“Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!” But He said, “More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
Though a seemingly shift in gears in the narrative – from demons to Mary – there are striking parallels.
Jesus’ imagery of the house is clearly meant to signify the human person – body, soul, and spirit. Now, unlike the Greeks (and the modern Gnostics), the Hebrews didn’t have such a stark distinction between body and spirit (or in the modern understanding, between the body and Self). For the Greeks, the body was always something the spirit inhabited (in modern speak, your identity is determined by the choosing Self rather than the body). The spirit was the important thing. Plato’s entire philosophy was constructed on the premise that the body was deficient as a source of knowing, that we have to attain to higher, immaterial truths and “wake up” from the bodily illusions (see the Allegory of the Cave). In modern speak you have to be “woke” to the prison house of this world’s “constructs.”
For the Hebrews, God created the body and infused the spirit into it. The human person is not an incarnate soul – a soul using a body – but an animated body – a body brought to life by the spirit. And in the Hebrew understanding, the spirit was not necessarily a self-subsisting entity, like a ghost, that once freed from the body still had conscious existence, floating around in trans-dimensional regions. The one mention of a ghost, Samuel, informs us he was disturbed from his rest. He was sleeping, hardly conscious.
What this is all to say is that Jesus’ house metaphor must refer to the whole person, not just the body. And He makes this clear by His little encounter following the bulk of the Gospel, with the woman who cried out to Him that Mary’s breasts and womb are blessed (as opposed to her as a whole person, body and soul).
Now, there is something tantalizing about the body in particular, as far as demons are concerned. Why are they restless until they possess a body? Are they jealous of bodies? Do bodies give them individual existence, freedom, and a fullness of existence they don’t have as networked spirits with identity confusion? (“We are legion, for we are many.”) What exactly is “dry” about being separate from human bodies?
All interesting questions, but lets remember the bigger point of the Gospel. There’s a new sheriff in town, Jesus. He’s a body, an incarnate one. He’s not Adam, bound in the basement while Satan rests upstairs watching TV. He’s the stronger man who kicks Satan out. His “house” (the Temple; His body) is freed from the devil. The point is, He did it! Jesus ousted the devil.
OK, so here’s a question. What aspect of Jesus ousted the devil? To put it crudely, was it His flesh part or His God part? Jesus answered this when He said in another meditation on this subject, “The Spirit gives life. The flesh profits nothing.”
Jesus’ Person is one, though His natures (divine and human) are two. But when we speak of His actions, we always speak of Him as the one Person. We wouldn’t, for example, separate Jesus into two persons (as the Nestorians did) and say, “Well, when Jesus walked on water He was doing it as God; but when He suffered on the cross He did it as man.” No, the whole Person was involved in every act: Man walked on water and God died, God walked on water and Man died, all this because Jesus walked on water and Jesus died, since Jesus is one Person!
Yet, when you do get technical, as Jesus needed to after teaching His disciples about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, Jesus doesn’t save us merely because of the flesh – the flesh profits nothing – but because that flesh is enlivened eternally by the Holy Spirit. And that’s why distinctions are indeed made, because people (like the woman in the Gospel) will so easily miss the point. Jesus walked on water by His divine nature not because there’s some magical potential about human bodies; Jesus suffered on the cross by His human nature, not because God in His essence is subject to human suffering.
Well, I believe this episode with the woman at the end of this Gospel is similar.
The woman seems to “get it” as far as Jesus is concerned. She recognized that He’s the “stronger man.” And who but the mother of the stronger man would be the first “house” the stronger man would inhabit.
So she decides to pontificate about the proper way to receive that stronger man: How blessed must that woman have been who gave birth to the stronger man and nursed him! Surely she had done something special with her womanly body parts, in order to bring this other body into the world and nurse him!
Jesus says, “no.” In a sense He says exactly what He did in the other context, “The flesh profits nothing.” It’s not the one who does stuff with my body that causes the strong man to gain victory – that puts the onus on that person! Rather, it’s done in God’s way.
And what’s God’s way? To hear the Word of God and keep it. That hearing brings about the “Word made flesh,” and that’s truly how the full person of Jesus – body and soul – is brought into the full house, body and soul. Bodies profit nothing; and your body receiving Jesus’ body profits nothing – that turns your salvation into a religion of works. But the Word of God animating Jesus’ Body certainly profits everything, even as that Word brings His Body into your house and gives you victory over Satan.
In the same way, when you receive communion, you always receive His Body – just as Mary truly nursed God always – but the blessing comes not from the mere eating of bread which is Christ’s body, or from nursing Jesus. The blessing comes from hearing the Word, receiving the Body, and keeping it in one’s house.
Mary provides a great example. She heard the Word of God and kept it, and through her the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, becoming a tabernacle, a temple, a house. And blessed are all those who receive Jesus as He comes in His Word, in His full Person, body and soul. As they keep Him in their house, the demon and his seven buddies move on to someone else.