Last week, we started to look at some of the lesser-known stories that Jesus told. Jesus was always telling stories. Mark 4:33-34 says:
He used many such stories and illustrations to teach the people as much as they were able to understand. In fact, in his public teaching he taught only with parables, but afterward when he was alone with his disciples, he explained the meaning to them.
I used to wonder why Jesus told so many stories. It seemed to me to be like when we used to have to squeeze oranges to get juice: it tasted good, but it would have been a lot easier if oranges came in juice form, without the pulp and skin. The reason Jesus told so many stories is, in part, because God’s truth can’t be grasped fully as just a set of facts or principles. The stories aren’t there waiting to be distilled into principles and outlines. The stories speak to us in ways that the bare facts can’t.
One of the stories that Jesus told was about an evil spirit who left a house. This already is a strange story, because we don’t usually talk about evil spirits. It’s a story that has a lot to do with one of the greatest modern heresies, though: the myth of self-improvement. Anyone here ever tried to improve themselves? Anyone here ever tried to improve somebody else? How did that go? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Our culture is saturated with the myth of self-improvement. We’ve got gyms, books, Oprah and Dr. Phil, magazines, quizzes, memberships, all to give us tighter buns, smoother relationships, more energy, early retirements. We should be the most self-improved culture on earth. Let me ask: how’s that going? Not too well, if we’re completely honest.
Here’s the myth that we don’t even stop to think about usually. We believe that if we try to improve ourselves, we’ll be better people. Even better if we try to improve other people. Deep down, I think we believe that good people are better than bad people, and that good people go to heaven.
Sounds good – but it’s wrong. The story we’re about to read explodes this myth.
In Jesus’ day, a lot of self-improvement was taking place. John the Baptist had gone around with one message: Repent! His message was to stop doing whatever it was that you were doing wrong. It seems that a lot of people did, too. There was also this group called the Pharisees. They had only been around about a hundred years before Jesus was born. They took the Scriptures that said that Israel would be a kingdom of priests and took it literally. They took all the strictest rules that only applied to priests and applied them to themselves. They were about as self-improved as you could get.
As a nation, Israel was at some ways at a high point. There weren’t idols being worshiped. Major groups within Israel were focused on learning God’s Word and living to the strictest standards possible. They were serious about improving themselves. But this, according to Jesus, was the problem.
One day, Jesus healed a demon-possessed man. This started a whole controversy about his ministry and how we got the powers to do this type of thing. Jesus responded by saying a lot of things, but I just want to look at one of his responses today. In Matthew 12:43-45, Jesus said:
When an evil spirit leaves a person, it goes into the desert, seeking rest but finding none. Then it says, ‘I will return to the person I came from.’ So it returns and finds its former home empty, swept, and clean. Then the spirit finds seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they all enter the person and live there. And so that person is worse off than before. That will be the experience of this evil generation.
Talking about evil spirits is strange to us today, but in Jesus’ time, most people would have accepted the existence of such spirits. Jesus had just cast out an evil spirit, so it wouldn’t have been hard to believe that such things existed. He tells a story we can all relate to, because we’ve all probably cleaned out garages or closets, only to find out we’ve just made room for more junk.
“An evil spirit leaves a person…” It doesn’t say that the evil spirit was cast out or exorcised. It may have gone out by itself. It’s gone out, but it hasn’t given up occupancy of the house. It’s just gone out for a walk. And while he’s away, everything gets cleaned up.
What’s Jesus talking about here? Remember his audience: people who are living morally and who do all sorts of good works. They’ve been improved and are upstanding in just about every way. It’s really a picture of what happens when we improve ourselves. It’s actually a pretty good picture. Before: dirty house occupied by evil spirit. After: clean house with evil spirit gone. Most of us would look at this as a success story, or a model to emulate. Jesus saw it as a potentially bad situation.
Over a hundred years ago, someone said this: “The devil has no objection to his house being swept and garnished. A moralist may be as truly his [Satan’s] as a man of debauched habits” (Spurgeon). Cleaning up our lives isn’t enough, because an empty house isn’t the same as a warm house, and a harmless heart isn’t the same as a holy heart.
What’s the problem with trying to improve ourselves? “Then the spirit finds seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they all enter the person and live there. And so that person is worse off than before” (Matthew 12:44-45). The relapse is worse than the original disease. Instead of one evil spirit, there’s now room for eight. They’re not only greater in number, but they’re also more proud, more unbelieving.
It’s like when we take antibiotics. It’s sometimes tempting to stop taking them when you start to feel better. They always tell you to finish all 10 days, because if you stop midway through, you’ve just killed off the weak ones. The strong ones will come back and you’ll be way worse off than you were before.
When we clean up our lives by ourselves, we’ve set ourselves up for a major relapse. We’re worse off than we were before, even though we look better. 2 Peter 2:20 talks about religious people who look like they become followers of Christ, but then suffer a relapse: “And when people escape from the wicked ways of the world by learning about our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and then get tangled up with sin and become its slave again, they are worse off than before.” The condition is much worse than before they cleaned up their lives.
A good example is the Pharisees. They majored in laws on purity, Sabbath, religious observances, prayer, and tithing. They did everything by the book. But they didn’t know God or love him. When God stood before them in human form, they fought him. They encouraged the crowds to cry out, “Crucify! Crucify!” The most self-improved group of people alive when Jesus was here completely missed the point, and they were worse off in the end.
Do you know who recognized Jesus? Sinners did. A hooker came and anointed Jesus’ feet with tears. A woman who had been married five times and was living common-law did. The self-improved people couldn’t stand these people; they called them the worst kind of sinners. The self-improved people completely missed Jesus, but hookers and immoral people worshiped him.
It amazes me that Jesus never told anyone to clean up their lives and then follow him. He found people in the worst kinds of situations, and invited them to follow – and only then dealt with their behaviors. We tend to think that we need to clean ourselves up and then begin to follow him. Jesus takes us just as we are.
It boils down to this. If we try to improve ourselves without following Jesus, it will never work. We can’t be neutral about Jesus. Oswald Chambers said, “Neutrality in religion is always cowardice.” If we take the middle road and try to stay friendly with Jesus, live good moral lives, but go no further, all we’ve done is cleaned up our lives and made room for more problems. Satan will gladly retreat in order to establish his control more firmly. The ministry of Jesus requires more than good, moral living. It requires one of the most basic choices in life.
A million zeroes never add up to anything; negatives never make positives. It’s not enough to do no harm and to stop doing bad things. Only Jesus gives complete and final victory in our souls.
It also means that we have to fundamentally rethink God’s activity around us. You know the people in your lives who almost live better lives than the Christians you do? We tend to think that God is especially close to these people, because they’re so moral and upright. They’re not followers of Jesus, but we almost think of them as honorary Christians in our minds. The reality is, they may be some of the people who are farthest from God’s grace in your mind.
Then think of the people in your lives who aren’t living clean and upright lives. You know, the ones who tell the bad jokes, who curse and sleep around and go to clubs and do other stuff. They’re not self-improved, but they may be the people in your life who are the closest to God’s grace. God may be more at work in their lives than you could ever know. And we get to recognize that work and to understand that God isn’t impressed by how much we improve ourselves. It’s all about grace.
To receive God’s grace in our own lives
To recognize God’s work in people around us – people we may have overlooked because they’re not self-improved
This is a true saying, and everyone should believe it: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-and I was the worst of them all. But that is why God had mercy on me, so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life. Glory and honor to God forever and ever. He is the eternal King, the unseen one who never dies; he alone is God. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:15-17)