PassageA number of sections are covered here, since they’re all related to one particular speech Jesus gives. It doesn’t seem to be following on from the previous passage, in terms of the story.
To start, Jesus casts out a demon that had previously been making its host mute, and as soon as the demon is gone the man starts speaking. However, some of the onlookers claim that Jesus is only able to cast out demons by the power of “Beelzebul, the prince of demons” (verse 15 (ESV)). To this, Jesus makes a number of points:
- A divided kingdom will be laid waste, and a divided household fail. (This is the origin of “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” the phrase that many Americans attribute to Abraham Lincoln.) Therefore, if Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand?
- If Jesus is casting out demons in the power of Beelzebul, then how are others casting out demons? They will be Jesus’ detractors’ judges.
- However, if Jesus is not casting out demons in the power of Beelzebul, but by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God must have arrived.
- And finally, Jesus compares himself to Satan/Beelzebul in terms of power: “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” (verses 21–23 (ESV))
At this point, a woman in the crowd tells Jesus that his mother is very blessed, for having borne him, but he tells her that no, rather, people who hear the word of God and keep it are blessed.
As the crowd starts to get larger, Jesus kind of goes on the offensive. He tells them that they’re living in an “evil generation” (verse 29 (ESV)), because they’re always asking for signs. But, he tells them, no sign will be given to them—except the sign of Jonah: Just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Ninevah, so the Son of Man will be a sign to the people of his generation. He then emphasizes this by saying that the Queen of the South (i.e. the Queen of Sheba; see 1 Kings 10:1–13 (ESV) and/or 2 Chronicles 9:1–12 (ESV)) will rise up on Judgement Day to condemn the people of Jesus’ day; after all, she came from “the ends of the earth” (verse 31 (ESV)) to hear Solomon’s wisdom, yet someone greater than Solomon is now here, and people aren’t listening. Similarly, the people of Ninevah will also condemn the people of Jesus’ day, because they repented at Jonah’s preaching, and yet someone greater than Jonah is here, and the people are not repenting.
And finally, Jesus talks to them about light: no one lights a lamp and then hides it in a basement or under a basket; the whole point in lighting a lamp is so that people can see its light. Your eye, he says, is the lamp of your body: if it’s healthy then your whole body will be full of light, but if it’s not, then your whole body will be full of darkness. Therefore, he tells us to be careful, “lest the light in you be darkness” (verse 35 (ESV)), which I find to be a delightfully unintuitive use of the words—how can “light” be “darkness”?
ThoughtsWhen Jesus is casting out demons and his detractors claim he’s doing it by the power of Beelzebul, his argument boils down to the fact that they’re trying to have it both ways: When our people cast out demons they’re doing it by the power of God, whereas when he does it, he’s doing it by the power of the devil. Jesus tries to get them to see that their argument isn’t logical: you can only break into a strong man’s house and take his stuff if you’re even stronger than he is. In order to cast out demons, you have to be more powerful than those demons—and God is the one who really is more powerful than demons, so you need God’s power to do it. But if Jesus is casting out demons in the power of God, and is more effective at it than others who are casting out demons, then his detractors should take that seriously: he seems to have more of the power of God at his disposal than others do (if I may phrase it that way).
But then Jesus goes even further. It’s not just that he is somehow “more” than others who are casting out demons (my word), it goes further than that: he says that whoever is not with Jesus is against him, and whoever does not gather with him scatters. I will freely admit that, when I first came across this passage, it bothered me. Surely there must be some middle ground, I thought, is there not? Can’t you be neutral? Sure, yes, there are those who are actively for Jesus (i.e. Christians), and there are those who are actively against him—Satanists come to mind, as well as the more vociferous atheists—but doesn’t that leave a vast number of people who are just… in the middle? Neither for him nor against him? People who don’t really take a stand, or even care, one way or the other? It takes a bit more knowledge about Christianity than I had at the time to understand why Jesus says this: We are all enemies of God, in active rebellion against Him, unless and until He saves us in His Grace. You may think you’re not picking sides, but then you’re confronted with Jesus telling you that he is the way, the truth and the life, and that nobody gets to the Father except through him. You’re confronted with the fact that you are a sinner, and unless you accept the Grace that God offers you, His wrath against you is unquenchable. If you’re a Christian, or just have access to a Bible for some reason, you’re confronted with passages like chapters 1–3 of Romans, where you’re told (quoting various Psalms and other passages), that:
None is righteous, no, not one;Does that sound like you? Is that your vision of yourself? Because, aside from Grace, it’s how God sees all of us. If we don’t have His Grace—if we’re not for Jesus, in other words—we really are against Him.
