The Gospel for Tuesday of the 22nd Week of the Year features Jesus casting out a demon, easily dispatching it. There is another parable, however, in which a cast-out demon returns with seven others. It is puzzling that the house (soul) being “swept and clean” brings further trouble. One would think that a house in such a state would be a good thing!
For reference, here is the parable:
When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he roams through waterless places in search of rest; and finding none, he says, “I will return to my house which I left.” And when he has come to it, he finds the place swept and clean. Then he goes and takes seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter in and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse that the first (Lk 11:24-25).
As is often the case, recourse to both the subtleties of the Greek text and the context can help us.
In examining different Greek manuscripts, one finds that some of the texts describe the house using three adjectives while others use only two; some of the Greek manuscripts do not include the third word, which is translated as “empty.” Almost every English translation uses only two, lacking the adjective “empty.”
While I can read the Greek text of the New Testament with relative ease, I am not an expert in ancient Greek nor can I speak to the relative value of the differing Greek manuscripts. The translation as either “swept and clean” or “swept and ordered” is almost universal among English renderings of this text. (See an example here.)
I believe that the inclusion of the word “empty” is essential; without it something very important is lost. Let’s look at the description of the “house” (soul) to which the demon returns:
καὶ ἐλθὸν εὑρίσκει σχολάζοντα, σεσαρωμένον καὶ κεκοσμημένον.
Kai elthon heuriskei scholazonta, sesarōmenon kai kekosmēmenon.
And having come, it finds (it) empty, swept, and put in order (ornate).
The fact that the house (soul) is empty (scholazonta) is the chief problem. Empty things need filling. Sadly, if good things do not fill empty spaces, then evil things will. This seems to be at the heart of the Lord’s warning.
A second issue is the translation of the word “kekosmēmenon.” Does “ordered,” or “put in order” really capture what the word is trying to convey? Most of us hear the word “order” and think of either physical or moral order.
However, the Greek lexicon defines the root of kekosmēmenon, kosméō, as “to beautify, having the right arrangement (sequence) by ordering; to adorn, make compellingly attractive, very appealing (inviting, awesomely gorgeous).” Kosméō is also the root of the English word “cosmetics,” which are things that adorn or “order” the face.
Thus, the “order” described in this passage is one related to beauty. Hence, the translation “ornate” may better capture what is meant by this word than either “clean” or “orderly.” So, as we read this parable we should consider that the description of the house as “swept and clean” may lack the subtlety of the Greek words. While we should be wary of etymological fallacy, the original root meaning (kosméō = cosmetic = ornate, rather than merely “ordered”) ought not to be wholly forgotten.
With these in mind, let’s consider the richer possibility that the Lord describes the “house” (an image for the soul) in three ways:
This is the key description that some ancient manuscripts omit, yet it is the main problem. An empty house is a vulnerable house. An empty house, devoid of human presence, can no longer repel threats or repair damage. More significantly, from the standpoint of grace, an empty house, devoid of the presence of God, is a vacuum ready to be filled with demons and with every form of human sin, pride, and confusion.
Empty buildings are vulnerable, open to attack by termites, extreme weather, mold, and rodents. Just as an uncultivated field goes to weed, so an unattended house slides into decline and decay. So, too, goes the empty human soul, a soul devoid of the presence of God, of gratitude to Him, and of openness to His satisfying presence.
Yes, here is the spiritual lesson: let the Lord and the good things of the Kingdom of God fill every void, every empty space! Emptiness is too easily filled with evil things.
Consider a man who gives up alcohol for Lent. He does well by ending a lawful pleasure and making greater room for God, but what if God, or something of God, does not fill the space? Often something of the devil, or something of the flesh, will fill it. Perhaps the man will think, “I am approved because I, by my own power, have given this up.” Sadly, though, this thought shows that pride has filled the empty space rather than God. The man’s new state is worse than it was before he gave up the lawful pleasure!
It is good if a person has, by God’s grace, been able to sweep sin from his life, but praise be to the Lord, not to the man or woman! Otherwise, this is an open door for pride. Perhaps the sinner who succeeds in a Lenten observance will say, “Look what I have done! I am approved and am better than others who are less committed!” In this way, grace is snatched by Satan. The house (soul), swept and in good order, must also be filled with humble gratitude to God. Thus, the Lord warns of a house that is “swept” but empty of humility and gratitude.
While some translate this as “ordered,” given the context, “ornate” would be a better rendering. We are warned to beware of vanity and also of esteeming beauty more than charity. The warning is for those who, though they appreciate beauty, become smug and disdainful of all others who do not share their aesthetic preferences.
A connoisseur of fine wine may scoff at people who enjoy wine sold in a box (“cow”), or White Zinfandel, or heaven forbid beer! In this way, an appreciation for the finer things (like wine) becomes pride and leads to the last state of the man being worse than the first.
The appreciation of beauty has its place, but if it cancels charity, the last state of the man is worse than the first.
One may appreciate the beauty of the Latin Mass, but if love for the aesthetic causes one to scorn a priest who forgets to bow at the Gloria Patri or who wears gothic vestments instead of the preferred Roman fiddlebacks, then the love of beauty (a good thing) destroys charity (a better thing).
Thus, there is here a warning to religiously observant (a good thing) people that we can allow our lives to be all swept and clean but empty; or worse, to be filled with scorn and pride.
Watch out! The devil can use even our piety to ensnare us in his seven-fold bondage. Do you engage in some active purifications? If so, you do well, but be sure that the space opened, all swept and ordered, is filled with God, with humility, and with gratitude. Otherwise, it will too easily be filled with seven ugly demons and sins: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. These are the seven demon friends that accompany a once-cast-out demon.