Matthew 12: 22-45 The Spirit of God in an Age of Unclean Spirits

Jonah By Unknown – Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection: entry 453683, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32908844

Matthew 12: 22-45

Parallel Mark 3: 22-35, 8: 11-12; Luke 11: 14-15, 17-23, 12: 10, 6: 43-45, 11: 16, 29-32, 24-26

22 Then they brought to him a demoniac who was blind and mute; and he cured him, so that the one who had been mute could speak and see. 23 All the crowds were amazed and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” 24 But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, that this fellow casts out the demons.” 25 He knew what they were thinking and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. 26 If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? 27 If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. 29 Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property, without first tying up the strong man? Then indeed the house can be plundered. 30 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. 31 Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

33 “Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”

38 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” 39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. 41 The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!

43 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.”

This is a long section to address in one section, but the interconnectedness of the narrative and pronouncements are tightly intertwined to prepare us to again understand the authority of the one whose teaching Matthew wants us to hear. This conflict which initiates around the presence of unclean spirits in this generation not only invites us to consider the spirit that Jesus is working through but also how the followers of the Pharisees have been unable to deal with the deeper spiritual problem of an ‘evil generation.’ There is no place of neutrality in this conflict between the present evil age and the approaching kingdom of heaven, and to misunderstand the signs of the kingdom of heaven’s advent is where blasphemy lies. John the Baptist, Jonah, Nineveh, the queen of the South and even the followers of the Pharisees are called as witnesses to the nature of the one who stands in their presence announcing the binding of the strong man in his house.

The healing which begins this section once again sets the stage for another conflict over authority between Jesus and a group of Pharisees. Their accusation of Jesus casting out demons by the authority of Beelzebul, ruler of demons, echoes Jesus’ warning to his disciples in Matthew 10: 25 that “if they call the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they align those of his household.” Within the crowd they wonder if Jesus might be the ‘Son of David,’ the hoped for royal figure to reignite the hope of the Davidic line. Jesus’ demonstrated ability to bring healing to those afflicted by the evil spirits of this age places him as one with power to bring about changes for those in this generation. The Pharisees response to Jesus’ power is to link it with the power that is enslaving those of this generation, Jesus is in league with the demons themselves, it is all some sort of demonic trick to lead the chosen people astray. Jesus is accused of being a sorcerer or magician who by alliance with unholy powers is threatening the unity of the holy people.

Jesus’ answer to these Pharisees argues that their accusation is absurd and again invites them to see that instead of being aligned with the evil spirits his work is evidence of the Holy Spirit. If there is infighting in the demonic kingdom of Satan or Beelzebul then they are weakened by that infighting and the forces oppressing this evil generation can be easily swept away, but all evidence instead says that they are firmly entrenched against God’s kingdom. In a statement that can be read a couple ways Jesus tosses the question back to the Pharisees, “If I cast out by Beelzebul, by whom do your followers (literally the sons of you (implied Pharisees) cast them out?” Perhaps there are other exorcists of the Pharisees who have been able to bring relief to some of the people, and people would look to those with religious authority to deal with all manners of affliction, but I think it is more likely that this points to the ineffectiveness of the Pharisees followers in addressing the manifestations of the demonic in their midst. Jesus may, instead of pointing to the existence of successful Pharisaic exorcists, be pointing to their impotence in the midst of the forces they face and how their attempts to create an ordered world have only made a more attractive homes for the demonic forces to end their sojourn and to make their home. Jesus has demonstrated that he has the power to heal and to liberate those enslaved by the forces at work in this generation and now is the time to plunder the house of the strong man.

The lack of success of the Pharisees against the forces of this time testifies against them while it points to the Spirit of God at work in Jesus’ ministry as the Son of Man. There is space for misunderstanding who the Son of Man is and how exactly Jesus and the Lord the God of Israel are connected, but to judge the work of casting out demons, healing the blind and lame, of setting the captives free as the work of demonic spirits rather than the divine Spirit is to misunderstand the kingdom of God completely. Just as these Pharisees consider Jesus’ ministry a danger to the unity of the people, Jesus views their resistance to the kingdom of God as that which scatters the lost sheep of Israel. To remain committed to the way things are is to be remain aligned against the kingdom of God. Jesus’ harsh words about ‘this evil generation’ are intended to bring about repentance so that even these Pharisees and scribes might turn towards God’s approaching kingdom.

The conflict also points, again, to another side of the identity of Jesus. Jesus in addition to the titles Son of David and Son of Man we now have a stronger linkage with the Spirit of God being active in Jesus and as a demonstration of the kingdom of God’s presence. Somehow in the presence of Jesus the Spirit of God is active and the kingdom of God is present as demonstrated by the actions of healing and exorcism. Yet, many of these Pharisees will remain unable to discern in Jesus the presence of God’s kingdom or the activity of the Spirit of God. In the spirit of the quotation from Isaiah 42 in the previous section, the Gentiles will be the ones who will see and judge the faithfulness of this generation. Like the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15: 21-28 who will show great faith in Jesus while these Pharisees show no faith even though the works in their presence should have demonstrated which Spirit Jesus was acting in and the power of the kingdom of God.