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.
Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.
The venom of asps is under their lips.
Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.
Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.
There is no fear of God before their eyes.
(Romans 3:10–18 (ESV))
But then, aside from these points, Jesus talks about the person from whom the demons have been cast out: if that person isn’t careful—if they aren’t subsequently trying to obey God—they might end up worse off than they had started, with the demon coming back—and bringing friends! Does this mean that demons need a “friendly environment” in a person, before they can possess them? Does it mean that people who are demon possessed were previously living overly sinful lives, which “attracted” the demon(s)? Does it just mean that demons like to “punish” someone for not living properly? (You got me cast out, and then didn’t even change your lifestyle?!? I’ll teach you a lesson…) I have no idea. There are things happening here within the spiritual realm that I simply don’t understand. At all. Even for my interpretation of this passage, I’m leaning on the ESV Study Bible’s interpretation of what Jesus means by verses 24–26 (ESV).
After this is a bit of a digression, between the woman who tells Jesus that his mother is blessed, and him correcting her that, no, anyone who hears the word of God and obeys it is blessed. Which, of course, would also include his mother, because the evidence indicates that Mary did hear the word of God and obey it. His point is not that Mary is not blessed, it’s that Mary played her part and obeyed God, just as any of us (who are Christians) do. Through various friends and events, God presented His Word to me, and I heard it, and ever since I’ve been striving to obey it. (Not every minute—not even close!—but overall.) He has also had various tasks for me to perform, throughout that time, and continues to place tasks before me, which I attempt to complete. (This blog, leading services at church, serving on my church’s board as a Deacon, leading the Youth Group, and countless examples of things that I can’t even remember because they seem too insignificant (but weren’t, or else He wouldn’t have assigned them).) All of that makes me blessed. Similarly, Mary heard God’s Word—right from His own mouth!—and believed, and tried to obey and accomplish any of the tasks that He put before her. One of those tasks was to bear the Lord Jesus as her son, which she did. All that being said, of course, I’d guess that Mary feels very fortunate to have been given her specific task, and I wouldn’t argue that. We never know the final result of any of our deeds—sometimes seemingly insignificant actions lead to very significant outcomes—but I’d guess that few actions, performed by anyone, compare to the act of giving birth to the Lord of all creation.
When Jesus talks about the sign of Jonah, there is a double meaning, because Jonah did indeed preach to the people of Ninevah that they needed to repent—just as Jesus is preaching to the people of his day—and the people of Ninevah repented, whereas Jesus’ contemporaries are not. But the second meaning comes from what Jonah is actually famous for: being in the belly of the fish for three days. The people listening to Jesus—including the disciples—don’t yet know or understand this, but Jesus is going to die and be buried for three days, as well, similar to how Jonah was in the belly of the fish. I’m sure that Jonah’s “adventure” in the fish’s belly gave his preaching extra credence with the people of Ninevah, just as Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection gave his message sudden clarity with his disciples. Even the Apostles needed that to properly understand his message!
The other point that I should mention is that Jesus keeps saying “this generation,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean just the people who were living at the same time he was. Many, if not most, interpreters take “this generation” to mean anyone living in the period between Jesus’ life and His second coming. That includes you and I, right now. So it goes beyond just the people who were hearing his words at that time; people still ignore Jesus’ words and actions, to their peril. However, I have to think that the people who are alive at the time, who were hearing his words, were his primary audience, because he keeps saying “something greater than Solomon is here” and “something greater than Jonah is here” (verses 31–32 (ESV), emphasis added). In any event, it doesn’t change how we read this passage: even if you consider yourself to be a later generation than Jesus’ original audience in this passage, you still have the same need to hear and adhere to His Word.
I’ll lean on the ESV Study Bible again in discussing Jesus’ point on the eye being the lamp of the body, because I like their phrasing:
An eye that is healthy describes a spiritually healthy way of looking at things. A bad eye, or evil way of looking at things, results in a life full of moral and spiritual darkness.This is part of the reason that I advocate Christians always be studying their Bibles, not just turning to the Word when things are unpleasant, looking for answers. Studying and ruminating on the Word help us to have a healthy way of looking at things, at all times, even when things are bad.