How Can a Demon, Driven Out, Return With Seven More? A Meditation on a Puzzling Parable

The Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent in the Extraordinary Form features the puzzling parable about the cast-out demon who returns with seven other demons. What is most puzzling is that finding the house (soul) “swept and clean” brings further trouble. One would think a house that is swept and clean is a good thing.

How can we understand this parable? As is often the case, recourse to both the subtleties of the Greek text and the context can help us.

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).

Again, a house swept and clean seems like a good thing, one that would discourage a demon from  coming back rather than to return with a coven of fellow demons!

1. Let’s consider first of all the Greek text.

A puzzling aspect of looking to the Greek text is that what some Greek texts describe with three adjectives, almost every English translation renders with only two. Why is this? Because some of the Greek manuscripts lack the third word, which translates as “empty.”

I am a pastor, and while I can read the Greek text of the New Testament with relative ease, I am not an expert in the ancient Greek or in the relative value of differing Greek manuscripts. The translation “swept and clean” or “swept and ordered” is almost universal among English renderings of this text. See HERE for an example.

However, to my mind, the inclusion of “empty” is essential, otherwise something very important is left out. Let’s look at the Greek description of the “house” (i.e., 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)

That the house (soul) is empty is its chief problem. Empty things need filling. Sadly, if good things do not fill empty spaces, evil things do. And 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 systematic 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 attractivevery appealing(invitingawesomely gorgeous).” It is the root of the English word “cosmetics,” things that adorn  or “order” the face.

Thus, the “order” described here is more an order 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. And while it is also true we should be wary of etymological fallacy, the original root meaning (kosemo = cosmetics = ornate, rather than merely “ordered”) ought not be wholly forsaken!

With these in mind, let’s consider the more rich possibility that the Lord describes the “house” (an image for the soul) in three ways:

1. Empty – This is the key description that some ancient manuscripts omit. And 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 that make it vulnerable. But 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 every form of human sin, pride, and confusion.

Empty buildings are vulnerable, open to attack by termites, extreme weather, mold, rodents, and every other kind of threat. 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 or of gratitude to Him and 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 many evil things!

Consider a man who gives up alcohol for Lent. He does well, ending a lawful pleasure and making greater room for God. But what if God, or something of God, does not fill the space? Usually something of the devil, or something of the flesh, will fill it. Perhaps he will think, “I am approved because I, by my own power, have given this up.” But sadly, pride fills the empty space, not God. This gets ugly and the man’s second state is worse than before he gave up the lawful pleasure!

2. Swept – 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 Lentan observance will say, “Look what I have done! I am approved and better than others who are less committed!” And thus 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. For then ugly pride fills the gap and the second state of the man will be worse than the the first.

3. Ornate – While some translate this as “ordered,” it would seem that, given the context, ornate would be a better rendering as we saw above. Hence we are warned to beware 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.

Thus a connoisseur of fine wine may scoff at people who enjoy wine sold in a box (“cow”) or who like White Zinfandel. And God forbid that they might like beer instead! 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.

Beauty and the appreciation of it 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 preferered roman fiddlebacks, then too easily the love of beauty (a good thing) destroys charity (a better thing).

2. Let us also consider the context. This interpretation considers the contextual setting in which the Lord places this parable: as an answer to those who pridefully rebuke His casting out of a demon, attributing it to Beelzebub. Just prior to the parable of the empty house and the seven demons is the following event and rebuke:

Jesus was casting out a devil, and the same was dumb; and when He had cast out the devil, the dumb man spoke. And the crowds marveled. But some of them said, By Beelzebub, the prince of devils, He casts out devils. And others, to test Him, demanded from Him a sign from heaven. But He, seeing their thoughts, said to them: Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and house will fall upon house. If, then, Satan also is divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand? because you say that I cast out devils by Beelzebub!  (Lk 11:14-16)

In other words, these religiously observant people (a good thing) had allowed their lives, all swept and clean, but EMPTY, to be filled with doubt, scorn, and pride.