Jesus then follows this response with words that echo John the Baptist’s earlier condemnation of the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to see him at the Jordan in Matthew 3: 7-10. Both John and Jesus have called the people to repentance and both have been resisted by both religious and political leaders. I do think one key to understanding the accusation of these Pharisees as a ‘brood of vipers’ and ‘bad trees that bear bad fruit’ is their alignment with the forces at work in this time. They are unable to speak good and do good because they are too deeply rooted in the soil of the way things are. They are too heavily invested in protecting their power in the current order to embrace the approach of the new power of the kingdom of God. Instead of recognizing and out of the storehouse of the good bringing forth additional good words and fruit in the presence of Jesus they have only their own storehouses of scarcity to bring forth the words they speak and the lack of action against the demonic forces at work in their world. Yet, there is a time where their words and actions will be judged as either righteous or in need of judgment.

Jesus wants not only some legalistic moral perfection, but instead the law is interpreted in light of a merciful righteousness. One’s speech and actions flow out of one’s heart and the wise community of disciples has sunk their roots deep into the practices of mercy to yield this desired fruit. Throughout Matthew’s gospel there will be the imperative to act towards those who are poor in spirit, mourning, meek and hungering and thirsting for righteousness as well as those who are oppressed by those spirits which are aligned against the kingdom of God. Some of those aligned against God’s kingdom may act piously but not righteously. The Pharisees are accused of “tying up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and laying them on others.” (Matthew 23: 4) while Jesus invites others to take his yoke which is “easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11: 30). Jesus continues to act to lift the burdens of the oppressed of this time, while the Pharisees are accused of only making their burdens heavier.

Ironically, after the healing, Jesus is asked for a sign. Jesus responds with the ‘sign of Jonah’ where he will lie in the earth for three days, like Jonah lied in sea creature for three days while God waited for his repentance. One the one hand, the story of Jonah is the classic story of the outsiders (Gentiles) understanding and repenting while the insider (Jonah) remains unrepentant unable to embrace the mercy and forgiveness of God. On the other hand, the story of Jonah is a story of divine patience where God refuses to give up on God’s recalcitrant and unforgiving servant. One greater than the prophet Jonah who could made the people of Nineveh is here, so perhaps there is still an opportunity for the recalcitrant people of the lost people of Israel and even for these Pharisees. Perhaps they too can be transplanted into good soil and the brood of vipers can become those whose merciful storehouses can be opened those in the community around them who need their fruits of mercy.

Just as Nineveh who repented at the proclamation of Jonah will judge this generation so too will the queen of South, or queen of Sheba, who came seeking the wisdom of Solomon in 1 Kings 10 judge those unable to perceive the wisdom of God.  The introduction of the queen of Sheba probably raised eyebrows. One reason is highlighted by Anna Case-Winters, “It is somewhat surprising in the patriarchal culture to present a woman as judging in the divine court, and a foreign woman at that.” (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 171)  Yet, Matthew highlighted foreign women who in the genealogy who made a place for themselves in the story of God and also shortly we will see a foreign woman demonstrate great faith unlike those here. Like the Ninevites who understood the opportunity of repentance in the proclamation of Jonah, or the queen of Sheba who recognized wisdom in Solomon these women will stand in contrast to these Pharisees and scribes who fail to recognize Jesus’ proclamation, power or wisdom.

The neat orderly world of the Pharisees where there are people who are beyond the reach of mercy and the violent peace of Rome is accommodated makes for a place where the demonic can play. The spirits, even if they are cast out find their previous hosts even more welcoming in the light of these practices. Ultimately the practices of the Pharisees have proved unable to prevent the pillaging of the people of God prior to the approach of one greater than Jonah, Solomon, or David who acts with the power of the Spirit of God. Continuing the practices that have allowed the current order, which is opposed to the kingdom of God, to flourish will not bring about the repentance of this generation or the exile of the demonic forces which oppress it. Only one who can bind the strongman, who can overpower the well-entrenched devilish forces at work in the world, can bring salvation to the lost sheep of Israel and hope to the Gentiles. We are invited to ponder the identity of the one who works with the authority of the Holy Spirit and who embodies the kingdom of God, but more than merely pondering the identity we are called to recognize the power that is at work in the actions of the Son of Man and to respond with repentance while sinking one’s roots deep into his merciful practices of righteousness.

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7 Responses to Matthew 12: 22-45 The Spirit of God in an Age of Unclean Spirits

  1. HAT says:

    That point about Matthew highlighting the role of foreign women … particularly intriguing …

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