The Unpardonable Sin? 06/10/18 (Proper 5B)

The Unpardonable Sin?
Texts: Mark 3:20-35
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
June 10, 2018 ~ Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 5B)

Jesus must be crazy. Even his family thinks so.

People are flocking to Jesus in such great numbers that he doesn’t even have time to eat. Teaching, healing, attracting large crowds – all of this is strange and potentially dangerous.

But I think that maybe the thing that has Mary and his brothers so terribly worried is this: his very first act of ministry is the healing of a man possessed by a demon. He is demonstrating power not just over illness, but over the very forces of evil.

In our passage this morning, Mary and his brothers have to “bring him home, by force if necessary” because he is, in the Greek, existemi. Literally, he is “standing outside of himself.” As one person has said, “The idea is that someone has taken leave of his senses (or his senses have taken leave of him) and so what remains for the time being is a person whose emotions are unchecked and unregulated. This is the family’s assessment of Jesus.” [1] He is, in a word, crazy.

This may also be the assessment of the scribes. By this third chapter the Gospel of Mark has already set up the opposition between the religious leaders and Jesus; they clearly are feeling threatened by his popularity and his power, maybe because they fear losing standing and maybe also because they fear attracting the attention of Herod.

The scribes – who, we must remember, had “impeccable credentials” and were, along with the Pharisees, among the most respected leaders of the Jewish community – the scribes, in their fear, try to discredit Jesus. Accusing him of breaking sabbath laws, as we heard last week, didn’t work since he wasn’t actually breaking the laws and was able to use their own scriptures to prove it. So they turn instead to maligning his character. They resort to slander. “He has Beelzebul,” they say. (3:22 NRSV) “He’s working black magic, using devil tricks to impress them with spiritual power” (The Message). “The scribes’ pronouncement, “that Jesus is a satanic agent and not a divine one, recognizes power at work in him,” says scholar Matt Skinner. He is no charlatan or illusionist. But they decide the power is perverse. They offer the most damning assessment they can.” [2]

He is, they claim, possessed by Beelzebul, Satan.

Once again, as he has done before, Jesus turns their argument back on them. In the words of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, he says:

How can Satan cast out Satan? 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. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. (3:23-26, NRSV)

In other words, Satan is not going to orchestrate his own destruction. In defeating the powers of evil and destruction, Jesus is robbing Satan of those very powers which are essential to Satan’s existence. The accusations of the scribes are utterly illogical, ridiculous even.

In order to understand this back-and-forth argument between the scribes and Jesus, we need to stop for a moment and consider the fundamental claims about Satan. Did the scribes, did Jesus, did the crowds believe in an actual person called Satan? They probably did, and that might be off-putting for us as we try to parse the meaning of Jesus’ words here. But we don’t need to believe in a horned, red-tailed creature named Satan in order to understand the thrust of what Jesus is talking about here. Rather, as one author has said:

[the name Satan]…does name a demonic power that is actively engaged against the compassionate and reconciling love of God. This is the reality that Jesus names here, and whether we believe in a person named “Satan” is not as important as hearing about our captivity to the powers of evil signified by “Satan,” powers that continue to seek our allegiance. [3]

This is the blasphemy about which he warns them: choosing the captivity the powers of evil which lead to our enslavement instead of the freedom offered by God.

Maybe because I spent time cutting branches this week I was particularly taken by The Message version of the next verses in our passage:

Listen to this carefully. I’m warning you. There’s nothing done or said that can’t be forgiven. But if you persist in your slanders against God’s Holy Spirit, you are repudiating the very One who forgives, sawing off the branch on which you’re sitting, severing by your own perversity all connection with the One who forgives.

And so Jesus’ words to the scribes are quite sharp. To quote Matt Skinner again:

Those scribes have dismissed the possibility of God’s restoration, for they write it off as a satanic deception. They show themselves devoid of hope and openly contemptuous of God’s work. Around them, people are being set free from their demons. People are experiencing wholeness and life. People’s dignity is acknowledged. Jesus promises that sins and “whatever blasphemies” may occur will prove no obstacle to people’s renewal (Mark 3:28)! And yet the scribes scoff and denounce all of this as false or dangerous. How can people – religious elites, even! – who have grown so cynical and scornful of real, lived blessings ever be able to experience deliverance from their own spite and nastiness, to say nothing of the freedom from the pains they have endured? The extraordinary kind of blasphemy of which Jesus speaks (and which he distinguishes from other, forgivable blasphemies) is an “eternal sin” only because it reveals an entirely calcified mind; such people have seen the works of God up close in Jesus himself and yet repudiated the transformative power of God’s grace. [4]

This, then, is the unforgivable sin: to witness the works of God and yet reject the truth that God is always busy setting us free from all that binds us.

