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

houseThe Gospel for Friday of this week (27th Week of the Year) features the puzzling parable about the cast-out demon who returns with seven others. What is most puzzling, is that finding the house (soul) “swept and clean” brings further trouble. One would think that a house that is swept and clean 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).

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.

1. The Greek Text

A puzzling aspect of examining 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.”

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

I happen to believe that the inclusion of the word “empty” is essential, because otherwise something very important is left out. 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 is the chief problem. Empty things need filling. Sadly, if good things do not fill empty spaces, then evil things do. 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).” 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 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 we should be wary of etymological fallacy, the original root meaning (kosméō = cosmetic = ornate, rather than merely “ordered”) ought not 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:

  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 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? 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 rather than God. The man’s new state is worse than before he gave up the lawful pleasure!

  1. 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 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.

  1. Ornate

While some translate this as “ordered,” it would seem that, given the context, ornate would be a better rendering. Hence 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.

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 prefer 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.

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 preferred Roman fiddlebacks, then the love of beauty (a good thing) destroys charity (a better thing).

2. The Context

It is edifying to consider the contextual setting in which the Lord places this parable: an answer to those who pridefully rebuked His casting out of a demon (attributing it to Beelzebub). Just prior to the parable of the empty house and the seven demons is this event and subsequent 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).

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.

All of us who are religiously observant should pay particular attention to this. During Lent, many undertake certain practices and purifications. Beware 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! Failure to fill the gap with God opens us up to all seven deadly sins.

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.

Is this a parable decoded or muddled? You decide. The comment section is open, swept and clean!

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

  1. Thank you father. The parable is definitely decoded now. I had no idea what this meant before. You are right about the pride that happens when we begin to follow God’s commandments and to practice our faith. That happened to me. I didn’t realize it at first. It took about three years for me to wake up and realize what was happening to me. Fortunately my continual falling into a particular sin made me realize, FINALLY, that I am nothing, totally weak and entirely and I mean ENTIRELY dependent upon God’s grace even to think about Him. Though I can’t be sure, intuitively I realized what had been wrong with me. I was really relying on my own strength and therefore kept falling back into sin, big sin. Finally I decided, well God, I am convinced I am entirely broken and incapable of even looking up at you. I am totally dependent on you. I think it’s the first time I ever really felt what humility is like. All is not done with though, I still feel the pride constantly wanting to creep back in. The struggle is real.

  2. Thanks again, Mgr Charles.
    I would be grateful if you would permit me to make a follow-on comment to the one which I left yesterday on ‘Conscience and Prayer’.
    When I gave up smoking after asking God for the strength and desire to do so, I saw it as His giving me the victory over the evil of smoking. It was a wonderful thing then – and I still think it is a wonderful thing now. But – I came to discover that He was not only giving me the victory over the evils of tobacco but as a result, He was also encouraging me to stay away from places where I might be tempted to start up again. So, for example, my visits to pubs, clubs and other venues of this sort, became greatly diminished and thus continued to be an even greater blessing, as it meant that I was further discouraged from drinking too much beer and other alcohol. And – in any case – I had grown to hate the smell of stale smoke! Perhaps it also helped prevent me from meeting up with others who may well have dented my resolve and even becoming involved in other activities which God would prefer me to steer clear of! Thus – my newly swept, empty spaces were kept filled with good things and not vulnerable to further alien invasion!
    In all of this, I believe we must “Give thanks to the Lord for His great goodness and mercy which endures for ever!” Chronicles 16:34.
    I may have initially believed that God gave ‘me’ that victory, but I had to always remember that it was His victory first. I have remained humbly thankful to Him for restoring me on that and many other occasions and if we can keep this always in mind, in true humility, we will hopefully always be able to dissuade other and more terrible demons to enter our ‘spick and span’ and ’empty’ spaces – and they will never remain empty again as they will be filled with the Holy Spirit.
    Thank you always for your words and the opportunity to here testify to our own personal experiences which prove our Heavenly Father’s great love and mercy towards us.
    God bless all – Ray – Portsmouth – UK

  3. Very good! I always wondered that myself. I looked at ‘swept and clean’ as being ready for a new tenant. Just a thought.

