The 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 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 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:
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!
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,” 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!