The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
September 26, 2021
A friend showed me his vegetable garden. I admired its lush bounty and asked how he did it in an area plagued by prolific weeds. He replied, “As soon as you pull out the weeds, you plant the vegetables right away and then water and fertilize them regularly so they get well established. That way they grow fast enough to grab the lion’s share of nutrients and H2O, and the weeds can’t take over. The best defense is a good offense.”
In the spiritual life as well, positive action produces more than negative; and fulfilling the “Thou shalt’s”, more than the “Thou shalt not’s”. Yet, the most crucial action is the adding of something from beyond the merely human – something from the divine Gardener – that brings forth a harvest of holiness and happiness.
Of course, we have to be actively engaged in the process, but our main contribution is getting ourselves out of God’s way and allowing God to do what God alone can. Our first and foremost work is ever to rely on the work of God.
To understand Jesus’ words in today’s scripture, it’s helpful to consider His words in another scripture. In John 6 Jesus exhorts people to “work…for the food that endures to eternal life.” When the people ask, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”, He answers, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” In other words, while we must always do everything God commands, our decisive work is to hope in Jesus and to permit Him to work His wonders for us.
What Jesus says in today’s scripture comes after a long, contentious debate with religious leaders who look holy but whose hearts harbor dark desires to kill Jesus. Jesus tells this parable to urge the folks who’ve been listening to the debate to turn back from following those leaders and becoming a part of that “evil generation” who clean up their lives in many ways but who refuse to receive the grace Jesus aches to give them.
Both Luke and Matthew record this parable in their Gospels. Both cite Jesus’ saying, shortly before telling the parable, “Whoever is not with me is against me and who does not gather with me scatters.” While Matthew includes 12 more verses before getting to the parable, Luke goes straight to it, lest we miss the close connection between the two messages. Both Gospel writers appreciate that there’s no neutrality with respect to Jesus. Either we are with Him or against Him, and not to gather in others with Him is to scatter folks everywhere, even to bad places.
In the battle between good and evil, neutrality has no place. Just pulling out the weeds without replenishing the soil with what produces the food that endures to eternal life only precipitates the regrowth of those weeds in greater profusion! The best defense is a good offense.
In the parable Jesus does not say who or what “the unclean spirit” is. It’s enough to know that an evil force has invaded this person and “dirtied” them spiritually and morally. Jesus also does not say how the unclean spirit came to leave the person. It’s enough to know it left unwillingly. Newly homeless, it finds itself wandering in undesirable lands (“waterless regions”, the text says), vainly looking for “a resting place”, and yearning to return to what it still calls “my” house: the soul it once oppressed. It eventually goes back to its old haunting grounds to spy out the condition of its former home. It sees that it is “empty, swept and put in order”. The person has gotten their life together and cleaned up their act. They’ve become someone others would call a “good” person, a nice decent person. But the person is still neutral toward Jesus. Though they’ve been freed from an oppressor, they have not yet embraced Jesus as Lord and they’re not actively engaged in welcoming His reign.
The first thing Jesus says about this person is that they’re “empty”. The Greek word there is not the word normally used for being devoid of something, but one normally used for being unoccupied with anything – as in being idle. The person is passive and uncommitted to pursuing any goal. And, because they are not marshalling an offense, they’re defenseless against evil.
All nature, including human nature, abhors a vacuum. Thus, since what once occupied the person has been removed but not replaced, the person is empty and vulnerable to a gang of spirits taking the individual over again and dominating them with eight times the demonic force.
With forces of evil out to ruin us, neutrality leads to fatality. No offense leaves us with no defense.
Alcoholics get this. A person can cease to be a wet drunk but remain a dry drunk: someone who keeps the cork in the bottle but is not in recovery, someone who doesn’t work the steps to get free of old attitudes, denials and behaviors and thus someone who, sooner or later, falls further than before.
Christians too should get this. A person can take up the faith and improve themselves, but fail to experience the fullness of Christ’s new life. They can be busy in church activities; but, if they are not occupied with following Jesus and receiving the verve and oomph He offers, they miss out on the marvels of an existence so full of His uplifting and empowering Spirit that there’s no room in the inn for unclean spirits.
Let us not settle for too little. We can be more than just “clean” people who never do anything awful and who often do many nice things. If we repel the unclean spirits that are after us by welcoming in the Holy Spirit who loves us, we can be both full and fulfilled. If we let the Lord’s life flow into us and swell up in us and swell forth from us, we have a good defense against evil and a potent offense for crossing the most important goal line there is to cross – and in divine grace we surpass our mere human potential!