A group of Christians was studying the story of Zacchaeus, the stature-challenged tax-collector (and notorious cheat) who was called down by Jesus from his perch in a sycamore tree to host Him at dinner (Luke 19:1-10). The group leader posed the question: “How would you react if Jesus invited Himself to your house?” Everyone cracked up when one of the women blurted out: “I’d run home and start vacuuming!”
But here’s the thing – JESUS LOVES DIRTY HOUSES – it’s the only kind He invites Himself into, in fact! Of course, we aren’t literally talking about domestic hygiene here, but rather about the filth and disarray that is found in the residence of the human soul. One of Jesus’ short parables dealt with this kind of spiritual housekeeping:
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.” (Luke 11:24-26)
Like a lot of Jesus’ parables, this one is difficult to nail down to a single precise explanation, but that doesn’t keep it from speaking powerfully to the heart of anyone who has ever wrestled with a destructive habit or chronic temptation: many recognize the devastating cycle of determined ‘housecleaning’ that achieves a period of apparent reform, followed by catastrophic relapse and a sense of guilt and hopelessness that is all the more bitter because of the raised expectations. Yes, this parable speaks of an all-too-familiar cycle of determination and despair – but what is the solution? The parable seems to provide none, and that is indeed the situation for the person trying to clean up their own spiritual ‘house’ without Him – all the frantic vacuuming and stuffing into closets merely prepares for a worse version of the original mess.
We certainly recognize the impulses of the lady whose first reaction is to clean the floors before Jesus sees the litter, and we often react the same way – we want Jesus to live in our hearts, but first we have a lot of necessary ‘housecleaning’ to take care of! But as Jesus’ parable of the ‘unclean spirit’ illustrates, our personal efforts to rid our lives of all that trash only provide a congenial emptiness for the return of the destructive impulses that are never very far away.
In science there is an axiom that “nature abhors a vacuum,” meaning that where there is emptiness, nature will try to fill it. The same thing goes for an empty heart. You see, the issue in the parable is the delusion that sweeping out (vacuuming up) the dirt will make the house stay clean, and that never works! Jesus didn’t tell Zacchaeus to ‘clean up his act’ so He could visit him, but rather, Jesus invited Himself into a ‘dirty house.’ And that’s the unstated point to the parable of the unclean spirits: we are to joyfully welcome Jesus into our own dirty houses with the knowledge that He alone can fill the void that keeps accumulating trash. Rather than trying to hide our dirt, we point it out to Him (confession) and invite Him to show us the trash that we missed! We do this, not with the anxiety of displaying our messes to a fussy critic, but with the relief of ones who have been gifted with the free services of the ideal live-in housekeeper – a housekeeper who collects all of the garbage and makes it go away (absolution), and then cheerfully rolls up His sleeves to tackle with us the on-going housework (sanctification). Jesus handles the vacuuming! With Him residing in my heart, it is always fit for the inspection of the King.
Of course, being human, we’re still going to sin and know the remorse of failure. There may even be times when our feelings of failure push us towards thinking that our situation is hopeless – that Jesus has gotten disgusted with living among the filth and moved out. It is then that we must forcibly remind ourselves of this glorious truth: what took Jesus to the cross was His unfailing love for those ‘dirty houses’ that He alone can clean!
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)