Those who follow electoral processes the world over know of the phenomenon of anti-incumbency. The bane of corruption in our country has made many raise the cry for an anti-incumbent vote when the next general elections come about. But the question no one seems to want to ask is, “Will the new people prove to be any better?”
Believe it or not, Jesus addresses just such a question in our passage. In our passage, Jesus has just healed a person who was demon possessed, blind and mute. Our passage does not allow us to draw any causal links between the three. The people are amazed at this healing. And this prompts an accusation on the part of the Pharisees.
They say that Jesus can do such things because he is hand in glove with the prince of demons, Beelzebul. To them, Jesus is like the apprentice to the master conjurer Beelzebul and that together they had pulled off this hoax.
The idea is that Beelzebul has ordered his demons to leave whenever Jesus asked them to leave. In other words, Jesus is successful with his exorcisms because he has made a pact with Beelzebul.
If I were in his place, I would have retaliated, gotten angry, and lost my cool. But Jesus does nothing stupid. Rather, he asks for reasons for their hypothesis.
The Jews had many official exorcists. These were professionals who were called upon to cast out demons from people who were possessed. Jesus asks the Pharisees, how they are able to distinguish between his so-called ‘exorcism’ and the supposedly genuine exorcisms of the Jewish exorcists. What criteria do you use to separate truth from falsehood?
You see from the immediate effects on a person, a true exorcism and a fake one cannot be told apart. This is because, for a fake to masquerade effectively as the real thing, there must be some positive effect for some time at least. If right away the person goes back to being tormented, then everyone would know it was a fake. So the immediate effects are inconclusive.
But more than this, Jesus points his finger at the Jewish exorcists. Let me ask you, why are there so many doctors? Because people repeatedly fall ill. Why are there so many engineers? Because we constantly want new things designed. Why do we have so many teachers? Because there are so many children in need of being taught. But the demand for something does not imply that what is supplied will have any worthwhile quality. There are quacks in every line of work – bad doctors, unqualified engineers and uninspiring teachers. The demand for something only ensures that something will be supplied. Quantity can be assured, but not quality.
So why was there a flourishing group of exorcists in Jesus’ day? With population being pretty stagnant, one could not hope for more clients. The only plausible reason was that they could hope for return business. Like a person going to the barber every few weeks for a trim, people used to visit exorcists regularly.
Jesus hints at this a little later in Matthew 12 in the saying about the return of the unclean spirit. After a cooling off period, during which the delivered person experiences a semblance of freedom from oppression, the demon returns with others of its ilk.
So Jesus is asking the Pharisees a simple question, “Do you think God does such a patchwork job?” In other words, if God were behind the casting out of any demon, this should be a permanent state. There should not be a need to return for the same process to be repeated.
So Jesus actually turns the tables on the Pharisees. In effect he says that the repetitious nature of the work of the Jewish exorcists meant that theirs was not a permanent solution, only a temporary one.
But Jesus goes even further. He says that this temporary solution actually is Satanic in nature. Unbeknownst to themselves, the Pharisees have actually stumbled upon the driving force behind repeated exorcisms. In repeated exorcisms, Satan relinquishes one manifestation and assumes another.
If a person is too troubled with symptom A, Satan will give up symptom A and in a little time show up again with symptom B. When the person gets too troubled with symptom B, Satan will give that up too and resurface with symptom C.
This is the anti-incumbency I mentioned earlier. The person just does not want the current demonic occupant. But not having an occupant just does not seem to be a possibility. Moreover, at times, the new occupant proves to be worse than the previous one. And so the cycle perpetuates itself, lengthy periods of oppression alternated with brief periods of relative freedom. But never a full freedom that God alone could and would give.
Jesus is the one who gives full freedom. And he describes this in terms of plundering a strong man’s house. Jesus is clearly indicating that he is the one doing the plundering. However, this does not mean he is a thief! Rather, if a thief had stolen something that was mine and I went to his house, tied him up and recovered what was rightfully mine, I might be considered a vigilante but not a thief. So also with Jesus. If the law cannot do it, it must be done outside the law!
What rightfully belongs to Jesus is all of creation. Jesus depicts his exorcisms as a sign that he is reclaiming what is his. He is plundering Satan’s loot. He is releasing the captives.
But this must mean that the strong man – Satan – is bound already, for Jesus is clear that unless the strong man is bound his house cannot be plundered.
Binding the strong man is in effect incapacitating him, defanging the serpent, rendering him unable to perform his quintessential trick. And Satan’s biggest and slickest and most effective trick is to make us believe we are free while we are still enslaved. Satan expelling himself only to resurface later is his slickest act.
And each time, as Jesus indicates later in Matthew 12, the resurfacing is worse. One addiction gives way to another that is more potent and more insidious. One habit yields to another that is more despicable and more demeaning.
It is like flying a kite. In order to get the kite higher you must allow the string to have some slack. If you only pull and keep the string taut, the kite cannot rise. But if you give some slack the kite will rise. However, though the kite rises, it is not free like a bird. It is still tethered to the string.
Having heard the accusations of the Pharisees, Jesus provides them with a very scientific way of proceeding. He gives them a testable hypothesis. He says that there are two kinds of exorcisms. One needs to be repeated every so often. The other is permanent. Moreover, there are two forces behind exorcisms. One is done by the Holy Spirit. The other is done by Satan.
He asks them to match the type of exorcism to the force behind it. Is it more likely that the permanent one is Satanic or that the permanent one is powered by the Holy Spirit? Does God truly free people or does God keep them tethered?
The obvious conclusion is that the permanent one is powered by the Holy Spirit and the temporary one is Satanic.
Jesus is telling them, “If my exorcisms prove to be permanent, then they are done by the power of the Holy Spirit and you have missed the arrival of the kingdom of God. But if my exorcisms prove to be temporary, then I too am like your exorcists.”
It is important to note here that it is possible to have the best intentions and still perpetuate something that is Satanic. The Jewish exorcists certainly believed that they were doing things for the good of people. They, like many today, saw possession as a very common, one might even say natural, state in which humans may find themselves. You drove one demon out today. But a week from today or maybe a month, you would have to drive out another.
Jesus tells us that this kind of a cycle is Satanic in nature. For God does not initiate half-baked temporary measures, but permanent ones. God does not deliver a person one day only to enslave on another day.
Jesus is telling us that the days of repeated exorcisms are gone. The days of Satanic self-expulsion are in the past. We now live in an unprecedented era of the Holy Spirit in which we can taste lasting permanent freedom from the oppressive forces of darkness that aim to bind us. “If I, by the Spirit of God, cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has overtaken you.”