The human heart will always be occupied with something. There is no such thing as an unoccupied house. Take this for an experiment: think about the parking lot just outside the church. Think about the cars parked in it. Think about how large it is. Now don’t think about it. Can you do it? Can you think about nothing? It isn’t possible. Our minds will always be occupied with something. However, if I were to say to imagine the parking lot in your mind, and imagine the cars parked in it, and think about its size, but then tell you now to think about your own house, and how many bedrooms it has, and how many bathrooms, I would imagine that you can do that. The point is that if we want to stop thinking about something, the only way we can do that is to start thinking about something else. The solution is not to think about nothing, because that is impossible. If we even try to think about nothing, what we will find out is that we are thinking about the fact that we are trying to think about nothing. This principle is vitally important for helping us to understand what Jesus is saying in this parable.
Jesus had in fact cast out a demon from a person. Therefore, Jesus had the perfect visual illustration ready at hand to teach His disciples what He meant about the house. There were people who were listening who wanted to avoid commitment entirely. They did not want to commit to Jesus body and soul. Instead they wanted to wait in judgment until they could find out whether Jesus would do what they wanted Him to do, or be the kind of Messiah they wanted Him to be. So then, if Jesus was casting out demons, bringing the kingdom of God with Him, then He was demanding a perfect submission and total commitment. Jesus proves that point by telling us that everyone’s heart is committed to something.
Jesus has just finished telling us what kind of Messiah He is, and that He is greater than Solomon in wisdom and greater than Jonah in the prophetic office. Plainly that is a call for commitment on the part of those who hear what He has to say. He condemns those who do not respond, saying that those who heard the lesser lights earlier in history will rise up to condemn those who do not respond right now, when the greater Person is present.
Now what Jesus is telling us is the consequence of what happens to those who have heard the teaching of Jesus, but will not respond. They are like an unoccupied house. And unoccupied house is an inherently unstable building. We know that very well here in North Dakota. Things start to go wrong when a house is unoccupied. Cracks start forming in the walls, in the basement, in the ceiling. It is difficult to stop the bad effects of extreme cold and heat when no one wants to spend the money to do so. Eventually, unoccupied houses start falling apart. They are unstable. Of course, abandoned farmhouses out here wind up being targets for unlawful activity in drugs particularly. This is a very close analogy to what Jesus is saying. A person can have a demon cast out of them, but if the Holy Spirit does not then immediately take up residence, then the fix was only temporary, and the demons will be back.
What exactly happens? Well, the demon leaves a person, and starts wandering. It doesn’t find very much hospitality anywhere else in the world, and so it starts talking to itself. The NIV leaves out a word that is actually really helpful. The NIV has the demon saying, “I will return to the house I left.” What the text actually says is, “I will return to my house, which I left.” The demon thinks of the person as his own personal house, belonging to him. And that is true. If a demon is cast out of his house, but the deed to that house still belongs to the demon, then he will be back. The deed has to change hands. The only one who can buy that deed is Jesus. He has bought many deeds with His own blood. Has He bought yours? Is yours even for sale to Jesus? Or are you wanting to keep you house unoccupied? The consequences of having Jesus throw out a lot of junk in your life but not take up residence is that the heart is not changed. Earlier in the text, we learned that only a good heart can produce good fruit. An unoccupied house cannot produce good fruit either.
When the demon comes back the second time, it is a whole lot worse, since he brings back a whole lot more demons with him. There’s obviously room for more. And an unoccupied house is an open invitation for demons to come back. We might think that a house that is swept clean and put in order will be immune to demonic attacks of this sort. But Jesus’ point is that that is untrue. What exactly does “swept clean and put in order” mean? I believe that it simply means that a person is seeking to be a moral person without the power of God residing in him. Benjamin Franklin once tried to do this. He tells us about it in his autobiography. He made a list of all the moral virtues he wanted to improve on in his own life, and he also made a list of all the moral failings that he wanted to correct. He thought he would work on one of them at a time. So, for a period of several weeks or months, he would work hard at improving that particular virtue, or at lessening that particular vice. He would have some superficial success, a partial success. However, the minute he moved on to the next virtue or vice, the progress made in the first virtue would reverse itself. In other words, he was trying to sweep clean his house and put it in order without God in his life. Nowhere in this whole process did he seek the Lord’s help, or ask Jesus to live in his heart by the Holy Spirit. It is impossible to do. Morality is the result of the Holy Spirit living in a person. There is no other way to achieve it. To try to live a moral life without the Holy Spirit is like trying to hold water in a broken well.
So, if we need Jesus and the Holy Spirit to live within us, then what should fill our hearts? What should occupy our minds? Paul tells us in Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy- think about such things.” Notice several things about this verse. Firstly, Paul does not tell us to think about what we thing is true, lovely, admirable. Rather, he tells us to think about what actually is true, lovely, and admirable. God does have something to say about what is beautiful. He tells us in creation what is beautiful. What is beautiful in creation has order, harmony and complexity to it. Let’s all face it here: a straight line can be beautiful, I suppose. However, it is not really all that complicated. However, a flower has unbelievable complexity, and yet it has order to it as well. It has a pattern. You can tell that it is a flower. You can only do that if it has a recognizable pattern. We can even tell one kind of flower from another kind of flower. That is because each species of flower has a recognizable and distinct pattern to it. And yet scientists have not been able to unlock all the secrets of a living organism, so complex is it. Harmony refers to the fact that something beautiful has agreement in all its parts. For instance, a magnificent painting will not have clashing colors. A beautiful piece of music will not have unresolved dissonance, notes that clash. That leads us to the second thing about Philippians 4:8 that we should notice. And that is that we should think about such things. The word there means to contemplate in a deep way, not merely to take a brief look at it. We should fill our minds with such things. This is the reason I am spending so much time on Philippians 4:8 in a sermon on Matthew. Paul tells us what should fill our minds, and that the peace of God consists in these things. All too often, we settle for far less to occupy our minds. We fill our minds with trifles, and with entertainment. Entertainment is not always bad. However, too often, it is not noble, pure, right, true, and lovely, but rather dirty, impure, false, and ugly. The point is that there are things that are truly beautiful, such as creation. These things tell us much more about God than entertainment does, if the entertainment is bad. It takes a bit more work to appreciate something that is complex. But the effort is always worth it, since it makes us grow and stretch. This idea has many many applications. But we must first remember that the Holy Spirit is the only answer to demonic possession. Now, demon possession is rare today. It is much more likely that we will create our own idols to live in our hearts, rather than actual demons, though that is still possible. But when the Holy Spirit does live in our hearts, He is wanting us to think about what Paul says. Ultimately, we should fill our minds with God. He is the most beautiful person who can fill our minds. He is orderly, complex, and filled with harmony. Contemplate God and His creation. This kind of orderliness is not the same that is describing the unoccupied house. The unoccupied house seeks to think about nothing, whereas this kind of orderliness is actually the positive thing that you fill your house with. Then there will be no room for demons or idolatry. For God will be your all in all.