“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” So says Jesus. You could call this his “House Divided Speech.” Of course, if you google “House Divided Speech,” you’ll find a speech by Abraham Lincoln, not Jesus. And I suspect most of the college students I work with would think of Lincoln. A few might remember that Jesus said it first, but only a few.
Lincoln was making a point about slavery. Jesus was making a point about evil. His critics have just accused Jesus of being a double agent: he seems to be doing good, but his overall goal is evil, they charge, and he’s just trying to fool us. And Jesus replies with, “How can the Opposition oppose the Opposition? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”
Now honestly, if this is supposed to prove that Jesus is not a double agent, it’s a pretty flimsy defense. We’ve seen enough spy movies to know that practically any country has double agents on its payroll, and that doesn’t seem to make them any worse off. So I wouldn’t expect Jesus’ critics to be convinced even for a moment with an argument that lame.
But I don’t think Jesus much cares about proving his own innocence. He knows that he’s not going to convince people whose minds are already closed. And besides, he really doesn’t like to talk about himself. He’s preaching the beginning of God’s reign, God’s common life starting right here and now; he’s not preaching the credentials of Jesus. So let’s hear his answer this way: “You say I’m a double agent? Fine. That’s still good news, because even if you’re right, this still means that God’s reign is beginning.”
In other words, he’s telling us, evil is doomed already. Why? Because evil already is “a house divided against itself.” At the heart of anything truly evil is self-destruction. It fouls its own nest. It may aim to destroy others in order to advance itself, but that’s because it doesn’t recognize that it’s undermining the very relationships it needs in order to keep going. It’s no coincidence that the title for evil personified is “the Opposition.” That’s what “Satan” means if you translate it. How can the Opposition oppose the Opposition? Then it’s not the Opposition any more. That’s a great riddle. But there’s another riddle behind it: How can the Opposition even last, if that’s all it is? It’s a house divided against itself. It’s doomed already and doesn’t know it.
So evil can’t last. Conflicted households can’t last. A conflicted world can’t last. Great news! Except for one thing. That’s still exactly where we find ourselves—conflicted households, conflicted churches, conflicted nations, a conflicted world, a conflicted life.
Just look at the gridlock in our own government. It seems to be a bipartisan problem, and it’s not likely to vanish with the next election, regardless of who wins. We live in a conflicted nation, and that’s not a good sign for the future.
Or look at conflicted households. I never know what to say when somebody says, “I come from a dysfunctional family.” Was that supposed to be news that I didn’t know already? I tend to think that any family deserves an award if its members are still talking to one another at all! Jesus himself has first hand knowledge of conflicted households—his own family wonders about his sanity and wants to have an intervention. It’s a painful lesson we all have to learn that the people we love or need most are the ones who can hurt us most—and sooner or later that’s exactly what they do.
Sooner or later that’s exactly what you and I do too. We wind up hurting the people who love and need us most. And of course we wind up hurting ourselves. Show me relationships where that doesn’t happen. Show me a single life where that doesn’t happen. If you think you’ve seen one you should look more closely.
So we find ourselves in a world divided against itself, and we find even ourselves divided against ourselves. Evil is doomed already, says Jesus, because it’s divided against itself. But we’re just as divided against ourselves, so are we doomed along with it? Some great news that is!
It doesn’t help at all that here is where Jesus tossed in that remark about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit—the one sin that he says can’t be forgiven. Nobody really knows what that’s supposed to mean. When people try to tell you, they’re just guessing.
He seems to be warning his critics not to question his credentials. But that can’t be unforgivable. We’ve just heard that is own family, Mary included, questioned his credentials. We know that later Paul questioned his credentials. That didn’t get any of them banned from the Church forever. There wouldn’t even be a Church as we know it without them. So there’s nothing unforgivable about being skeptical.
My own guess—and that’s all it is—is that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is a sin that’s impossible to commit. The Holy Spirit is God’s presence in us, and maybe if we could succeed in totally denying that presence with our whole selves, we’d be able to place ourselves completely beyond God’s power to transform us.
But I don’t think we ever succeed at that. We can fool ourselves into thinking we’ve done it. We can deny God’s presence with our heads, while our lives keep showing that we’ve only skimmed the surface of what that would really mean. But I don’t think we ever quite get there. Our lives may be gravely conflicted, but if they were ever that conflicted we would simply vanish.
Well … Whatever. If that sounds like just another lame guess, it is, but it’s not any lamer than countless others. In any case, I’m not going to lose sleep over that strange remark, and I suggest you don’t either. Whatever that sin might be, I’ll bet my whole life that you have not committed it.
So we’re not that conflicted, not so divided against ourselves that we simply vanish. But we’re still gravely conflicted. And yet we’re not doomed.
Why? Because, says Jesus, God’s reign has already begun. God’s undivided common life is breaking through. Evil and conflict aren’t as powerful as they seem. They’ve tied themselves up in knots. They can’t prevent God’s breakthrough. They’ve remembered to set the alarm only to find that the burglar had been in the basement all along.
Jesus chose this God-the-burglar metaphor for its shock value, I suspect. What could be more outrageous to his listeners that to see God compared to an acquisitive criminal? Of course there is something more outrageous—what Jesus actually did.
Jesus didn’t tie up any powerful people. He didn’t plunder their property. Instead Rome, the strongest power on earth, tied him up—nailed him up, to be more exact. Then armed soldiers plundered what few possessions were left to him. Instead of opposing the Opposition and taking away its possessions, he let the Opposition oppose him and take away his very life. And that, we’re told, is how an utterly new life, God’s undivided common life, is set loose in the world.
Evil can’t last. Conflicted households can’t last. A conflicted world can’t last. But running beneath and through every conflict, no matter how deep, is God’s common life with us: undivided, unconflicted, but always stubbornly there before we can even think of locking it out.
That’s God’s reign. Jesus preached it, lived it, died it, and now lives it with us. That life does last, always. So let’s get on with living it.