Third Sunday in Lent
When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man he walketh through places without water, seeking rest: and not finding, he saith: I will return into my house whence I came out. And when he is come he findeth it swept and garnished. Then he goeth and taketh with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and entering in they dwell there. And the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.
In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus’ response to his critics who said that it was by the prince of demons that he was able to drive out demons. He replied that a house divided against itself could not stand. “And if Satan also be divided against himself how shall his kingdom stand? Because you say that through Beelzebub I cast out devils. Now if I cast out devils through Beelzebub, by whom do your children cast them out? Therefore they shall be your judges. But if I by the finger of God cast out devils, doubtless the kingdom of God is come upon you.” In his words and mighty works, especially his exorcisms, the Kingdom of God, future in its fullness, was now already breaking into history and casting out the forces of evil that seem to rule and disfigure this present age. The strong man had been bound and the forces of evil were now in retreat. The Kingdom of God that was already breaking into history in Jesus’ ministry would finally come in its fullness at the consummation of history, when the forces of evil would finally be defeated and God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven.
But was there not a danger of relapse before the final coming of the Kingdom of God? It is to answer this question that Jesus tells the parable of the unclean spirit. In the desert, the natural abode of demons, the unclean spirit finds no rest since he can only be satisfied where he can wreak destruction. The possessed person is compared to the house of a demon. The house is empty, swept and garnished, prepared for the ceremonious reception of a guest. He then taketh with him seven other demons for his victim is an easy prey. Seven is the number that symbolises perfection and the seven evil spirits represent every form of demonic seduction and wickedness.
Taken by itself the parable seems to represent the relapse, without exception, as a universal fact of experience. However, the meaning that is intended is that the relapse is not predetermined and inevitable, but rather something for which man is himself responsible. The house must not remain empty when the spirit hostile to God is expelled in the exorcism. A new master must reign there and the message of Jesus must become the guiding principle of the whole of life. In other words the parable is not saying that a relapse is inevitable, but is rather a warning about the danger to the Christian life when repentance is only half hearted. Repentance must be complete and total so that the forces of evil cannot again take hold.
But is it really necessary to see the world as under the dominion of dark forces from which we need to be delivered? It is certainly true that what was then described as deliverance from bondage to Satan and the forces of darkness would now usually be described in terms of psychology and sociology. People tend to speak today of social forces and economic forces and to focus on the therapeutic aspect of the Christian faith. Such an analysis explains everything at one level, yet at a deeper level it explains nothing. The assumption is often that if the social circumstances were changed the problems themselves would disappear. Doubtless this is sometimes the case and Christians should always be seeking to address the social problems in the world around us. But there is also a danger when people are transformed from being seen as responsible agents to passive victims of circumstances. The fundamental problem lies not simply in man’s environment but within man himself, and that is better understood in terms of exorcising a demon, of deliverance from dark forces, than a type of therapy. The bad habits that all of us tend to acquire have to be cast out, so that good habits are put in place. Otherwise, as in the parable in today’s gospel, the demons will return and the last state will be worse than the first.
This is what the Christian life, and in particular the season of Lent is all about, the casting out of the bad habits of the old self, and the putting on of the new self, the new man in Christ. Originally this applied especially to the catechumens who were preparing for baptism at Easter. But it also applies to all of us who have been baptised. We are called to become by grace what Christ is by nature.
This is a battle and a struggle, for all of us have bad habits that need to be cast out and replaced by good habits. But the good news is that it is a battle that has already been won on our behalf by Christ himself. God in Christ has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and translated us into the dominion of his Son, in whom we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of sins. He has triumphed over the principalities and powers, the dark forces that seem to rule this world, by the cross. We now live in the time between his fighting and winning the battle over the forces of darkness in his death and resurrection, and the final victory when God will be all in all, in that new heaven and new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness.
Let us make our own the words of today’s Collect, as we strive to cast off the bad habits of the old self and be transformed by divine grace.
We beseech thee, Almighty God, regard the desires of thy humble servants, and stretch forth the right hand of thy majesty to be our defence, through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who livest and reignest with thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.