In our last essay we studied Luke 11:5-13. It concluded a larger section in Luke on “Living as a Disciple.” The section began with the Parable of the Good Samaritan in 10:25-37, which taught us that Christians must be neighbors to others, and that anyone in need is our neighbor. Then in 10:38-42 we learned from Jesus’ visit to the home of Martha and Mary that being a Christian means that we must have priorities. Beginning at 11:1 we saw Jesus teach about prayer. In 11:1-4 he gave us the Lord’s Prayer, and in 11:5-13 we saw additional teaching on prayer. Therefore being a Christian means that we must have a life of prayer.
With this essay we begin a new section of the Gospel that deals with several controversies with the Pharisees. The section begins with a segment that sometimes is called the Beelzebul controversy. In 11:14-16, as you see, Jesus was casting out a demon from a man who was mute. In Matthew’s parallel, we are told that the man also was blind (Mt. 12:22). And Jesus healed him. The healing miracle and exorcism created a mixed response on the part of those who saw it. The crowds in general were amazed, and in Matthew, we see that they thought Jesus might be the Son of David, that is, the Messiah (Mt. 12:23).
But some in the crowd, otherwise unidentified, said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons” (v. 15). Matthew tells us that these critics were Pharisees (Mt. 12:24). Beelzebul was a popular name for the prince of demons, the one we call the devil.
Luke mentions a response by a third group that he also leaves unidentified. There is no parallel in Matthew or Mark for this third group. They kept demanding from Jesus a sign from heaven as a test of who he was. They evidently did not consider an exorcism to be an adequate sign. They wanted some sort of sign in the sky to confirm his identity.
Jesus replies to the latter two groups with a series of sayings in verses 17-23. In verse 17 Jesus says that every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert. That is, it becomes a desolate place, a wasteland, meaning that it does not continue. He further describes the process of becoming a desolate place as “house falling on house.” Or it could be translated as “household falling on household.” Of course he did not mean that houses literally would fall on one another. Rather he was dramatically expressing the results of division within a kingdom. The parallels in Matthew and Mark both are clearer than Luke. They say that neither a kingdom nor a household can stand if divided. And that was exactly Jesus’ point.
In verses 18-20 Jesus clarifies things by applying his statement in verse 17 to the earlier Beelzebul accusation. In verse 18 he declares that if Satan is divided against himself, his kingdom cannot stand. Therefore, logically, if Jesus were casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul, that would be a sure sign that Satan was divided against himself.
Next, in verse 19, Jesus suggests that his accusers were being inconsistent when they accused him of exorcising demons by Satan’s power, because they did not make the same accusation against Jewish exorcists. Jesus seems to have accepted the fact that Jewish exorcists of the day had a valid ministry and that they carried out their ministries by the power of God. Therefore Jesus declares that those Jewish exorcists eventually would become judges of the Pharisees who were making the false accusations.
Having destroyed the Pharisees’ accusation that he cast out demons by the power of Beelzebul, Jesus then states a conclusion. Jesus declares in verse 20 that if he is casting out demons by God’s power rather than Satan’s, then his actions demonstrate the arrival of God’s kingdom.
Next, in verses 21-22, Jesus tells a parable. A strong man who is fully armed is capable of guarding his castle or house and all his property. But if a stronger man comes along, and defeats him, he loses everything. In this context, the point of the parable seems to be that Satan is the strong man, and Jesus is the stronger man who is defeating Satan. The final victory may not come until after Jesus’ death and resurrection, but the expulsion of demons and the miracles of healing during Jesus’ earthly ministry are evidence that the kingdom in one sense already has come.
Interestingly, the parallels of the parable in Mark (Mk. 3:27) and Matthew (Mt. 12:29) are quite different. Mark 3:27 reads, “But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” We still have the point that Satan is a strong man and Jesus a stronger man who overcomes Satan. But the imagery is different.
In verse 23 Jesus draws a broad conclusion. “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” Notice that there is no place for neutrality in this conflict between Satan and Jesus. One is either with Jesus or against him. And using the image of a flock, Jesus declares that anyone who is not helping to gather sheep is scattering them. In other words, doing nothing is the same as actively scattering the sheep.
In verses 24-26 we see some unpleasant truths about demonic beings. One thing we immediately notice is that an expelled demon, if not sent to the abyss, is able to wonder freely about the world. The reference to “waterless regions” is a bit strange. The inability of the demon to find rest in such areas probably is due to a lack of people rather than water.
At any rate, Jesus says that a cast out demon, after failing to find rest in waterless regions might say to itself, “I will return to my house from which I came.” And of course the “house” from which he came was the original host. Thus we learn that if a demon is cast out of an individual, and no provision is made to replace the demon with the Holy Spirit, the condition described by Jesus in verse 25 will exist, namely, that the original host is “swept clean and put in order.”
The point Jesus was making is that the person in question was just as vulnerable to demonic possession after the exorcism as he or she had been prior to the original demonic possession. The reason is simple. The person has no means of protection. Jesus suggests that not only can a cast out demon came back and repossess a person, it can bring with it seven other demons more evil than itself, resulting in the person’s condition being worse than before the exorcism.
It is amazing how little teaching about demonic possession is provided in our churches. I suspect that many present-day Christians and pastors, especially in mainline churches, do not believe that such a thing is possible. But one has to deal with the fact that Jesus believed it and dealt with it in his ministry. On the other hand, some Christian communities that do teach about it tend to make too much of it or obsess about it. Demonic possession is not nearly as common as some people like to think.
I believe there are two main truths we learn from this passage. First, demon possession is a real, if rare, phenomenon. And second, if we ever are involved in an exorcism, we must complete the job. That is, we must lead the person to Christ so that the Holy Spirit can replace the evil spirit.
In verses 27-28 Luke records an exchange between a woman and Jesus that is not paralleled in Mark and Matthew. A woman in the crowd who obviously was deeply moved by Jesus and his teachings, blurted out to Jesus what she was feeling as a woman, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that that nursed you.”
The woman probably was herself a mother. And she was expressing the idea of the great blessing it would be to have given birth to, and nurtured, a son like Jesus. But notice Jesus’ quick reply. He gently, but quite definitely, corrects her by saying, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”
It obviously was a great privilege for Mary the mother of Jesus, to have given birth to and nurtured the Son of God. And that eventually led the church to venerate Mary as the mother of God. But Jesus himself understood that hearing and doing the word of God produces a greater blessing than raising a child, even if that child is the Son of God.