The Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent in the Extraordinary form features the puzzling parable about a cast out demon who returns with seven other demons. What is most puzzling about the passage is that the finding of the house (soul) “swept and clean” sets up for further trouble. To our mind 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 context and the subtleties of the Greek text 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, to state the problem, to most modern readers the notion of a demon finding a house swept and clean seems a good thing that would discourage a demon, surely not encourage it, to reenter, let alone widen its possession by bringing a coven (or group) of demons.
1. Lets consider first of all the Greek text.
A puzzling aspect of looking to the Greek text is that what some Greek texts describes with three words, almost every English translation renders with two words. Why is this? Because some 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 for example HERE.
However, to my mind, the inclusion of “empty” is essential, otherwise something very important is left out. Lets look at the Greek description of the “house” (i.e. soul) that the devil returns to and assesses:
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 word that some Greek Manuscripts lack is σχολάζοντα (scholazonta), “empty.” But to this Pastor’s (and reader/disciple’s) mind, “empty” is the key word. 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 systematic order, or moral order.
However, the Greek lexicon defines the root word of kekosmēmenon, (kosméō) as: to beautify, having the right arrangement (sequence) by ordering; to adorn, make compellingly attractive, very appealing(inviting, awesomely gorgeous). It is the root of the English term, “cosmetics,” i.e. what adorns or “orders” 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 “clean” or “orderly.” So as we read this parable of Jesus, the description of the house as “swept and clean” may lack the subtlety of the Greek words, even if “empty is left out.
With this in mind, let us consider the more rich possibility that the Lord describes the “house” (an image for the soul of the person) in three ways:
1. Empty – here is the key description that some ancient manuscripts omit. And yet, it is the key problem. An empty house is a vulnerable house. And empty house, devoid of human presence, no longer repels threats or repairs 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 buildings open to unmitigated attacks by termites, extreme weather, mold, rodents and every other threat. Likewise, an uncultivated field goes to weeds, and an unattended house goes to decline, and decay and every form of destructiveness. So too the empty human soul, a soul empty of the presence of God or of gratitude to God 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 power, have give this up.” But sadly, pride fills the empty space, not God. And this gets ugly, and the person’s second state is worse than when they gave up the said lawful pleasure.
2. Swept – It is good if the person has, by God’s grace, been able to sweep sin from their life. But praise the Lord, not the man or woman. Yet here too is a door for pride. Perhaps the sinner who succeed 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, and what is reevived by grace becomes an a ocassion for sin: pride and superiority. So yet again, being “swept clean” is a cause for joy, but if we do not remember the gift of it and who really does it, we can be smug, prideful and almost intolerably self-congratulatory. 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 the 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 “order” or “ordered,” it would seem that, given the context, ornate will be better. remember from this root “kosmeo” we get the word cosmetics. Hence we are warned to beware of vanity and also of esteeming beauty more than charity. And while it is also true we should beware of an etymological fallacy, the original root meaning (kosemo = cosmetics = ornate, rather than merely “order”) ought not be wholly forsaken! The warning to be heeded is for those who, though they appreciate beauty, become smug and disdainful of all others who do not share their aesthetical preferences.
Thus the connoisseur of good wine may scoff at the one who savors wine sold in a box (“cow”) , or likes White Zinfandel. And God forbid that they might like beer instead. And in this way an appreciation for finer things like wine becomes pride and the last state of the man is worse than the fist.
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 his love for the aesthetic causes him to scorn a priest who forgets to bow at the Gloria Patri or wears gothic vestments instead of the preferered roman fiddlebacks, then too easily the love of beauty (a good thing) destroys charity (a better thing). Thus the Lord warns of a house that is “ornate” but empty of charity.
In summary, beware the EMPTY house. Something ugly will fill it!