We need to pause here and address a terribly important distinction. Over the years, many religious leaders and communities have taught that the “unforgivable sin” is suicide. In this week, when we have lost two celebrities to suicide, this interpretation perhaps feels even more horrible than it may otherwise feel. Many traditions hold that anyone who commits suicide is going to hell; there is no forgiveness, there is no divine compassion for them.

But is this true? Is this a good interpretation of Jesus’ words? In a certain way, I suppose you could hear this passage this way. If someone is so desperate, so despairing that healing will never come, that the only way out of the pain seems to be ending their life, then are they demonstrating a lack of trust in God’s ability – and desire – to heal them?

To that line of thinking I give an emphatic and resounding “no.”

Here’s why. We know that depression and suicidality – among other conditions – are mental illnesses. Jesus never once rejects someone with an illness. He never once blames them for their sickness. He simply heals them.

The compassionate God of love who I have come to know would never condemn someone who has suffered so much in this life to an eternity of further suffering. Indeed, in the funeral liturgy we pray, “we give thanks that for this person all suffering has ended.” There are no caveats, there are no footnotes. All suffering has ended; the dead, no matter how they died, are free.

It’s a sad fact of life that sometimes people suffer and then die from their sicknesses. Even Jesus’ friend Lazarus died. And just as sometimes people die from physical illness, so too do people sometimes die from mental illness. Just as modern medicine can’t always cure physical disease, so too it can’t always cure diseases of the mind and spirit. So once again I remind us: never once does Jesus condemn those who are beyond healing in this life to an eternal life of suffering, of being beyond God’s reach.

And neither should we.

This condemnation isn’t even what the scribes are doing. Religious teachings that declare that suicide is the unforgivable sin aren’t even following in the footsteps of the misguided scribes! In what I can only assume is an attempt to save lives – to prevent suicides – they’ve gone off on a strange and hurtful tangent.

But that’s not what the scribes are doing. They aren’t interested in any of this. They’re interested in trapping Jesus and stripping him of his power. In their attempts to do so they accuse him of doing the work of evil, rather than the work of ultimate good – God’s work. And this is where they are committing a grave sin.

I should also say that Jesus is not condemning us for those passing moments when we don’t recognize God’s activity in our lives. He’s not sentencing to hell those who sometimes feel that God is entirely absent from their lives. After all, even he cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

No, he is issuing a warning to those who would lead others down the path of ongoing cynicism and denial.

When he talks about the unpardonable sin, I think Jesus is speaking to those who work to divide our human house, those who work the powers of destruction, oppression, and degradation, those who break relationships and break other people in their own selfish quest for whatever it is they think they want – fame, power, money, what have you.

But what do we do when we find ourselves temporarily cut off from God’s presence, from God’s healing, from God’s power of love and reconciliation? What can we do when it feels as though God has forsaken us and is no longer working for healing in our lives?

Some of us from this church community have been reading The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it, as I think those of us who’ve been discussing it would also do. One of the greatest gifts I’ve received from this book is a whole tool box of skills, techniques, and methods for restoring a sense of joy in our lives.

For me, and maybe for some of you, joy is one way that I notice God. Joy – a deep and abiding sense of well-being and delight – is one way that I reconnect to the Holy Spirit, who is breathing in me and in you and in all of humanity. It is one way that I find myself re-immersed in the kingdom of God as found in the community of humanity.

These two wise and joyful spiritual leaders posit that there are a number of ways to overcome the obstacles to joy – perhaps we would say that they are ways to overcome the demonic power of missing God’s activity in our lives – and ways to develop more openness to joy in our lives every day.

They offer eight pillars of joy: perspective, humility, humor, acceptance, forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and generosity. I am not going to go into specifics about those this morning – after all, they wrote an entire book about them! But I do offer them up as concepts to explore, and invite you to wonder about what practices might help you cultivate those eight pillars.

And as you do, I hope you’ll also wonder how God is showing up in the midst of all of that joy; how God is steering you away from the sin of denying God’s love and compassion; how God is busy working for your healing and wholeness.

After all, those are the very things Jesus and the Holy Spirit are all about.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Scott Hoezee, “The Lectionary Gospel – Mark 3:20-35.” 4 June 2018. http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-5b-2/?type=the_lectionary_gospel

[2] Matt Skinner, “Commentary on Mark 3:20-35.” 10 June 2018. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3675

[3] Nibs Stroupe, “Homiletical Perspective.” Feasting on the Word, Year B.

[4] Skinner.

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