When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through arid regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the final condition of that person is worse than the first.
So will it be also with this evil generation. (Matthew 12:43-45, cf. Luke 11:24-26)
The strange parable of the unclean spirit that returns, though preserved verbatim across Matthew and Luke, appears in two very different contexts. These disparate literary constructions may offer clues regarding the parable’s original rhetorical, or rather apologetic, function in the ministry of Jesus.
In its Matthean context, the parable functions allegorically; that is, it doesn’t really concern spirits at all. Rather, by appending the phrase “so it will be with this generation” (cf. Matthew 3:7, 12:42, 23:36, 24:34) to the parable’s close, Matthew directs focus away from the proverbial demoniac and his demons and onto the current generation of Israel. This generation, for their failure to recognize Jesus as the greater Jonah and the greater Solomon (Matthew 12:38-42), will be like a man infested with and overwhelmed by demons (cf. Luke 8:2, 30). Israel’s “swept” and “ordered” house will be thrown into chaos and brought to ruin (cf. Matthew 23:38); Roman armies will devastate Jerusalem and God’s sentence upon his people will be executed (cf. Matthew 22:7).
For Matthew then, the meaning of the story rests in its image of divine judgement against Israel: a once clean house will be put in disarray. In this way the parable has been made to serve typical Matthean polemic.
Unlike Matthew though, Luke amends no interpretive comment to the parable—nor does he place it after Jesus condemns “this generation” for failing to receive his prophecy and wisdom (cf. Luke 11:29-32). Instead, Luke situates the parable without break immediately following the Beelzebul controversy—a dispute over whether Jesus casts out demons by the power of “Beelzebul, the ruler of demons,” or by the power of God (11:15).
In Luke then, both the parable and the discussion preceding it concern evil spirits and their expulsion. So while Matthew transformed the parable into a metaphor for Israel’s coming condemnation, Luke’s redactional hand indicates that the parable concerns demon-possession and exorcism in some concrete way. By implication, Luke invites his readers to interpret the parable not as an allegory, but as a direct response to present controversy. He invites his readers to classify this parable with those other parables with which Jesus defended himself against charges of working for Beelzebul (e.g. a house divided & binding the strongman—cf. Luke 11:17-18, 21-22).
Yet the parable doesn’t quite fit the Beelzebul controversy; it fails to address the substance of the debate: by what power does Jesus exert control over spirits?
Or does it?
Not better, but worse
I would suggest that Luke has correctly identified the historical source of the parable in the Beelzebul controversy. While the parable of the returning spirit does not directly tackle the accusation explicitly mentioned by the evangelists (“He casts out demons by Beelzebul!”), it does address a related allegation—an allegation we hear only as an echo off the lips of Jesus: “The final condition of that person is worse than the first!” they exclaimed (Luke 11:26). That is, “The final condition of your patients, O Jesus, is worse than the first!”
Surely this was a charge leveled against healers of all sorts (cf. Mark 5:26): “Why are some of your patients not better, but worse?”
By telling the parable of the spirit that returns then, I propose that Jesus explained why some of his clients experienced only temporary relief from their demons. It was not because he lacked authority or power, nor because he desired to do them harm as one in league with Beelzebul might. Rather, Jesus claimed—without further explanation—that re-possession was an unfortunate reality in the present evil age. Just as demons might refuse to leave their host without the prodding of some dominant force (cf. Luke 9:40, Acts 19:13-16), some demons might also attempt to reoccupy their victims when the coast was clear. Once Jesus and his holy spirit had left town, what was there to stop a bold and vengeful revenant spirit? A recovering patient would have to rely on his own reserves, his own faith, his own prayers, his own angels, his strength. Jesus and his disciples could not be everywhere at once, after all.
Jesus the witch
This is not say that Jesus wasn’t exceptionally successful as an exorcist. His opponents considered him so powerful as to have been in league with the lord of demons, and Jesus touted himself as stronger than Satan (Mark 3:27). So presumably there were very few outcast spirits that were brave enough (or stupid enough) to return on Jesus’ watch.
But the few spirits that did reclaim their captives provided Jesus’ critics with ammunition against him. When people saw that some of Jesus’ patients deteriorated after a temporary reprieve, they could accuse him of being an unholy physician whose cure was worse than the disease. Moreover, they could accuse him of being an agent of demonic infection—a witch in league with the Devil. And so according to these opponents, Jesus was casting out demons only to replace them with even nastier spirits: “the final condition of that man is worse than the first!”
If this accusation really is hidden within and behind the parable, perhaps the context provided by Luke represents not the evangelist’s creation, as it does in Matthew, but rather historical memory—the memory of controversies ignited by Jesus’ exorcistic activity. Perhaps then we are not far from the Beelzebul controversy after all.
The spirit that returns
Here’s how I see it.
Defending himself against charges that he worked for Satan, casting out less evil spirits only to replace them with more evil spirits (Luke 11:26), Jesus argued that God had not yet dealt with unclean spirits definitively—not even in his son’s own ministry. Only at the eschaton, when wicked spirits would be bound in the watery abyss (cf. Luke 8:31) or outright destroyed (cf. Luke 4:34), would their return prove no longer possible. Only then would such spirits find their permanent “rest.” And so for the time being, some demons would re-enter a person by their own accord: “I will return to my house from which I came” (Luke 11:24). Jesus was guiltless.
Thus while Jesus did triumph over evil spirits like no exorcist had before him, the parable of the spirit that returns suggests that his cures did not and could not necessarily inoculate patients against further infection.
Jesus’ exorcistic work then, though sometimes impermanent, held primarily symbolic rather than curative value, signifying the nearness of God’s reign to those who witnessed demons in flight: “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). The therapeutic benefits of Jesus’ exorcisms ultimately served eschatological ends.
So it was not the temporary banishment to the desert that demons feared most, it was what Jesus’ powerful arrival meant for the immediate future: God was about to establish his kingdom over the earth. When that happened, at the “appointed time,” there would be nowhere left for unclean spirits to run and hide (Matthew 8:29).