An Unforgivable Sin?
“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
Today’s gospel reading is shocking. It is disturbing and even offensive. This reading shocks us for three reasons. First, Jesus disowns his closest family. When Jesus began to preach and heal, his family, including his mother, thought he he’d gone crazy. They wanted to restrain him, to stop his controversial preaching and his mysterious healings. In response, Jesus rejected his own family. The second difficulty with this reading is the ancient belief that some illnesses were caused by demonic possession. To our modern scientific minds, belief in demonic possession is a primitive superstition. The third, and most difficult, problem with this reading is Jesus’ warning that the sin against the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven. This warning contradicts our hope that God is loving and endlessly forgiving.
The first thing that’s disturbing about this gospel reading is Jesus’ rejection of his family. His family still lived in Nazareth, a village in the hills above Galilee. Anyone who’s grown up in a small town will have been warned, “What will the neighbours say?” When Jesus began urge local people to repent and to believe in the good news, his neighbours had quite a lot to say, most of it insulting. Everyone could see that Jesus was not his usual self. Had he lost his mind? Was he possessed by demons? Some people must have been so worried by Jesus’ strange power to heal, that they reported him to the religious authorities in Jerusalem. Jesus’ eccentric behaviour was an embarrassing reflection on the rest of his family. Their neighbours probably said, “It’s not just their oldest son, Jesus, — that whole family’s a bit weird”. So his mother and his brothers came down to Capernaum, to take Jesus home and to restrain him. People who were insane were often “restrained”, to prevent them harming themselves and others. Some mentally ill people were even chained up, like the Gerasene madman. To be fair to Jesus’ family, they probably thought they were acting “for his own good.” After all, the crowds were so persistent that Jesus didn’t even get a chance to eat. Imagine how you might feel if someone in your family suddenly became a rock star. You would worry that they’d be overwhelmed by crowds of fans and frenzied paparazzi.
Jesus’ response to his family’s concern was to disown them. “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!'” His rejection shocks us today. It would have been even more shocking in a first century Jewish society when family bonds were all important. Yet for Jesus nothing must stand in the way of proclaiming the good news. In the synagogue, Jesus had opened the scroll to the prophet Isaiah and declared, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” The Holy Spirit drove Jesus to proclaim the word of God. The Spirit compelled him, like the prophet Jeremiah, who declared, “whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout….[for] within me there is… a burning fire shut up in my bones.” Jesus warned his disciples that they too, might have to face opposition from their families and leave them.
The second thing that’s disturbing about this gospel reading is the idea of demonic possession. The religious authorities claimed that Jesus was possessed by a demon lord, Beelzebul. The scribes charged that Jesus was an agent of Satan, as if he had gained power in a Faustian pact with the devil. In the wilderness, the devil had offered Jesus miraculous powers if he would worship him, instead of God. Jesus refused the devil’s tempting offer. In Jesus’ time, there were many wandering miracle workers, healers, ‘wonder rabbis’, magicians, fraudsters and con men. The religious authorities wanted to ensure that they controlled all spiritual power. The source of any healer’s power must be tested by its effect. If a miraculous healing increased peoples’ faith in God, it was good. But if healings and miracles led people away from God’s law, these were evil, and were denounced as sorcery and demon worship. The law said that sorcerers must be put to death. So according to their own criteria, the scribes should have realised Jesus’ healings were the work of the Holy Spirit, since many of those who had been healed praised God.
The third and most severe difficulty with this gospel reading is the idea of a sin that is unforgiveable. Jesus warned the scribes, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” The Old Testament definition of blasphemy was far more serious than what we would call swearing, or profanity. To blaspheme was to slander God himself, to misuse of the power of the sacred Name of GOD. When the Israelites were in the wilderness, one angry man had pronounced the sacred name of God as a curse against God. He was dragged outside the camp and stoned to death. The law decreed, “Anyone who curses God shall bear the sin. One who blasphemes the name of the LORD shall be put to death.” At his trial before the Sanhedrin, Jesus was charged with blasphemy. The deacon Stephen was stoned to death for blasphemy. When Jesus told a paralysed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven”, the man was healed. The scribes were appalled: “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone!” Although God alone was the one who forgave sins, it was the religious authorities who controlled access to the formal sacrifices which channelled God’s forgiveness.
The scribes had been entrusted with responsibility for God’s word. Their close contact with God’s word should have enabled them to recognise the Holy Spirit at work in Jesus’ healing. Yet they claimed that Jesus’ good acts of healing were evil; instead of giving God the credit, they said Jesus’ healings were the work of the devil. To say good is evil, to slander the good work of the Holy Spirit by calling it the evil work of the devil, that is a sin against the Holy Spirit. An unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit is not merely to doubt the power of the Holy Spirit, or even to doubt its existence, but to denounce good as evil. An unforgivable sin against the Holy Spirit is to actively oppose its work, to persistently condemn the divine work of the Holy Spirit as evil. This sin is not just a word spoken in a moment of anger, but an on-going, adamant, and inflexible conviction. Jesus’ warning, ‘may never have forgiveness’, may mean not only ‘can never receive forgiveness’ but also ‘can never accept forgiveness’. A person who is so determined to resist and defy the power of God’s Holy Spirit can never accept the power of God to forgive their sins.
Parts of this gospel reading shock us. Yet far more important than these difficulties, here Jesus gives us two amazing promises. “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter.” Here is a wide-ranging and comprehensive pardon for sins. Here is God’s amazing grace, God’s all-enveloping love, which blots out all our sins. Of course, this promise of God’s grace doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t repent of our sins and ask forgiveness. Despite our repeated failings, if we are truly sorry, God will forgive us. St. Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus, and ran away when Jesus was dying. Yet Jesus not only forgave him but even entrusted him to, ‘feed my sheep’. . St Paul zealously and relentlessly persecuted the early Christians. Yet Jesus appeared to him and forgave him so completely that he commissioned him to be the apostle to all people.
The second promise of Jesus is just as amazing as his promise of complete forgiveness of sins. “Looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.'” Jesus calls us not just servants, or followers, or disciples, or even friends. If we do the will of God, we are Jesus’ brothers and sisters, his closest family, his next of kin. Obedience to God’s will, not social status, or wealth, or even blood ties, binds us to Jesus. As Christians, we bear the family name of Christ. Therefore, we should recognise that we are Jesus’ true family and show that we are Jesus’ brothers and sisters by our actions and by our witness. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.'” Amen.
Copyright (c) by Roberta Berke 2015. All Rights Reserved.
2 Mark 5. 3-4
3 Mark 3.33-34
4 Isaiah 61.1-2; Luke 4.16-21
5 Jeremiah 20. 8-9
6 Leviticus 20.27
7 Luke 18.43
8 Mark 3.28-29
9 Leviticus 24.15-16
10 Acts 6.11
11 Mark 2. 5, 7
12 Mark 3.28-29
13 Romans 6.1-2
14 John 21 15-17
15 Acts 9.15
16 Mark 3.34-35
17 Mark 3.34-35