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The previous passage has shown that Jesus' presence forces a choice. This unit reinforces that idea. In a series of short sayings Jesus warns of the dangers of rejection and states the benefits of responding to him. Images of threat are juxtaposed to images of light. As often in this Gospel, the question has to do with how we respond to Jesus.
It is popular in our day to be neutral. In a culture where tolerance is highly valued, nonpartisanship is attractive. In religious discussions we try to avoid stepping on toes, for in Western cultures religious views are generally considered private. We want to avoid offending others in a culture that is diverse. But neutrality is not always a good thing, and neither is polite disengagement. Some issues are important enough to require our considered choices. That is Jesus' premise in this passage.
If God exists, should we think of him as having a laissez-faire attitude, not interested in how we relate to him? Jesus argues that is not the case. Religion by its very nature is a public affair, since it deals with how people relate to reality and to others. Though religious coercion such as marred European history in the Crusades and the Thirty Years' War is wrong, so is our culture's tendency to relegate religious concerns to the fringe world of private reflection. The issues are too important to be kept peripheral. Ultimately we must ask each other, What centers our lives, what do we accept as truth, what defines our character? And so in this short passage Jesus calls us to consider what directs our lives.
In the first of five short units, Jesus tells a parable that urges us to make a spiritual response. Blessing provides an opportunity for response to God, but ignoring the opportunity brings tragic results. Having just discussed exorcisms, Jesus maintains the theme by speaking of an unclean spirit that looks for a place to reside after an exorcism. The man who has had the exorcism is compared to a house that is swept clean. Nothing has replaced the demon that once took up space in the house. Empty, it is fit to be reinhabited. So the spirit brings seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they take up residence there. The man's situation is now worse than it was before.
Jesus' point is simple. When you are blessed by a cleansing of evil that allows you to receive fresh spiritual input, do not leave your inner "house" empty. The risk is that the void will be refilled with something even worse than what had been banished. Neutrality is emptiness, a void that eventually is filled by something—often something like what was there before. When we do not respond to God, opportunity becomes tragedy, and the chance for permanent reversal is lost.
Jesus has used exorcism as a graphic example of the principle he wants to convey. He says that we should make sure our inner house is not empty and that we take in light, since emptiness will likely lead to darkness.
Perhaps because all this talk of demonic confrontation has been making the crowd nervous, one woman now offers a blessing for the mother who nurtured Jesus to life. Jesus deflects her praise and replaces it with a blessing that calls for reflection. His beatitude is for those who hear the word of God and obey it. Reminiscent of 8:21, this blessing encapsulates a major theme of Jesus' teaching. In short, Jesus is saying, Respond to the preached offer of the kingdom. Believe the gospel.
The call to respond also provides an opportunity for rebuke. The rebuke extends to the fence-sitters of verse 16, those who want more signs. Neutrality always seeks more evidence. Now careful consideration of truth is a good thing, but to delay decision in the face of repeated demonstrations of power is really avoidance. Jesus calls this generation an evil one for seeking a sign. He implies that the time for signs is passing away. For having refused to believe God's Word, the people will not believe a sign either (16:30-31). Only the sign of Jonah remains to be given.
A surface reading might lead us to think that by the sign of Jonah Jesus means resurrection, since a striking feature of Jonah's career was his three-day reflective sojourn in the belly of the fish. But when we look carefully at Jesus' remarks in Luke, we find that the sign he means is Jonah's preaching of repentance. Jesus mentions both Jonah and the Queen of the South in making his point (1 Kings 10:1-13; 2 Chron 9:1-12; Josephus Antiquities 8.6.5-6 165-75). In both cases he mentions teaching or preaching as the point of contact.
So Jesus argues that someone greater than Solomon or Jonah is present. Response is demanded, and looking for more signs is not the way to proceed. Rather, the preached word is the issue. It is time to decide, not sit on the fence. At risk is condemnation from those of a former era who did respond to the preached word. The Son of Man is a sign to this generation in the sense that he brings the Word of God to light, so people can come to know God. Thus Jesus issues both a rebuke and an exhortation here: Do not be evil and seek more miraculous signs; believe the Word as the Ninevites did and as the Queen of the South did. Jesus is the bearer of God's wisdom (7:31-35; 10:21-22; 1 Cor 1:24, 30).
Finally Jesus turns to the image of light. Again he makes his point through comparison. Lamps are not lit to be hid, but to be set on a stand where the light can do some good. Then the light allows those who enter a room to know where they are going. The image is very much like that of 8:16. In the ancient world such light usually was kindled in an oil lamp; what the KJV calls "bushel" (bowl in NIV) was a vessel for grain. Light did not go in bushels but on stands. Here Jesus' teaching is compared to light. Jesus has not failed to discuss what God is doing. Guidance is available through Jesus' teaching. But it guides only when it is seen and received.
Receptivity is Jesus' final point. The metaphor shifts slightly as the eye is now compared to a lamp for the body, but it can either be lit or be dark. Be careful what you take into your soul. The opportunity exists for the body, the person, to be full of light, if he or she takes in what God makes available. Jesus emphasizes the positive here; thus in the span of the entire passage he has both warned and exhorted. A healthy eye is a clear or pure (haplous) eye that takes in the light and benefits from this illumination. For Jesus there is no automatic inner light; light must be received. And the possibility of taking in darkness means that some things received are not the light. In sum, we must take in the teaching Jesus offers, for it is our source of spiritual light and spiritual health.