That they followed the Law was a beautiful thing. Their lives were swept clean and ornate, but empty. And the emptiness was filled with pride and cynicism.

Pay attention, fellow religiously observant! We are in the middle of Lent and have, I pray, undertaken certain practices and purifications. But beware, so that these mortifications do not create a space that, though clean, is empty and vulnerable to being filled with pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth … the seven ugly cousins of the sin we were trying to drive out in the first place. If so, our second condition will be worse than our first. Failure to fill the first gap with God opens us to all seven deadly sins.

Look out! The devil can use even our piety to ensnare us in his seven-fold bondage! Have you engaged in some active purifications? If so, you do well. But be sure that the space opened, all swept and and ordered, is filled with God, with humility, and with gratitude. Otherwise it will too easily be filled with seven very ugly demons and sins: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth.

A parable decoded or muddled? You decide. Comments are open, swept and clean. Please do not fill them with wrath and mere contentiousness. Charity is requested to fill the open and now empty space! 🙂

29 Replies to “How Can a Demon, Driven Out, Return With Seven More? A Meditation on a Puzzling Parable”

  1. I tell a similar parable in my marriage prep class, the easy part is getting rid of the demon (anger, jealous, bitterness, etc,) The hard part is replacing these with Love. The demon will return if the house in not full of Love.

    1. I agree with what you are getting at, that we must have charity, in humble service to the Lord and to our neighbor. Indeed, this is why psychological treatment of itself, although able to produce relief, is not able to produce happiness. However, in my experience, anger is not easy to cure, and the complete cure for anger is found in charity.

      1. I thought the cure for anger was revenge…..hahaha


        1. It helps if the angered person is forgiven in your heart, while you move out of his way. To appreciate all his good qualities, while trying not to get angry back. Knowing that God loves him very much and would like that i constantly love the hater to his face by my prayers for him. Knowing that I have my faults, too, and that we both need forgiveness in our lives.

      2. Actually anger is not as difficult to rid your self of as you would think.

        Think about what it does. It makes you feel strong and/or powerful and is often invoked in response to a situation where you felt weak or hurt.

        Giving God full reign in your life and accepting His wisdom in allowing those situations effectively releases anger’s grip on you. Once you have achieved that you know anger is now under your control and you can decide what to do with it by choosing God (love) or self (emotion).

        Since anger was given to us by God, it is not something you should fear or run from, but an emotion to understand and own. Sometimes it has use and purpose. Sometimes not.

  2. Great article. It really sheds light on what the parable of Jesus really means and how it applies to us.

    Msgr. Pope – How would you respond to folks such as those on CRI that claim that it is impossible for a Christian to ever become demon possessed? The parable seems to indicate that this is not so.

    I would love to hear your answer.


  3. Thank you for the lesson, Msgr Pope. It makes much more sense with the “empty” addition.
    The demons that coexist here on Earth are no match for us weak human beings. Yet some even doubt the revealed truth of their existence (have mercy dear Lord)! But isn’t it fascinating that we are so prideful that we often find ourselves totally ignorant of the raging battle that goes on all around us. Yet, Satan banish here after the war in heaven, owns it all! In the reading you quote, Jesus references the “Kingdom of Satan”…What?! He has a Kingdom here? Then as we look at the devils temptations of Jesus in the desert where Satan tells Jesus ” I will give to you him all the kingdoms of the world it you will bow down before me.” Now THAT is very disturbing. After all, one can’t give away what one doesn’t own. Angelic intelligence beyond human comprehension is one way to describe Satan and his army. How important is Sanctifying Grace? We can not survive without IT! Go to confession frequently! Learn your sins and broom them from your life with Gods divine power we call Grace. Stay in a state of Grace (the armor of Christ) and Satan will loose the battle for your soul! Remember, when the battle is over and the smoke has cleared and time gives away to eternity, you and I will either be Heaven or Hell….FOREVER. (quoted from an old friend who is the poster boy for Msgr Popes discussion.)

