“Whenever a strong man is fully armed and guards his palace, his possessions are secure. But when a stronger than him breaks in and wins victory, he strips off the armor on which the man had relied, and distributes his spoils. 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.”
In his commentary on this passage, Luke Timothy Johnson writes: “Thus the jolting application of the parable (of the strong man): if those who listen do not now join the people forming around the prophet, they too will “scatter” (11:23).” (The Gospel of Luke, p. 183) Thus Jesus’ conclusion concerning the exorcised demon who wanders and then returns with his cohorts is that “It is not enough to have the power of one ruler routed; one must swear allegiance to the new sovereign, represented by the prophet. One must choose between kingdoms. It is the empty tenement that invites squatters.” (p. 184)
For me, one of the most affecting descriptions of God in the Hebrew Scriptures is that of one “who gathers those who have been scattered” (e.g. Ezekiel 11:17) I suspect this is, at least in part, the case because in contemporary America there is a felt lack of belonging. The covenant of God with Israel includes the promise that the Lord will always call his people back from all the ways they are scattered and dispersed into the community of Israel. It is as a people that Israel is called and chosen. It is into the community of believers (of those who “do the will of my Father”) that Jesus calls all people.
The parable of the strong man tells of one whose very life and identity is dependent on his possessions. Thus, he must attempt to secure them by being fully armed. Yet, there is never security in our possessions, for there is always one stronger who will strip off our armor and distribute our possessions. As long as we seek any measure of security from our power and possessions, we are against Jesus. The only way to be with Jesus is to make a definitive and committed choice for the kingdom. As we pray in Psalm 20:7: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses,/but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.” Without attachment to God, our detachment leaves but space for something worse to enter in.
Although many Americans declare that they are Christians and that we must be a Christian country, it is clear that as a people we live a cult of self-worship and are ruled by our desire for possessions. It is almost impossible to remember the last time political leaders summoned us to sacrifice for the sake of the poor among us and the needs of the wider world. While Jesus defines greatness as service and sacrifice, we define greatness as power and wealth. Is our experience of being alone, scattered, and dispersed, not very much due, as was Israel’s, to our worship of idols? Although it is the Chinese who are currently releasing the largest amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it is the United States that is, over time, responsible for the vast majority of the earth’s pollution. Would it not be true that a truly Christian nation would accept its responsibility and repent in action? Further, would it not begin to make the connection between the idolatry of our self-centeredness and possessiveness and the destruction we have wrought on the planet?
In today’s gospel Jesus says that it is not enough to know what we are against, to rout the power of one ruler. We must then swear allegiance to the Kingdom of God. To hear the message of the gospel requires that we make a choice for our lives. The choice is to be with all our heart and soul and mind and strength with Jesus. To the degree we do not make this choice, we are against him. As Jesus says, “You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24) What we most often do, at least in my experience, is to avoid the starkness of the choice. We have a glimmer of the appeal of Jesus and the gospel, but we also want to maintain our own control over life, our own gratification and comfort, our own sense of independence and autonomy. We want “the good life” and the blessedness of the beatitudes at the same time. We want to be a part of the “blessed community,” but we want to do so on our own terms. And so, we don’t wholeheartedly make the choice to be with Jesus. Today he tells us that in this way we are not with him but against him.
It seems that as a people, we are not only scattered and dispersed from each other but from our own souls and spirits. The idols that we worship have now come to control us. And so, we now appraise reality based on the values of those idols. We look at the same reality and see it in light of the values into which we have been indoctrinated and so have adopted. We can no longer see clearly the difference between sincerity and duplicity. We can no longer discern the true leader or prophet from the celebrity or charlatan. We cannot even recognize the evil we have done and are doing as our responsibility.
And so today we are told that even though the Saudi leadership has brutally murdered and dismembered a journalist in their Turkish consulate, there is too much money to be lost if we do not carry through an agreement to sell them arms that will, no doubt, be used to kill innocent people in Yemen. The value of economic benefit is baldly stated to exceed that of respect for human life and conformity to international law. A long standing experience of accommodating Christian faith to capitalist values has led us to the state which Jesus today describes: “The last state of this person is worse than the first.”
The call of today’s gospel is clear, albeit more than a bit intimidating. It is to choose and not to keep equivocating. In the microcosm of the small religious congregation to which I belong, it is a call to a radical transformation. We have come to a place where we live the call to discipleship on our own terms. We define the vows in ways that suit us. We live in relationship to each other with the level of commitment with which we are comfortable. We often unconsciously conform “the mind of Christ” to our mind, rather than the other way around. We settle for being good and nice people, clearing the house of an unclean spirit, but leaving it open to an assault of multiple other spirits. Yet, when we stop and touch the deeper desires of our hearts, we experience a longing for deeper life and for fuller communion. Because we have been self-reliant for so long, the possibility of living out of that desire can seem distant and weak, the work and the sacrifice it would require far too challenging. Yet today Jesus tells us that if we make the choice, we shall begin to realize that we are with him, and that he is with us. We shall know that the communion and community we long for is already present, if we can but make the decision for it. Such a decision will require that we cease “hedging our bets” by trying to bring together values that do not fit together. We cannot serve both God and money. We cannot worship our own false selves and our illusory autonomy and also the Lord. We cannot give primacy to our own self-will and at the same time become a community that welcomes others in love.
Prophetic community does exist in the current American diaspora. For the most part, however, it is not found in conventional and institutional religious settings. We who have become institutionalized religious settings are confronted with a choice. Do we dare to become who and what we were originally called to be, or do we continue to atrophy and pass on in societal conformity and comfort? Jesus tells us that we cannot be both and that not to be with him is to be against him. At least for myself, these are stark and somewhat terrifying words. Yet, what seems impossible to us we trust to be possible for God in us.
Very often we think that the only people we have to love are our neighbors. Perhaps we never see anyone else to love. But no, we do have to love others and we want to love others and community must extend beyond our own community. The pattern seems to me to be this: in your particular case people come here to find a group of people who love one another. They don’t come here merely to see you as individuals; they come to see you as a community of love. If they are going to find grace and help, it isn’t so much from each one of you as an individual, but from the grace that is present in a community of love.
However we look at it, we have this obligation to build community; it isn’t just an obligation to one another but to all those who come to us. They need to find true community here, and that is the best thing we can give them.
Thomas Merton, Two Interpretive Talks on Eberhord Aronold’s Why We Live In Community, pp. 41-2