Saturday, May 30, 2009

Whoever is not with me is against me

Now he was casting out a demon that was mute; when the demon had gone out, the one who had been mute spoke, and the crowds were amazed. But some of them said, ‘He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.’ Others, to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven. But he knew what they were thinking and said to them, ‘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? —for you say that I cast out the demons by Beelzebul. Now if I cast out the demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe. But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armour in which he trusted and divides his plunder. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

- Luke 11:14-23

Here in this passage Jesus' authority begins to be questioned in a truly direct way. As he is casting out a demon from a man who was rendered mute, and the man is healed and returned to speech, he is accused of working with demons - of casting out demons because he is in league with the "head" or "ruler" of the demons, Beelzebul. They also demand of him a Messianic sign, to prove that he does not work through demonic assistance.

Jesus once again here presents his bold and defiant argumentative style. He turns the tables, oratorically, on his accusers with his own arguments. 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? How can Satan work against Satan and protect his own kingdom? Furthermore, Jesus asks, since there is already a tradition of exorcism among the Jews, by what power then do their own exorcists perform this rite? Are they thus accusing those others who perform exorcisms in the tradition? Their work then stands as judgment on Jesus' accusers.

But if by the hand of God Jesus is doing his work, then it must logically follow that the kingdom has come to you. This is the phrase which Jesus instructed the Seventy to use as they traveled from town to town on their first message. As we have already seen, this visitation, and witnessing of the work of Spirit, carries with it its own responsibility on the witnesses to such acts and such visitation. One's yes or no to that visitation becomes a matter of great weight. Jesus goes further to elaborate what exactly is happening, then, in spiritual terms. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe. But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armour in which he trusted and divides his plunder. It is Jesus as the stronger man, who is armed against the work of evil, of Satan (or Beelzebul). Therefore those who would ally against Jesus' power are to be scattered, and their power and protection appropriated. This again is the logical argument. "You say that I work with demons, but a kingdom cannot be divided against itself. If then, you're wrong, be warned: the stronger man scatters the weaker ruler and those allied with him." Jesus is saying here that if he works through the power of God, then those who ally against him and the power of Spirit will themselves be scattered. They must take care what they say yes or no to. The consequences are not of insignificance, but rather the weight of such decision is a great one.Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. The logic is once again carried over from a previous injunction that his disciples should not rebuke those others who work in his name but do not travel with him. There he said that those who are not against him are with him. Our choices are important, yes or no carries great significance. If we are not with him, not acting in his name, we are against him - whoever does not gather with him scatters. The house is plundered, the weaker power cannot stand. It is a question of a choice, a decision, yes or no. We should take care to respect this power, and therefore make our choices with great care.

It's important to understand the metaphor here of "desert" as a place which was considered the abode of demons. The desert (as used here, by tradition) is a place, not of spiritual serenity, but of the emptiness of waste, of nihilism and nothingness. So, it is there that demons were considered to flee and to abide. If we take the allegory of "water" further, we see that "desert" is a place where this presence of the Holy Spirit is not welcomed. Therefore the allegory extends to the understanding of our yes or no as welcoming the power that scatters evil, and allowing the presence of Spirit, or "living water" within us - to restore us, to build structures of value and power within us as well, and not to leave us empty, abandoned and vulnerable to the evils that plague the world.

I personally think this notion is as important now as it was then: you don't even have to believe in the physical or literal presence of demons to understand what it is to be adrift and without values that will stand the test of time. Neither is it necessary to understand that personal troubles or false or crippling belief systems - those that steal our power and render us mute - can truly behave as demons within us. I have seen too many people for whom whim or fantasy (perhaps degenerating into power and control, or coercion and violence, or spiritual exploitation of others), or following one group or another, replaces something of substance in the inner person, and am convinced that this alignment with something of real value and structure within us is essential for making good choices and building our lives. The soul and spirit must be fed. I don't think the word "scatter" is misused here in terms of the allegory of our own modern understanding of what provides substance and, ultimately, true value. It is important to take seriously the notion of spiritual power and substance, and the ideas Jesus teaches in terms of whether or not we choose to be a part of that kingdom that restores and heals.