  4. Thank you for decoding that parable! Knowledge of these old languages can really make a difference in understanding what Christ was saying.

  5. ‘Failure to fill the first gap with God opens us to all seven deadly sins.’ Yes, I have seen this first hand. Those who had come to the realization of the Love of GOD and fail to follow through with constancy in prayer, devotion to and learning of the WORD of GOD, Who is of course JESUS, fellowship in the community of GOD, service to those who are in need and intently receiving the Sacraments, particularly confession and communion, are prone to go back to their former selves and become worse indulging even in more vices. We must continually imbibe the HOLY SPIRIT and humbly accept GOD’s Grace. Thanks, Monsignor, you have decoded indeed the parable. YHWH SHEKINAH.

  6. Could this help us understand, is it relevant?

    2 Peter 2:19 They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity—for “people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.” 20 If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and are overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. 21 It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs on the sacred command that was passed on to them. 22 Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,”[g] and, “A sow that is washed returns to her wallowing in the mud.”

    1. Does this mean we are lost if we turn away from God, if we turn our backs on God? If we are so entangled and overcome that we make God angry at us (I shudder to think that I could make God angry at me)… Will God EVER comfort us!? But what if I repent, what if I repent completely (like the prodigal son) desiring the forgiveness of God…

      Isaiah 12: In that day you will say:
      “I will praise you, LORD.
      Although you were angry with me,
      your anger has turned away
      and you have comforted me.
      2 Surely God is my salvation;
      I will trust and not be afraid.
      The LORD, the LORD himself, is my strength and my defense;
      he has become my salvation.”
      3 With joy you will draw water
      from the wells of salvation.
      4 In that day you will say:
      “Give praise to the LORD, proclaim his name;
      make known among the nations what he has done,
      and proclaim that his name is exalted.
      5 Sing to the LORD, for he has done glorious things;
      let this be known to all the world.
      6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion,
      for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.”

  7. Thank your for sharing your thoughts, Monsignor, on this difficult and horrifying passage, as well as for your efforts at providing the most precise translation of this passage.

    I wondering about how to best determine the context of the passage.–or any Gospel parable or teaching. The first thought was location: what are all of the teaching/parables in a given location?

    Anyway, it is notable that Luke 11 starts out with Jesus alone in prayer, then,surrounded by his disciples, He teaches them the Our Father, then He tells some parables, then, surrounded by the multitude, He casts out a demon, then He tells the multitude some parables, and then He is invited to dine for the midday meal at the house of a Pharisee. That covers Luke 11:1-37. So far as the text indicates, this all takes place on the same morning and in the same place.

    1. I don’t know about Lk 11 but in Mt 12 where this account is given all occurs on the Sabbath. I like this chapter 12. Here, Jesus also restores the person’s sight. I see irony here since Jesus has ‘bound’ Satan (vv 28, 29) before their very eyes yet, in both accounts, they demand a sign. Both times He says ‘none but the sign of Jonah’ and in our readings last Sunday He answers their request with “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” (Jn 2:19) As St. Paul says, some say “force me to believe” while others “convince with arguments” (cf 1Cor 1:22). But thanks be to God for the gift of faith and the grace to live by it! May God preserve us as fresh wineskins, filling us full with new wine. (cf Mk 2:22)

  8. Well done Msgr. In fact with a little sweeping out of material that is a bit redundant, I’d say it is Chesterton/Belloc/Lewis caliber meditation.

    Did you notice your meditation is a parable on the post-Vatican II CC? Here’s how.

    Vatican II “opened the windows” and “let the light shine in and spirit sweep out” the church; a not uncommon image pridefully expressed by modernist forces within the CC.

