Hear the Word of God and Keep It
Hear the Word of God and Keep it
St. Luke 11:14-28
Are you with Jesus? Or are you against him? I would expect that all of us would very quickly answer that we’re with Jesus. But then we have to ask: What does it mean, what does it look like to be “with Jesus”? Throughout the passages in Luke that we’ve been studying we’ve seen Jesus calling people to be “with him”—to follow and to be disciples. A lot of people liked Jesus—or they liked the idea of Jesus—but they weren’t actually with him. A lot of them had divided loyalties. Mary was with Jesus. Martha tried, but she struggled to set aside her own agenda. A lot of people were wowed by Jesus’ miracles, but when it came to his actual message, they became angry. Ultimately, Jesus came to fix what’s wrong with the world. He came to defeat sin and death and the devil. He came to restore life to humanity and to set Creation to rights. And everyone liked that idea, but not everyone was ready to follow. Too many of them had invested themselves in other ways of fixing the world’s problems. To follow Jesus meant giving them up. The kingdom Jesus was preaching didn’t match up with the kingdom everyone was expecting.
The Pharisees were heavily invested in promoting better keeping of the torah so that the Messiah would know who to smite when he came back and who to congratulate. They were upset to see Jesus not coming in judgement, but coming to redeem and coming to welcome sinners into the kingdom—and that he was bypassing the law and the temple and the priesthood and the sacrificial system in the process. The Sadducees were the religious leaders and they weren’t happy with Jesus either. They actually weren’t particularly interested in the Messiah or his kingdom. They had collaborated with the Herodians and the Romans. They’d made good lives for themselves and the last thing they wanted was for someone to upset that. These were people committed to the Lord. These were people committed to his kingdom. They wanted to be “with God”. But when God came, they found themselves on the wrong side. They couldn’t bring themselves to be “with Jesus” and so they ended up against him. Jesus threatened to make them irrelevant. And yet no one could ignore Jesus, not with him doing the amazing things he was doing. So how were the Pharisees and the Sadducees to neutralise Jesus? The easiest way, so they thought, was to question his source of his power, to question the source of his authority.
Look at Luke 11:14-16.
Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke, and the people marveled. But some of them said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons,” while others, to test him, kept seeking from him a sign from heaven.
It’s interesting that Jesus is confronted this way when performing this particular miracle. Casting out the demon that had made this man mute is a graphic image of the bigger ministry that Jesus has come to fulfil. Jesus came to release the captives, he came to vanquish the enemy, and he came to heal and restore. And so here’s a demon-possessed man. Not only does the demon manifest its captivity of the man in a physical way—muteness—but remember that this man would have been unclean and an outcast. He’s the epitome of the poor, he’s the epitome of the captive, he’s the epitome of the outsider. And so in casting out the demon and healing this man Jesus gives us a small-scale illustration of his whole mission. He’s come to defeat sin and the devil, and to release not just humanity but all of Creation from captivity to the devil. Everyone marvelled, Luke says. But not all of it was a good kind of marvelling. It started with some people in the crowd insisting that the only reason Jesus could control demons was because he was himself in league with them. Beelzebub was an old pagan Philistine god—“Lord of the Flies”—whom the Jews associated with the devil. Jesus’ miracles backed up and validated his kingdom message, but if these people could discredit Jesus’ miracles—demonstrating that he was in league with the devil to deceive people—then they could undermine his message. Remember, Jesus’ message was very different from what the people expected of the Messiah. So this kind of accusation might hold some water: “See! He’s trying to lead us astray with his crazy message that bypasses the torah and the temple. He’s casting out demons to prove he’s from God, but what if he’s really just someone sent by the devil to deceive us!” And then, hearing the accusation, other people start demanding a “sign from heaven”. Of course, the casting out of the demon was the sign from heaven.
But Jesus is perceptive. As he’s done before, Luke shows him prophetically revealing the motives of his naysayers. Look at verses 17-20:
But he, knowing their thoughts, said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? For you say that I cast out demons by Beelzebul. And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
They’ve accused Jesus of being able to order demons around because he’s in league with them. Jesus now responds by telling them that their line of reasoning doesn’t make any sense—it’s illogical. Everyone knows that a divided kingdom can’t stand. The devil will never win the war if he’s shooting his own troops in the back. But an even more important question follows: “If I’m only able to cast out demons because I’m in league with them, what about all of your exorcists? By whose authority are they casting out demons?
