A House Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand
A house divided against itself cannot stand, 18th June 2023
A sermon preached by The Revd Maggie Guillebaud
(1 Samuel 21:1-15. Luke 11:14-28)
May I speak, and may you hear, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
‘Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house.’
This has been a particularly unedifying week in British politics. Who said what to whom, and when; protestations, denials, the calling into question of legitimate Parliamentary procedures, and to top it all, the unpleasant spectacle of the fathomless sense of entitlement of those elevated, or not, to the House of Lords. It can sometimes feel as if we are living in a madhouse.
Today’s gospel is of course not concerned directly with politics but ostensibly with the casting out of demons and the healing of the mentally ill.
Most of us no longer believe that demons cause mental illness, but that is not the central issue here. The central issue in today’s passage from Luke turns on power: under whose power, or authority, does Jesus cure the sick?
Jesus frequently performed exorcisms during his ministry, and exorcism was an important part of the early church’s ministry. Here his opponents claim that he is acting through the power of Beelzebul, an ancient Syrian deity whose name means ‘Lord of the flies’. These ancient deities were assumed to be hostile to Judaism, and therefore over time became demoted to being agents of Satan. The crowd are calling Jesus an agent of Satan.
Why did the crowd condemn Jesus so harshly? The answer is because Jesus did not use prayer, or draw on Jewish tradition, as other exorcists did, and there were plenty of them working at that time. He acted on his own authority, and therefore outside the Jewish covenant. No wonder they were confused and suspicious.
And to add insult to injury, Jesus refers to ‘the finger of God’, the phrase used by Pharoah’s men in Exodus to describe the wonders performed by Moses. So in mentioning this Jesus places himself in a direct line with Moses, the towering figure in the story of God and the Jewish people, and adds the telling phrase that if he is casting out demons by this finger, then ‘the kingdom of God has come to you.’
Now we get the point: the Kingdom of God has been ushered in. The new kingdom embraces us, enfolds us, it is the new power under which we can now live. And Jesus is the agent of its arrival. Under his authority, God’s authority, he will begin to build a community of people whose house will be built on the rock of faith in him, not on the sand of half-hearted commitment. A community who will try to live out what he has taught them about fairness, justice, compassion, and selflessness. A community who will accept salvation through the self-giving of himself on the cross. A community governed by love through the grace of the Holy Spirit.
The question of authority is one which has dominated the history of humankind since we were first able to hurl rocks at each other as we attempted to defeat a neighbouring family of primitive humans. The long struggle for democracy is but a continuation of attempts made by society to work out the fairest and best way to govern ourselves.
Each country has over the generations worked out how to do this: for example America has a written Constitution, we do not. But one thing which all democracies, true democracies, must agree upon, is how to conduct their public and political lives.
Are we entitled to expect honesty, fairness, transparency, and personal probity in our politicians? Yes we are. Are we entitled to expect the rule of law, to a zero-tolerance of corruption, and a working towards a more just and fair society? Yes we are.
It is only when societies, and politicians, adhere to an agreed set of rules and social mores that a society can flourish. It is only if, from whatever point of the political spectrum we come, we can agree on certain basic rules of conduct, that a society can progress. If not, a kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house.
I sense that that is what it feels like at the moment, both in America and in the U.K., and in some of the more fragile democracies throughout the world. Can the carefully cherished democratic structures of power survive the onslaught of fake news, lying and drive for self-advancement which threatens to undermine the tacit agreements about how we conduct our public life? Time will tell. Can we have integrity in our dealings with one another, not only in politics but in business, academia, and in our public services? I sincerely hope so. Because if not, that way madness lies, as we have seen when politics go bad and extremism goes on the march.
As a people of God, Christians know under whose authority we live. And some of us might be surprised to know that prayers have been offered daily since 1558 before the commencement of business in the House of Commons and in the House of Lords. The central part of the daily prayers says this:
‘May we never lead the nation wrongly through the love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals, but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind our responsibility to seek to improve the condition of mankind…’
These are rightly high ideals, whether you are a Christian or not. These are the ideals by which, I would suggest, not only Parliament but all institutions who have the responsibility to serve the common good should operate.
Jesus showed us through this miraculous healing of the mentally ill man that the Kingdom of God had indeed come to us. His life became for us a pattern of how we should try to live our lives. Do as he did, do as he said, could be our motto, a motto at odds with do as I say, not as I do. There is no shame in trying to follow high ideals. We shall at times fail, of course we shall, but it is only through striving that we shall finally come to know him who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that will be more than worth the effort.