Wednesday, March 10, 1999

The Empty House

Chapter 6

Matthew 12:43-45; Luke 11:24-26

This parable is found in two different Gospels: Matthew and Luke. In Matthew the parable is placed in a context of the impenitence of Israel. The people of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, but a greater than Jonah is here and yet Israel does not repent. The Queen of the South came all the way from Ethiopia to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and yet one greater than Solomon is here and Israel does not listen to his wisdom. In this context, the parable is a warning to Israel that unless it accepts the message of Jesus, its condition will become far worse than it is at present. Either human beings place their efforts on the side of Christ or seven other spirits more evil than the original one will occupy us. In Luke the parable is placed after the assertion that he who is not with Christ is against him. It emphasizes the impossibility of neutrality.

In the context of the impenitence of Israel, Jesus was referring to the fact that Israel had begun a work of reformation after coming out of captivity. The reason for the captivity was that the Jewish nation had become like all the nations around it. They had kings who played politics with its neighboring rulers instead of trusting in God. They had prophets who pandered to the desires of the people. They had priests who were serving heathen gods. The people worshipped idols, and the Sabbath was desecrated .

When they came out of the captivity, the Jewish nation was determined to keep God's law. They would no longer worship idols, desecrate the Sabbath, or be influenced by foreign ideas and customs. The Pharisaic spirit of legalism took hold, and rules and regulations were added regarding the Sabbath. Association with foreigners and even other Jews who were not scrupulous in their ceremonial rites regarding eating, was expressly forbidden. The worship of idols was replaced by the worship of the letter of the law.

Religion became external, legalistic, cold, and exclusive. What was needed was what Jesus offered: a religion that embodied the spirit of the law--love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, compassion, mercy, and gentleness. After driving out the evils of worldliness, idolatry, and Sabbathbreaking, they needed to embrace the message of Jesus and sweep out the evil spirits that had made themselves at home among them. Instead they crucified him.

This parable teaches that negative religion is impotent against the forces of evil. A religion that is derived from a negative orientation, that lives by a set of don'ts is vulnerable to evil because it focuses its defense in one direction and leaves itself exposed in all other areas. It is not enough to stop doing evil. The Jewish nation exemplified in the Pharisees, stopped worshipping idols, stopped being influenced by its worldly neighbors, and stopped breaking the Sabbath. They stopped worshipping idols, but they did not worship God in spirit and in truth. They stopped being influenced by their worldly neighbors, but in doing so cut off all contact with them. For fear of worldly contamination, the people of Israel isolated themselves from the rest of the world. Instead of being a light, a city set on a hill, they hid their light under a basket. Instead of sharing the "salt" of truth with the world, they hoarded it. They stopped breaking the Sabbath, but in doing so, made it an instrument that hurt the people it was designed to help and turned God's gift into a backbreaking burden. The evil spirit was cast out, but seven spirits more evil than the first came in.

The Pharisees believed that when the letter of the law was kept, one fulfilled the law. Thus the Rich Young Ruler could say he had kept the commandments from his youth up because he refrained from doing evil. He failed to understand that the basis of the law is love, and the letter is intended only to give a general description of how love acts.

The Pharisees suffered Jesus' harshest criticism. He told them that they strained out gnats but swallowed camels. They would not transgress in the smallest details of the law, but ignored its underlying principles--justice, mercy, and faith. They were whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside but inside, they were full of bones and filth.

For the Pharisees it was enough that they did not kill or murder. Jesus pointed out that this commandment dealt not only with the external but also with the source of such acts. It is hate that expresses itself in murder. Internal motivation leads to the external act. Jesus taught that it is not enough not to hate. What the commandment teaches is that we must not only love our brothers and sisters; we must even love our enemies. When Jesus laid down his life for us while we were still enemies, he demonstrated the full expression of the law, thou shalt not kill. And in a practical sense, only this kind of love can effectively end enmity and hatred.

Paul, in Colossians 3, told the people in Colossae to put on and clothe themselves with the good and positive things of Christ, and put to death whatever in them is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire and greed (which is idolatry). He also instructed them to get rid of such things as anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, and lying. But he didn't stop there. It was not enough to put to death, to put off, to get rid of the evil things of the past. They must put on the "new self, which is being renewed in knowledge, according to the image of its creator." They must clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, longsuffering, forgiveness, and above all with love.

Somerset Maugham in his short story, "Rain," tells the story of Mr. Davidson who was a missionary in Tahiti. 1 He was obsessed with sexual immorality. He forbade the natives to wear their native garments. The men had to wear long trousers and the women mother-hubbard dresses. Conversion for him meant that a man wore trousers. As he said, "I made it a sin for a girl to show her bosom and a sin for a man not to wear trousers." To enforce his puritanical regulations he instituted fines. "I fined them if they didn't come to church, and I fined them if they danced. I fined them if they were improperly dressed. I had a tariff, and every sin had to be paid for either in money or work." If they refused to pay the fine, he would excommunicate them and make it impossible for them to sell their copra and catch fish.