Exorcism was one of the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry. We don’t read about exorcisms in the Old Testament and they weren’t part of the Old Testament’s predictions of the Messiah or part of the Jewish expectation of the Messiah. That makes Jesus’ freeing of these captives especially significant. Until Jesus came it seems that there wasn’t much people could do about demons other than push those possessed by them to the fringes of society as unclean people. There were apparently at least some Jewish exorcists. Jesus doesn’t tell us whether they were effective or not. Without a doubt, he was moreeffective as is obvious from the way people responded to him. But whatever the case, he appeals to them. Whether those exorcists were effective or not, he asks: “What about your exorcists? Are they in cahoots with the devil too?” And he warns them these critics to watch out. They’re attributing the work of God to the devil. That’s blasphemy. And so he warns. If they persist in this line of argumentation, they’re really in for it. First, if they’re going to accuse him of being in league with the devil, they’re by implication accusing all the other exorcists of being in league with the devil too. When Judgement Day comes, those Jewish exorcists will be standing in judgement over them. And there won’t be any escape, because they’ll be guilty of having rejected the kingdom of God. Again: Are you with me or are you against me? These men sincerely wanted to be with God, but they rejected Jesus. And Jesus reminds them that it just doesn’t work that way. You can’t come to God on your own terms, on Pharisee terms, on Sadducee terms, or on any other terms. If you want to be with God, you’ve to be with Jesus.
Jesus uses an interesting phrase to describe his ministry. He talks about casting out demons by the finger of God. In saying this he’s taking the crowd back to the book of Exodus and to the plagues that God sent on Egypt. In Exodus 8, after the third plague, as God turned the dust of Egypt into a plague of gnats, Pharaoh’s magicians tried to discredit Moses by using all their magic to replicate the plague by turning dust into gnats themselves. Pharaoh knew that if his magicians could do the same things that Moses did, it would discredit Moses’ message and it would discredit Moses as God’s agent. But try as they might, the Egyptian magicians couldn’t duplicate the miracle God had performed through Moses. They went to Pharaoh and declared, “This is the finger of God”. The next thing the narrator tells us in Exodus is that Pharaoh refused to listen and that his heart was hardened. As a result judgement came on him and on his people. This is what Jesus is bringing to the minds of his critics. It’s a dire warning. The finger of God is at work here as it was in Moses’ day. The kingdom is drawing near and you can have a part in it, but if you reject it, you’ll end up condemned, just like Pharaoh.
Jesus doesn’t stop once he’s shown them that their reasoning is flawed. They’ve raised the question of which “side” or which kingdom he’s working for and so he carries on and unfolds his kingdom ministry for the crowd. Look at verses 21-22:
When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.
This was something everyone understood. In fact, it’s filled with “kingdom” imagery. We don’t know where this event took place, but somewhere nearby, maybe down the street or on the hill above the village, there was a castle where the local Roman commander or magistrate lived. He was a strong man, dressed in his armour and protected by soldiers. His castle represented the wealth stolen from the poor in the village and the countryside. That castle or fortress, wherever it was, was a reminder that the nation of Israel itself had been captured and pillaged by the Roman strong man, by Caesar. Jesus reminds the people of their hated enemy and then immediately, as soon as he’s conjured up the image, maybe even pointing down the street or up the hill to the local castle, he reminds the people who the real enemy is. That Roman strong man is like demon. That demon has stolen a human being, made that man or woman his castle, and now he’s hunkered down inside in his armour. And as the local castle was representative of Israel’s captivity by the Romans, the captivity of that man or woman by the demon is representative of humanity’s problem—and not just humanity, but all of Creation. The Cosmos has been captured by the enemy, but the kingdom of God is breaking in. And Jesus reminds us who the real enemy is. He doesn’t go to battle with the castle. He’s the stronger man and so he breaks in, he overcomes the strong man and robs him of his armour so that he can return the castle and all the plunder to the rightful owners. Again, this is a wonderful image of God’s kingdom breaking into the world. Jesus hasn’t come to destroy. He’s come to release the captives. He’s come to drive out the enemy and to restore humanity and Creation to our rightful owner—to our Creator.
Jesus underscores that there’s a battle taking place and he asks us which side we’ll take in verse 23:
Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.
There’s no neutral position and no fence-sitting in this battle. All Creation has been captured by the enemy. Every human being is captive to sin and needs the release that Jesus has brought. Either we accept the release he offers or we remain loyal captives of the enemy. The key point Jesus is making, however, is his own uniqueness as God’s agent. Only he can defeat the enemy, only he can release the captives, and only he can set everything to rights.
And at this point Jesus gets more pointed about addressing the reasons for the attack on him. Luke doesn’t tell us whether these people in the crowd were Pharisees or Sadducees or members of some other group. In the end it doesn’t really matter. Their problem, whoever they were, was that they had their own plans for Israel’s salvation, whether that was through better law-keeping as the Pharisees wanted, or maintaining the status-quo and keeping an even keel as the Sadducees wanted. There were plenty of other reform groups and even other wanna-be messiahs calling for the attention of the people. But Jesus reminds the people that he’s the only one with the answer. As we saw in his model prayer: what’s really needed is the Holy Spirit and no one but Jesus can meet that need. That’s the point of what he says next in verses 24-26:
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.”
The man he’s just healed becomes an object lesson. Like a demon-possessed person, Israel had been swept clean and put in order more than once by this reform movement or that reform movement, but none of those movements every truly solved the problem for good. The enemy returned each time and each time he came back stronger.
But this wasn’t simply Israel’s problem. This is a problem common to humanity, as individuals and collectively. How often do we free ourselves from sin only to find ourselves falling back into that sin with renewed vigour? As a race how often have our attempts to clean house, to put things in order, and to find peace failed—and not only failed, but have created the circumstances in which even greater evil arises. Think of World War I. It was to be the war to end all wars, but the house-cleaning was only superficial and a led directly, a generation later, to a second World War that made the first pale in comparison. Think of the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Nothing could possibly be worse than the enemy we’re fighting today, we’re told, but each time we sweep the house clean and a new enemy comes, fiercer, more barbaric, and more evil than the one we just vanquished.
Jesus reminds us that no amount of sweeping the floor or setting the furniture in order will keep the house free from evil unless it’s indwelled by the living Spirit of God and that only happens as humanity grabs hold of the release that Jesus offers us. Luke brings us back to the issue of “response”. How do we respond to Jesus and to God’s kingdom drawing near? Israel was looking for release from captivity, but until she responded to Jesus with acceptance, she’d be like the house reinfested with demons every time she was swept clean. The same goes for us.
Jesus gets at this in the final verses. A woman in the crowd was impressed with what Jesus was saying, but she didn’t really understand.
As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27-38)
The woman’s words sound odd to us, but they were almost certainly part of a common form of praise—not very different from the way we would honour someone by noting how proud his or her mother must be: “Your mother must be so proud of you!” Mary certainly was blessed to be chosen by God to be the mother of the Messiah. She was certainly blessed to be the mother of such a wonderful son. But Jesus reminds this woman that that’s not the kind of blessing that ultimately matters in God’s kingdom. Mary was blessed not so much because she was the mother of God; she was blessed because she heard the Word of God and kept it—she humbly submitted to it, she obeyed it. Brothers and sisters, that’s what it means to be “with Jesus”. Any other response to Jesus leaves us one the outside. Even love and devotion to God, apart from submission to the lordship of Jesus, leaves us on the outside, on the wrong side. Back in Luke 3:8, Jesus warned the Jews, saying, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” No pedigree, not matter how prestigious gives us an automatic membership in the kingdom. We’ve got to hear God’s word—the written word and the Incarnate Word—and submit ourselves to it. We’ve got to give up our own agendas and our own ideas for what it means to serve God and for what it means to be a disciple and, instead, we’ve got to follow as Jesus leads. That’s the only way to accomplish the work of his kingdom. To do anything else is to become one who scatters—to become one who works against Jesus and his kingdom.
Hear the Word written this morning. Take it to heart. Then come to the Table and receive the Word Incarnate who has given us his Spirit—to wash us clean, to regenerate our hearts, and to renew our minds. In the Scriptures he teaches us. At the Table he equips us to keep that which we have heard. Brothers and sisters, come to the Table this morning and here set aside your agenda and pick up the agenda of Jesus. Set aside your values and desires, and pick up the values and desires of Jesus. Set aside all your misplaced loyalties, and here pick up the banner of Jesus. Then let us go to out into the world in peace to love and serve our Lord.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, as we prayed in the collect, on our own we can do nothing please to you. Thank you for your patience with us. Thank you for your grace. And most of all, thank you for giving us your Spirit to transform our sinful hearts and minds. Turn us always to yourself, Father, and as we prayed earlier, direct and rule our hearts that we might be always submitted to your will and to the lordship of your Son. We ask this through him. Amen.