  4. A wonderful explanation of the text, but I would like to add one additional point. Jesus is directing our attention to the fact that Christian life is a spiritual battle. Conquering an area of sin in our lives is not the end of the battle, but only just the beginning. Even if we are able to bring our moral house into order, having swept and cleaned it with the help of the sacrament of confession and beautified it with the sacrament of the Eucharist, the devil will return with reinforcements to attempt to reconquer the territory that he has lost – your soul. The temptations faced during this second stage of the spiritual battle are 8 times as intense as those in the first stage. If the battle is lost at this point, the state of the person is far worse than before.

    This parable is best explained by the approach to the spiritual life taken by St. John of the Cross in his descriptions of the ‘dark nights’. The spiritual person faces periods of intense temptation because the devil has returned with reinforcements. The purification and mortification that results from successfully resisting the attacks of the demon and his seven nasty friends bring a person closer to God. St. John points to the fact that these battles are a requirement before someone is prepared for deep union with God, so they are in fact permitted by God for our ultimate good.

  5. This is an absolutely fascinating analysis. It helps me to explain why I sometimes feel farther from God when I ambitiously take on one or another spiritual practice, and mysteriously closer to God when I lighten up a bit. I’ve noticed myself that when I overextend, pride always sets in. Whereas, when I do the good that I acknowledge God has inspired me and capacitated me to do, I feel not pride, but rather that I’m acting on a gift. Now I have a scriptural basis for making sense of this. Thank you!

  6. That makes much more sense than the image I had of going to confession then being relentlessly attacked by demons. Seemed unfair really, like it would be better to keep our little sins to keep out the bigger ones. hehe.
    Thank you and God bless!

  7. Thank you, that makes so much sense. When you read and reread some Gospel (a lot actually), passages it can be difficult to understand, even with footnotes.

  8. Thank you Msgr. Some authors propose the important distinction lies in the words “gone out.” In the text you cite, the demons were not “cast” out, they left of their own accord. This means the access point by which they had entered in the first place is still available to them. When one demon has gained access to a person’s life, it will always seek to bring more in as well. This is not to say that persons who are “demonized” are all possessed – there are several levels of affliction – oppression, obsession, possession. Some demons hover over people, trying to get in, and some gain access but do not yet possess. These evil spirits will not leave until ordered to do so (this is what the deliverance ministry is all about). So many people are oppressed! It would help us, the faithful of the Catholic Church, to learn from our Priests about how this happens and how we must combat it. There are some great books on the topic: “When Pigs Move In” by Don Dickerman, “Set at Liberty” by Pastor Bruce Jenkins, and of course all the books by Fr. Gabrielle Amorth (God rest his soul). Thank you Father.

  9. Thanks for the new insights into the meaning of this parable. It also explains why those people who consider deliverance to be the answer to other people’s problems when what is actually required is a complete change of lifestyle – as in the case of the man who gave up smoking who has posted here about how he no longer attends places where smoking is part of the lifestyle – in order to maintain the freedom.
    As one Exorcist has already explained in the CTS booklet on the subject, exorcism is only 10% of the ‘cure.’

  10. Thank you, Msgr. Pope. For me, understanding the Bible has usually come from someone else explaining it to me, so I will remember your insight and share it with my family. God has given me a great faith in Jesus’ Real Presence in the Eucharist and other things, but the Bible has always been difficult for me. I help with my daughter’s confirmation class in small groups, and I tend to stick to the basic truths in our Catholic faith. In fact, I wish they wouldn’t do these small groups because the deeper truths that should be taught by the priest are not being taught. God bless you.

  11. This is perfect! Right on the mark! Thank you for sharing this with us. I think you have helped more people with this article then you may ever know!

  12. Brilliant explanation. This parable has puzzled me for years, and now I understand it. Thank you, Monsignor.

    I do have a question about another point you raised. You wrote, “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).”

    Here in Germany, some are tempted to scorn some FSSP priests who say the Latin Mass perfectly, but who insist that while the mass is being said, kitschy modern (German) hymns should be sung at the same time – during the prayers at the foot of the altar, after the epistle is read in Latin, and during the offertory prayers. As a result, some of us have the impression that for the first half of the Mass, through the Sanctus, we are not at a Traditional Latin Mass at all, but at a Novus Ordo Mass instead.

    Of course we don’t “scorn” these priests because of this, but we do have feelings of criticism toward them. We’ve tried to bring our concerns to their attention, but our concerns are dismissed. Apparently these priests feel that they are are encouraging “participation” in the mass.

    We sincerely hope that this sort of thing doesn’t happen in the United States.

Comments are closed.