Once, when returning to his mission post, he and his wife were delayed in a port and had to spend several weeks there. They shared a rooming house with a prostitute who was on her way to Australia, fleeing from a prison term in San Francisco. She disturbed the Davidsons by entertaining guests and playing a gramophone. When Mr. Davidson found out who she was and what she was doing, he had the innkeeper forbid her to entertain guests and went to the governor and demanded that she leave on the first ship out. That ship was going to San Francisco. A few days later there was to be a ship to Australia. When she found out that he had arranged for her to leave on the boat that was leaving for San Francisco, she became subdued and humble. She begged him to allow her to stay a few days longer so that she could go to Australia instead. He refused, but said that if she wanted to speak to him, he would be willing to talk to her about repentance and accepting Christ. She began calling on him, frequently at night.

One night the innkeeper awoke the Davidson's doctor friend, MacPhail, and took him to the beach. It was there that Davidson had committed suicide by slashing his throat with a razor. This man who was so obsessed with sexual immorality had "fallen", and in desperation had committed suicide. He had based his ministry on the void of negative prohibitions. He and those he "served" would have been far better off if his ministry and life had included positive and constructive virtues.

Willliam Sargant cites John Wesley as being especially aware of a dangerous void in the spiritual life that occurs after conversion takes place. If conversion is not followed by positive Christian education, it may only succeed in "begetting children for the murderer [the devil]." Sargant writes:

When investigating a North Carolina religious snake-handling cult in 1947, it was easy for me to see what Wesley had meant. The descent of the Holy Ghost on these meetings, which were reserved for whites, was supposedly proved by the occurrence of wild excitement, bodily jerkings, and the final exhaustion and collapse in more suggestible participants. Such hysterical states were induced by means of rhythmic singing and hand clapping, and the handling of genuinely poisonous snakes. . .brought several visitors unexpectedly to the point of collapse and sudden conversion. But a young male visitor--the "murderer" [devil] incarnate--was attending these meetings with the deliberate object of seducing girls who had just been "saved." The fact is that when protective inhibition causes a breakdown and leaves the mind highly suggestible to new behavior patterns, the conversion is non-specific. If the preacher arrives in time to preach chastity and sobriety, well and good; but the "murderer" had learned that on the night that followed a sudden emotional disruption, a sanctified girl might be as easily persuaded to erotic abandon as to the acceptance of the Gospel message. However, on attempting to follow up his amatory successes a day or two later he found, as a rule, that the abnormal phase of suggestibility had passed, and the girl's moral standards had returned to normal. Because he had not been continuously at her side to consolidate his victory, she might now indignantly rebuff him, and say that she could not understand what had come over her on the night in question. Two very opposite types of belief or personal behavior could, in fact, be implanted at the close of a revivalist meeting: by the preacher or by the "murderer." 2

When placed in the context of Christ's assertion in Luke, "He that is not with me is against me", this parable awakens us to the dangerous illusion of a neutral Christianity. We cannot sit on the fence. We cannot be half-hearted, half-committed and still be on Christ's side. Paul also made this very clear in Romans 6:16. "Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?"

Henrik Ibsen's Brand, admonishes the Christians of his time and place: "Be wholly what you are, not half and half. Everyone now is a little of everything: A little solemn on Sundays, a little respectful towards tradition. . . . A little sin, a little virtue; a little good, a little evil; the one destroys the other, and every man is nothing."3

Dan Gable was not especially gifted but he was extraordinarily dedicated and committed. This commitment led him to unprecedented success. He won five U.S. championships, one Soviet national title, a world title and the Pan American Games gold medal. His crowning achievement was winning the gold medal in the 1972 Olympics. After his triumph in the Olympics, he began to coach at Iowa State and is transferring this same dedication to those he coaches. For him, "wrestling doesn't mean something, it means everything. Wrestling isn't part of life, it is life itself."

This same kind of commitment to the kingdom of God should be ours. ("Seek first the kingdom of God", Matthew 6:33) Christ instructs us to fill our houses with love and asks us to commit ourselves so decisively to God and righteousness that all who know us will be convinced that we are "obedient slaves" of Jesus Christ..

1. W. Sumerset Maugham, "Rain", Collected Short Stories, Vol. 1, Penguin Books, 1963, pp. 9-45.

2. William Sargant, The Battle for the Mind: A Physiology of Conversion and Brain Washing, Doubleday & Company, 1957), p. 222.

3. Henrik Ibsen, Brand, Doubleday & Company, 1960, p. 60.

No comments: