on creating our own gods, (wealth, security, status, power) that result in the inevitable falling apart of our own attempts to create security, order, and personal significance. A clean and ordered “house” that remains empty will inevitably collapse.
So, we must learn that the space we create is to be a hospitable one. We must use the order and spaciousness as an invitation and a welcoming of the Lord to fill us. It is love that creates the firm foundation on which our true life and security rest. The mystical tradition tells us that God abhors a vacuum. We are to welcome God into our vacancies or else the “demons” will fill them. To pray always is to live in relationship, for all our being to be absorbed in the One who is our life. As we read in 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love.” We sweep and tidy “our house” for the sake of the guest whom we love. When we are thus occupied, we need not fear the assault from whatever demons lurk about.
When such a person considers all this, he is moved by an extremely strong desire to see and to know christ his Bridegroom as he is in himself, for although he knows Christ in his works, this is not enough. He must therefore do as the publican Zacchaeus did when he desired to see Jesus as he was (cf. Lk 19: 1-10). He must run ahead of the crowd, that is, ahead of all the multiplicity of the created order, since this makes a person short of stature and so unable to see God. He must then climb the tree of faith, which grows downward from above, since its roots are in the Godhead. This tree has twelve branches, which are the twelve articles of the creed. The lowest of these speak of God’s humanity and of those matters which concern the salvation of our body and soul. The highest branches of this tree speak of the Godhead—of the Trinity of Persons and of the Unity of the divine nature. A person must cling to this Unity in the highest part of the tree, for it is there that Christ is to pass by with all his gifts.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, I,IV,D