“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.”-Luke 11:24-26
Her father would drink all evening. Arriving home, he was violent with everyone beginning with her mother. No one was spared the abuse. Understandably, she grew to despise him. The first chance she had, she ran away to the streets. She was determined to make the streets her home. Consequently, she became one of the toughest girls in the streets. She would still occasionally return to her house to visit her siblings and mother whom she loved dearly. She was willing to put up with her father’s abuse just to spend a few days with them. On one of her short stays at home, her father came home unexpectedly early in the evening. He looked different. He was sober. He shared with the family an astounding news; he had accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior. He promised to stop drinking and start attending church on a regular basis. The family was naturally skeptical. They had only known this man as a violent drunk. It was hard for them to imagine anything different. She decided to stay home just to see if her father was able to keep his promise. She was amazed that her father was able to overcome his alcoholism from one day to another. He replaced the bar with the church. He went there on almost on a daily basis. Within a short period, he was already sharing his testimony and given leadership roles. Everyone in the family went along to support him. She was telling me this story while she was in the streets. Anticipating a tragic end, I asked whether her father went back to drinking? She replied that he never touched a drink after his conversion and this was few years ago. However, she said that this was the only change. He continued to be violent and domineering. Since his conversion, he spent more time at home and home life for the rest of the family became intolerable. To a certain extent, it was worse than before. Instead of being drunk, her father became self-righteous and used the Bible as a justification for all his manipulative behavior. Finally, she could not stand her father’s religious diatribes and abusive ways and she left for good. She broke all contact with her family. I had this conversation twenty years ago. I never forgot any detail. It made me question the kind of the gospel that was being preached.
Many times I have heard testimonies about people who were involved in addictions and substance abuse and how they changed their lives around after they found God. These testimonies are often greeted with applause and sometimes they have even brought us to tears. I am sure that this girl’s father was one of these who has shared his testimony. These stories of overcoming addictions and self-destructive habits can be inspiring and encouraging but they are not to be confused with the power of the gospel. There is nothing wrong with testimonies in themselves. However, what we consider to be testimony-worthy may not necessarily reflect the true message of the gospel. Our testimonies should testify to the power of the gospel and not mere house cleaning stories. As pointed out by Jesus in the above parable, this is not the gospel. We don’t really need the gospel to clean our house. Therapy, meditation, joining a social movement, being part of a support group … The options are almost infinite; all of these things can help us to clean our house. They just clean up for something else to occupy the space. It could be something better or worse but Jesus seems to say that it is always something worse.
“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”-Matthew 5:20
The Pharisees in the first century were into “clean houses”. They ensured that they were above reproach in their behavior and observance of the Law. They were not necessarily hypocritical. They genuinely desired to please God with their lives. Their spirituality was at odds with the message of Jesus because He claimed that what they did was not enough. Jesus used harsh words to describe this type of spirituality. He said that it prepared their souls to be possessed by worse and more dangerous demons.
Religion has been under scrutiny and attack these days. Religious people have shown that they have the capability to do dangerous harm with their words and actions. We cannot hide from these attacks. We have to be honest enough to accept that these attacks have some grounds. It is not just the terrorist attacks. In São Paulo, church leaders have been using the pulpit to promote their selfish ambitions and it has brought much disgust to the public. People have become skeptical about religion in general and more specifically the church. The arguments against religion are still quite infantile and biased. This does not mean that serious Christians should ignore them. We need to look beyond the arguments and see that there is a great shortcoming present. Saying “Christianity is not a religion but a relationship” is not an option or an argument. It is avoiding the question. People outside look at the church as a religion. If it is different, then they need to see the difference in those who follow Christ. Unfortunately, most Christians are satisfied with “clean house” gospel. This is the other gospel and, in reality, it is just Pharisaical religion disguised as the message of Jesus. Jesus came to preach a spirituality that would be superior to that of the Pharisees.
Strangely the parable quoted at the beginning of this post is one of the most commonly cited verses among the children and teens. Whenever they hear this, it resonates with them. Where most of the poor live, there are an abundance of churches. They have relatives who can cite biblical verses one minute and then say hateful things the next. They have seen gangsters go to church and pray and then turn around and attack a rival gang member mercilessly. They have seen the policemen in their communities preach in their churches and then accept bribes and humiliate their brothers and sisters for just walking in the street in the evening. They are inundated with the religion of the Pharisees. It is a religion of words and outward appearances and uses the tools of this corrupt world. It does not matter where we live, whether in the slums of São Paulo where most of children and teens come from or the middle class neighborhoods of our respective nations. This religion of the Pharisees is present. It doesn’t matter what religion we follow; we can be Buddhist, Muslim, Christian or Hindu, hiding behind a spirituality of words and appearances and still living within the values of the corrupt world.
“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.”-Roman 8:5
The gospel of Jesus is about ushering in the New Creation. It is living our lives based on radically new values that are incompatible with the world’s values. We have had our fair share of tragic and violent events this year. There is always an ethical argument that follows immediately after these occurrences. Christians appear to use arguments grounded on values of this world to debate against each other. They openly embrace the principles of this world to solve the problems. This is fine if they are not people who are living their lives according to the Spirit. However, if anyone who embraces violence and hatred as a response to violence in the world, then they need to question themselves in the light of scripture. I have heard people say that we need to live in reality as well. Unfortunately this type of attitude puts in question whether people who claim to be Christian understand the gospel. The gospel faces reality in its raw and brutal form. It provides us with an answer but it may not be an answer that we like to hear.
As Christians, we need to go back to the Cross for the answer. It is our key to face the unjust brutality of this world. The silence of Jesus at his trial is a powerful weapon for us as Christians. Jesus did not passively submit to the will of the tyrants and tormentors of this world. He actively opposed them with His silence. He did not succumb to their ways and methods. He did not resort to using their tools to fight against them. He ushered a new era where the Kingdom of God will establish itself and all the corrupt ways of the world cannot deter it. The Pharisees and Roman leaders are long gone and forgotten. The Silent Christ reigns in the hearts and minds of all those who seek His face.
People want to reduce religion in all its forms to house cleaning. People are uncomfortable with the presence of children and adults living in the streets because it fills their lives with unnecessary visual inconvenience. They want to clean it up by moving them out of the streets and placing them in shelter hidden from sight. We hear news about people killing people senselessly. We want to clean it up with violence. We will only be making room for something worse and more destructive. Jesus is not into house cleaning. He is building a new house. Its foundations are stated clearly by one of his followers who understood this best.
And the fruit of the Spirit is: Love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law- Galatians 5:22-23
These are not concrete answers to problems that we are facing in this world. They are attitudes that we need to embrace to understand how to live according to the Spirit in this world. When the demon comes back to a house and finds it to be restructured and occupied with values and principles that are incompatible with its own, he will have no choice but to remain in the wilderness.