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~ When a Clean House Can Cause Problems ~

In the gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke there is a passage frequently quoted in discussions of after-care in exorcisms and behaviors of demons in general: “When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first” (Matthew 12:43-45a, NIV).

Before looking at the context of this observation of Christ, let’s consider the references in the passage itself. People who study demonology often allude to the contention that unclean spirits (or demons, low-order minions of Satan) are repelled by water. (Those of you who watched "The Exorcist” film will recall how the possessed girl screamed in pain upon being splashed with holy water. The producers of that film did intensive research and quite a few images, like the girl’s possession being preceded by her play with a Ouiji Board, cannot be attributed to pure Hollywood fantasy.)

Any element of the earth, including our own bodies that are decaying even as we live (which is why we need daily hygiene and health care), can be made holy by our prayers and declarations of how we use them. The elements of bread and wine are rendered extremely holy when consecrated for our consumption as the body and blood of Christ. So is water when used in baptismal rites to initiate a convert into the body of Christ. Baptism is a watery burial of the old and a cleansing resurrection into the new and re-created. In the Scriptures, notably the Psalms, rain is used as a poetic image of the permeating of God’s grace. Psalm 126:4 prays, “Deliver us, O Lord, from our bondage, as streams in dry land.” The Great Flood of Noah’s day was holy water, destroying the iniquity of the earth and re-creating it in fresh, new life. Water separated the Israelites from their Egyptian oppressors in their exodus.

The apostle Mark (chapter 5) recorded how “Legion, for we are many...begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.” Legion pleaded to be sent into a herd of pigs, about two thousand of them. In poetic justice, since pigs were regarded by the Jews as “unclean” (as were the spirits), Jesus said, “Go ahead,” perhaps with a smile. And poetic irony, as though knowing how to rid themselves of Legion, the pigs drowned themselves in water. Legion was sent “out of the area” in the end, after all.

So, as Jesus explained, the evil spirit wanders arid, dry places, avoiding water that is a powerful physical and spiritual element in Christian spirituality. Jesus, Himself, is “the Living Water.” Of course, the spirits, and humans as well, “seeking rest” in such places “do not find it.” They return to revisit from where they came. To their delight, they find an empty, clean house. Willing to share like a teenager home alone, whose parents are away for the weekend, they invite others in with them. “Seven” of them, a biblical number meaning fullness and completion. Thus the host person is worse off than he was originally. The healing and clean sweeping only prepared for a greater affliction.

Many Christians view this passage as not applying to themselves, as many of us believe we are beyond the oppression of evil although Christ taught us to pray, “Deliver us from evil.” But, now reviewing the context of all this, Christ wasn’t providing instruction on demon behavior. He was responding to a request that many Christians have posed in one form or another: “Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you’” (Matthew 12:38, NIV). Jesus replied, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39). That sign was and is enough.

“The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now one greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:41-42). Immediately after speaking these words, Jesus interjected the observation of the behavior of evil spirits. He concluded this observation with “That is how it will be with this wicked generation” (verse 45b), the generation that requests a miraculous sign from Him.

It is a generation of people who do tremendous house keeping, sweeping everything clean. A generation who takes pride in a clean, orderly house...morality is in place, laws are obeyed, peace reigns. The appearances of things look great. We have achieved. There is no evil contamination or immoral taint in the house. Strange that Jesus would call such a generation “wicked and adulterous.” It is empty of dirt, of “don’t do’s”, of “faux pas”, of unrighteousness. It is so ready for and attractive to guests. Jesus told us about the coming guests, however.

The housekeepers ask for a sign from Jesus. He then calls them “wicked and adulterous.” They are so because the house is empty of Him as well. The house, be it a person, family or a nation, clean but unoccupied by the fullness of His Holy Spirit, is subject to evil affliction seven times more than before the cleaning. Better to occupy a dirty house with Christ. In the body, He was always attracted to those dirty houses of the poor, prisoners, sinners, afflicted, social outcasts and even those possessed and oppressed by evil spirits. (May our churches and homes be attractive and welcoming to the same.)

Today, in His Holy Spirit, He still is. We can take heart and great consolation in that. I personally do, and am so grateful to Him.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
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Spiritual Resource Services  © January 16, 2004

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