What’s your experience with demons? Demons appear on practically every page of the Gospel. Sooner or later, every conscientious follower of the Gospel of Christ must arrive at his or her own interpretive conclusions about these demons, a personal demonology, if we are to engage in any life-giving and meaningful way with these ancient texts, their ancient authors and their first-century worldview. So here are some key assumptions for first century Jews about demons:
- Demons obstruct the physical senses of the body, and thus, human relationships;
- Demons follow a single master, named Satan, the deceiver;
- Demons are parasites who have no proper existence of their own. They are shadowy non-beings who resent God, the source of Being, and require a living host, ideally a human being.
In that context, we hear the accusation aimed at Jesus:
“He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.”
Beelzebul, literally means “Lord of the Flies.” Flies, of course, gather around and feast upon excrement. Beelzebul, Satan, is the Lord of waste, the master of all that is contaminated and contaminating. This is no light accusation. It is a direct attack not only upon Jesus’s authority and spiritual integrity, but what we would call his sanity.
Jesus wisely counters, “Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house. If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?”
Division—in a kingdom, a tribe, a family, or an individual person—cannot lead to strength or stability, much less authentic communication or communion. Jesus here levels a subtle critique aimed at the divisions in the House of Israel. Symptoms of this division were seen in the rigid compartmentalization of holiness by religious authorities centered in Jerusalem. Division led to stagnation, especially a lack of creative engagement with the tradition of the prophets, who frequently overturned comfortable categories to invite the breath of God’s Spirit to blow. Jesus’ approaches to teaching and manifesting the fullness of life in union with God—what he called the kingdom— stood in deep continuity with this prophetic lineage. His Way toward that union was to let familiar ideas, paradigms, and practices out of their boxes and invite them to interact. He invited his followers to rethink traditions about God’s justice through an intimate experience of God’s mercy, to set traditions about God’s purity in dialogue with understandings of human embodiment and creatureliness, and to hold traditions about God’s chosen people informed by openness to the full embrace of God’s redeeming love, a love that included those beyond the House of Israel. Jesus was madly, insanely in love with his God, enabling him to confer a healing sanity on those around him. But his was a sanity without boxes or borders.
Jesus witnessed the power that the scribes and Jerusalem authorities wielded over the people and named it as unjust, oppressive, and contrary to God’s mercy. One image from the (non-canonical) Gospel of Thomas helps illustrate this injustice: “Jesus said, ‘Woe to the pharisees, for they are like a dog sleeping in the manger of oxen, for neither does he eat nor does he let the oxen eat’”(logion 102). This image helps me understand the forceful imagery Jesus uses of tying up the strong man and plundering his household. An unjust man who hoards property that rightfully belongs to all, but does not use it himself, must be restrained in order to re-establish justice. In this way, Jesus becomes like a spiritual Robin Hood, redistributing the resources of the Spirit to those who are rightly entitled to them. Jesus “ties up the strong man” by teaching in parables that frequently confuse those whose hearts are not open to his wisdom, his healing, or his vision.
If you’ve undertaken a major home renovation project, you’ll know what an astonishing difference it can make to knock down a wall, to put in a skylight, to add ventilation to a damp space or to remove an ancient and dusty layer of carpeting. Even opening windows and rearranging furniture can reinvite flow – the natural order and ambience that allow the elements of a space to communicate effectively, and that render a living space invitingly alive and livable.
When we return to the space and live in it once again, we may even find that our own inner rooms and hallways are unblocked and communicating afresh. But perhaps you’ve also had the experience of a space that was clean and well-ordered, a space with palpable feng shui, that nonetheless felt cold. A space that made you ask, “Does anybody live here?” A space like a model home in a suburban subdivision, where the fruit in the designer bowl on the kitchen table adds a touch of home, until we realize it’s only plastic. A model home is no place for a person to live, and Jesus’ point about the house that is swept and put in order but ultimately vacant speaks directly to a “model home” spirituality. When we invite the rooms and hallways of our lives to communicate, we put our minds and our hearts in touch with one another, we live from our senses inward, from our gut outward, from our neck up and from our neck down, stopping to breathe often and giving the Holy Spirit an all access pass. If our lives feel like either a home badly in need of renovation or a “model home” without a living soul underneath, invite Jesus to a house-warming party. Wherever Jesus goes and is invited to stay, demons are evicted, suffocating spaces breathe, and the plastic comes off the sofa. When the servants of Beelzebul see the lights on and hear the music, they’ll know that the kingdom of God has come to that life, that soul, that community, and made it a home for the Holy Spirit.
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