Twice in the gospels, Jesus tells a story about a spirit, banished from a person, who wanders waterless places, and then returns to its previous host with seven other spirits even more evil. This parable had always perplexed me. So when I took Exegesis of Matthew, I decided to write my paper about it, and these are some things I discovered.
Most importantly, it must be understood based on its location. It functions differently in Matthew than it does in Luke, and this is only looking at Matthew. Jesus sums up the story by saying that the image describes “this evil generation,” the same words he uses in the pericope directly before it. The point of the spirit story is to say something about his opponents; it’s not simply a teaching on exorcism gone wrong.
In the sign of Jonah passage (Matt. 12:38-42), the religious elite were smarting from Jesus’s rebukes, and so they demand a sign from him, to prove himself authoritative. Jesus finds this request ridiculous, and so he begins to shame them, threefold. The spirit story, then, is the third shame pronounced. That is how it must be understood.
The first shame is that their request is denied. No special sign, only the one which God has chosen for them: the death and resurrection of Jesus. Why is this a shame? For many reasons, but especially that it is a sign of judgment: they are so wicked and sinful that they need the death of Life to cleanse them. Now, if they were to accept this assessment and repent, it would not linger in shame but move to their forgiveness and glory. But the subsequent lines of Jesus reveal that this will not be the path they walk.
We see this next, where Jesus uses two Gentile examples of correct response to a lower revelation of God to humiliate the religious leaders. These scribes were Jewish, and possessed the oracles of God, and here stood before them the Promised One, God himself. But they were blind, hard hearted, and stupid even with their overwhelming advantages. Meanwhile, the men of Nineveh and the Queen of the South were distinctly foreign, and saw only the outskirts of God, yet they marveled and humbled themselves. It’s as if Jesus asked, You think you’re better than them? Look at the evidence.
Which is where we finally come to the wandering spirit. Even though the man in this parable receives a spiritually beneficial act, the benefit comes to no lasting profit. He ends up, in fact worse. That is what these Jewish leaders were like. They had the immense spiritual benefit of Jesus Christ ministering in their midst, and he would offer himself as an atoning sacrifice for their cleansing. But it would, for many of them, not turn to profit. Rejecting him, they would forfeit their advantages and end up worse than they began, judged and condemned by the God they claimed to serve.
So what about us? We stand in an even greater place of privilege than those Jews. The Christ-event is accomplished in history behind us and interpreted for us in both the authoritative New Testament and in church history. The warning is clear: unless we hide under the protection of the atoning death of the humiliated Son of Man, Jesus as triumphant Son of Man will justly judge us condemned. We have no other ground to stand on: no personal righteousness pure enough, no spiritual experience fantastic enough, no church background robust enough to make us right with God outside of his Son.
Jesus spoke to “this generation” knowing that their hearts were hardened and that the majority of them would not turn to him but would instead participate in judging and rejecting him. However, there is hope held out to every person alive today that mercy can triumph over judgment. We see this in Hebrews 3, as that author reflected on the stubbornness of the archetypical Jewish generation, they who rebelled in the wilderness under Moses. Quoting Psalm 95, he tells his New Covenant readers to be unlike them: “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”
You do not have to be like the rebellious generations, even though rebellion lives in your own heart. Matthew 12:38-45 is a stern warning; let it awaken in you repentance and obedience to the risen Lord Jesus Christ, he who was in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights, and was raised victorious for you.