    So it was, much was swept out. Sadly though most of what was thrown out was the very soil in which Faith grows deep roots. Knowledge of such things as you point out, the third adjective.

    What was left was the minimalism of emotional order. Remember after Vatican II how so so many of the intellectual and spiritual views were reduced to overly simplistic emotional visions. The music reflected this emptiness. Great joy, pride really, was taken in this simplicity; just like children who believe if they could only rid themselves of the orders of their parents and live in the simplicity of the world they see.

    What came in and filled the void is clearly seen by mature souls.

    Pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. Which of these has not increased seven fold in the West and the CC since Vatican II?

    1. Thanks. I was VERY tired when I wrote it yesterday, after four masses and other activities. Paradoxically I tend to repeat myself (and thus write more) when I am tired. I have been trying to trim it back as you suggested.

    2. @ James
      Here is a link to the documents of the Second Vatican Council.
      One of the fruits of the Second Vatican Council is the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the link to the searchable version may also be found on the same page.
      Here is a link to the original book form which includes the Apostolic Letter LAETAMUR MAGNOPERE by which the Catechism is approved and promulgated.

      1. Thank you, Michael.

        @James, please tell me these mature souls you speak of are not so simplistic as to blame the enormity of our cultural decline on Vatican II! Did these souls suddenly become greater than the Holy Spirit that led the Council? If so, then how could they think of themselves as anything other than gods, while we lowly “newbies” flail about helplessly in the light of the documents? If these souls indeed be gods, why then have they not done more to avert our moral and cultural decline?

        All sarcasm aside, let’s give the Council the benefit of the doubt and see how this all plays out. God rarely makes His mark on history in our time. His timing is perfect. You are not old enough to criticize it.

  9. Thank you Msgr.!!!!

    A very helpful and illuminating explanation on how to better fight the Spiritual Fight we all, pre- and after- Vatican II CC, together will all humanity, must go through because of the fall of Adam and Eve the consequences of which contaminate all human activities.

    Thank you so much indeed!!

  10. Venerable Bede also interprets it this way. Other Fathers of the Church say it refers to the Jews, who have lost the Holy Spirit but are still beaurifully odorned. See Cornelius a Lapide.

  11. This parable has puzzled me so I am grateful for your explanation. (The priest at the Mass I attended on Sunday interpreted it to mean that we must not rely on ourselves but must rely on God, which seems quite close to what you are saying.) And thank you for the warning about pride. On your advice I have bought the book by St Bernard.

  12. Msgr. Pope
    Thank you for the exegesis. It makes complete sense.

  13. Thank you for educating us. I’m sad that you are tired. We are blessed that you take the time to encourage and help us with your writing.

  14. Our Lord evicted a demon, and then commented that once evicted, the demon cannot find a place to reside. Why? It’s a good housing market. Perhaps just because there’s no place like home. Old familiar sights and sounds…so comfy knowing where everything is and how everything works. Imagine starting all over somewhere! So he goes back to his old home to have a look. (I moved from my house of 25 years and then kept unconsciously going back to the place to go home!). To his utter delight he finds the landlord has fixed everything and cleaned the place up, it is unoccupied, and has no security. His old key even fits the lock. So he gets some friends from the gym, beefy guys he knows can fight, offers them free rent, and brings them with him. It was an easy sell, considering the renovation. They all move in, and the poor landlord is on the hook.

    Demons are really, really persistent! Maybe instead of worrying about the niceties the landlord should have laid in a little security first.

  15. Jesus was speaking both literally and figuratively in that He was correctly stating that a newly Christian would be a prime target for attack by Satan and his demons and that the temptations to sin presented by the demons could lead the convert into worse sins; and also Jesus was correctly pointing out that we are actually surrounded by an invisible army of demons controlled by Satan with instructions to try kill all humans before they can hear of God’s promises.

    Freud and his ilk were some of Satan’s best slaves as by making everyone believe that sinning is just a natural human condition and therefore should be allowed free reign ,

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