08 October 2015

An Empty House is a Vulnerable House (Reprise with tweaks)

Tomorrow's Gospel includes the small pericope about the house cleansed of a demon and then left vacant. The overall context is somewhat different than when I first wrote the following piece [we are not reading through Galatians this year] and I am hoping to put up something more completely relevant to tomorrow's reading from Joel and the responsorial psalm. (These focus on the need for repentance and the justice God does by loving us.) But until then. . .here is the post I put up three years ago.

The pericope of the house exorcised of a single demon from [tomorrow's] Gospel passage by Luke provides some real spiritual wisdom. It also serves to illustrate Paul's own concern in what he is is writing to the Church in Galatia and is especially meaningful when read within the context provided by Paul's letter to the Galatians. Remember, the passage from Luke speaks of clearing a single demon from a house; the demon then wanders around arid spaces looking for a place to inhabit. Eventually it returns to the original dwelling and finds it all swept clean and in order, but yet uninhabited. The demon thus  goes out to find seven more demons and they all move into the now clean and orderly but empty house.

The first part of the context for hearing this Gospel passage is provided by Paul's own theology and is summarized by the first lection: namely, the Law, a Divine gift,  functions as a curse apart from Christ. It provides rules on the way we are required to be and persist in being but it cannot empower us to do what it requires. The law instructs us regarding what is truly human, it can convict us of sin and point clearly to the demons which occupy our own divided hearts  but it cannot actually bring about Communion with God. The Law is important, especially as a schoolmaster preparing us for adult life in faith, but it cannot be thought to replace faith.

The second part of the context is provided by Luke's theology itself. A major theme of the Gospel is hospitality. Luke is concerned not only with our call to provide hospitality to strangers of whom we make neighbors, but with providing hospitality for God in our world, and further, with becoming ourselves God's own guests dwelling within the Kingdom of God's own sovereignty. In  the stories we heard this week from Luke's Gospel hospitality figures largely, and so does law to some extent. On Monday we heard the story of Mary and Martha, both offering hospitality to Jesus. Martha adopts a kind of legal maximization and busies herself going beyond the strict requirements of the Law (to provide a single dish for the guest) and  in the process, avoids actually providing the guest what he most desires --- her own hearkening (obedient) company. Mary, on the other hand, sits down at Jesus' feet and "hearkens" to him. What Martha seems to do is something Paul associates with the "curse of the law,"  namely she assumes that if x is required, 5 times x will be even better.

On Wednesday we heard the Lord's Prayer, which itself is about being taught to pray and thus 1) coming to allow God a place where he may be powerfully present in our world, and 2) becoming participants in the Kingdom of Divine Sovereignty where all dwell in communion with God and one another. What the pericope makes clear is that Law has NOT taught the disciples how to pray. Only Jesus (God's own empowering presence) can do this. On Thursday, there was the story of the importuning guest banging on his neighbor's door for bread to feed an unexpected guest. It is unclear whether or not all in this story eventually act as the Law requires them to act (the entire village is responsible for hospitality) but one can hardly praise the attitude of heart or spirit of hospitality demonstrated by (or lacking in!) the man who was sought out to supply the bread, for instance!

And [tomorrow we will hear] the story of Jewish leaders who are concerned with the Law and presumably keep it faithfully as God's gift, but who refuse to receive Jesus as God's own definitive presence in their lives and world. They even accuse Jesus of acting by the power of Beelzebul to cast out demons. Jesus confronts them with their inconsistency by asking what power it is by which they themselves exorcise demons; he then tells today's parable of the demon exorcised from the house with the house then being left uninhabited and vulnerable.

Probably very few of us are legalists in the strict sense, but how many of us tidy up our own hearts in a kind of spiritual housekeeping and fail to give those same hearts over to God to fully occupy? How many of us are intrigued by techniques and tools, workshops, etc, but resist actual prayer, that is, the giving of our lives over to [the active and dynamic presence of God?] I suspect this is a far more common problem in Christian living than legalism per se. Law of all sorts assists us in dealing with the demons which inhabit our own hearts: those of covetousness, greed, dishonor, dishonesty, anger, and so forth, but we have to go further and allow God to be powerfully present in whatever way he wishes. We have to allow our hearts to truly become Temples of the Holy Spirit. After all we are not called merely to be respectable (neat, clean, orderly, well looked after, with the right structure, facade, and all the right appointments), but to be Holy --- a new Creation, in fact. That means not merely being occupied WITH God or the concerns of his Law, but being occupied BY God in a way which transforms our hearts into God's own home.

Despite the humor present in Luke's picture of the returning demons the image is serious. [It reminds me of a commercial I once saw where a family of mucus blobs took up residence in a person's chest; that was somewhat humorous until one realized how sick and miserable such a sufferer would be.] We have all seen houses that were abandoned, and especially we have seen houses owners fixed up but left unoccupied; they become dens for animals, nests for squatters of all sorts, dump sites for lazy neighbors, sources for scavengers and thieves  drug houses, and so forth. In short, they are made unfit for human (or Divine) habitation. So too with our own hearts. Law helps us clean them of all those things mentioned above, and more. But Luke's Gospel also reminds us that God in Christ stands at the door and knocks. Unceasingly.

If we don't REALLY allow him to make himself fully at home, if we allow our hearts to be less than wholly hospitable to a God who desires [to share] an exhaustive Communion with us, then other and worse demons will replace the demons already exorcised: those of ingratitude, self-righteousness, complacency, fear, works-righteousness, arrogance, pride, and so forth. Houses are made to be inhabited and so is the human heart; an empty house is dangerous and vulnerable and so is an empty [ultimately uncommitted] human heart ---no matter how orderly and respectable. Law helps us ready our hearts for Communion with God, but at some point we really do have to allow God to move in as fully as He desires and take complete "ownership".