These verses constitute Luke’s version of the “Beelzebul controversy.” Both Matthew and Luke lifted this series of sayings from Q. Mark’s version includes some Q material, but not what appears in Matthew and Luke (Mark 3:20-35; Matt. 12:25-32). The Jesus Seminar scholars suggest that “the similarities and differences in these clusters demonstrate that the same stories and sayings could be put together in different ways” (The Five Gospels, p.51). Apparently in order to settle potential arguments, the Elves eliminate both Matthew’s and Luke’s renditions from the Revised Common Lectionary. Because of the vagaries of the Western, moon-based, movable feast called Easter, Mark’s “controversy” can also be preempted by the reading from John’s gospel for Trinity Sunday. This was the case in Year B, 2009.
Scholars are clear that these series of sayings and stories were put together in their various forms well after Jesus’ death. However, the Jesus Seminar scholars are fairly certain that the sayings in large part probably go back to the historical Jesus. If, as scholars propose, Jesus was an itinerant cynic, engaging the local religious leaders in debate and aphorism, he might very well have come up with the following argument: “Every government divided against itself is devastated, and a house divided against a house falls. [So] if Satan is divided against himself – since you claim I drive out demons in Beelzebul’s name – how will his domain endure? If I drive out demons in Beelzebul’s name, in whose name do your own people drive them out? (In that case, they [your people] will be your judges.) But if by God’s finger I drive out demons, then for you, God’s imperial rule has arrived” (The Five Gospels, p. 329, emphasis and brackets added).
Jesus would seem to have his challengers where he wants them. Satan’s domain cannot possibly endure if Jesus is dividing it by driving out the demons, and if Jesus is driving out demons by the power of God, then God’s realm has indeed arrived. The arrival of the kingdom, here and now, and how to participate in it was the whole point of Mark’s Gospel. Luke confirms that arrival. But then he goes on to obscure the radical change in paradigm that God’s imperial rule brings with it.
Luke puts Jesus’ illustration about the strong man who is attacked and overwhelmed by an even stronger one in his continuing context of exorcism. He follows this with a common aphorism, not original with Jesus: “The one who isn’t with me is against me.” Finally, Luke finishes his series on exorcism with the curious saying about unclean spirits which, upon finding no resting place, come back to the original host along with seven additional ones. The person who was supposedly exorcized and free of demons is worse off than before. Scholars have no idea what the context was for this saying, which came from the Q tradition. Luke’s placement seems to call into question the efficacy of exorcism that is not based on God’s power. But in Rome, Cesar was God. So long as there is the possibility that the transformation that is not caused by God’s [Cesar’s] power will not take hold, the Romans can continue to consider Christians to be irrelevant, and no threat to Rome’s imperial rule.
So what does it all mean? In a 1st century context, where neither physical nor mental illness was understood as they are in the 21st century, exorcisms were a sign of spiritual power. Jesus’ success as an exorcist would have called into question the authority and legitimacy of religious leadership – both Roman and Jewish. But pre-modern people were just as capable of understanding metaphor as are post-enlightenment sophisticates. Earlier in his gospel Luke picks up Mark’s story about the man healed of a demon named “Legion.” This is not a miracle story about medical cures, demon possession, and the mis-use of livestock. It is a parable about subverting political and spiritual oppression; it shows how trust in God’s reality transforms life under occupation by the imperial Roman legion into freedom and justice. In Luke’s context, this is what Jesus’s real “mother and brothers” are supposed to be doing.
So now, when Luke’s Jesus retorts that, “if by God’s finger I drive out demons, then for you God’s imperial rule has arrived,” he is putting local collaborators with Roman injustice on notice. After sparring with his opponents about driving out demons in God’s name, Jesus compares the arrival of the kingdom of God to a robber who overpowers a fully-armed man, who is guarding his possessions in his impregnable courtyard. This joke successfully sailed over the heads of Jesus’s opponents, and apparently right past Luke as well. He has Jesus say, “the one who isn’t with me is against me, and the one who doesn’t gather with me scatters.” But the point is not who is with or against the church of Christ. The point is that participation in the realm of God can overthrow the strongest of oppressive empires. The weapons upon which the oppressor relied are taken away, and justice is restored.
Jesus changes the paradigm from imperial, retributive justice (an eye for an eye) to non-violent covenant with God’s kingdom where distributive justice-compassion rules. In fact, Jesus is saying, those same collaborators might be the most pious in town, but the moment they abandon God’s covenant for Roman retributive justice, seven other spirits more vile than the one that led them astray in the first place will move in and take over, and the collaborator will be worse off than before.
On the eve of the 9th Anniversary of the attack on the Twin Towers in New York City, the people of the United States are embroiled in a fight over whether a local mosque should be allowed to build a community center two blocks from “ground zero.” Some believe that allowing this to be done is a betrayal of the surviving families of the 9/11 victims. They claim to honor the first amendment guarantee of freedom of religion, while demanding that Muslims give up theirs. It seems reasonable, on the level of not hurting the feelings of the victims. But the religion called Islam did not bomb the Twin Towers. In attempting to prohibit a community center that would benefit the entire neighborhood, the spirit of perhaps the most profoundly transforming principle of government in the history of governments has been swept out. Finding no place to rest elsewhere in the unwelcoming 21st Century zeitgeist, that spirit will likely return, bringing with it multiple spirits of fear, hatred, intolerance, retribution, and – ultimately – oppression of all religion.
The kingdom comes like a thief in the night, says Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:2). As for you, be as sly as snakes and as simple as doves, says Jesus (Matthew 10:16). Unless and until we get Jesus’ subversive joke, the house will be effectively divided. The terrorists will have won.