The Church Year and the Lectionary Commentary – 10th Ordinary (Day 4)
22 The legal experts came down from Jerusalem. Over and over they charged, “He’s possessed by Beelzebul. He throws out demons with the authority of the ruler of demons.”
23 When Jesus called them together he spoke to them in a parable: “How can Satan throw Satan out? 24 A kingdom involved in civil war will collapse. 25 And a house torn apart by divisions will collapse. 26 If Satan rebels against himself and is divided, then he can’t endure. He’s done for. 27 No one gets into the house of a strong person and steals anything without first tying up the strong person. Only then can the house be burglarized. 28 I assure you that human beings will be forgiven for everything, for all sins and insults of every kind. 29 But whoever insults the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. That person is guilty of a sin with consequences that last forever.” 30 He said this because the legal experts were saying, “He’s possessed by an evil spirit.”
31 His mother and brothers arrived. They stood outside and sent word to him, calling for him. 32 A crowd was seated around him, and those sent to him said, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are outside looking for you.”
33 He replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” 34 Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother, sister, and mother.”
Have you ever wondered or worried about having committed the “unforgivable sin”? Most of us have at one point or another, I suspect. “Unforgivable sin” is a terrorizing and forbidding phrase – who can hear it without flinching a bit? Perhaps this is one of those things that we really wish Jesus hadn’t said. (BTW: all of us have such a list of these things. It’s important that we acknowledge our own list.)
Well, when and to whom did Jesus make this frightening declaration? He’s in a battle with the legal experts (v.22) who have now begun an all-out attack on him. They claim that his power to cast out demons comes from the very ruler of the demons himself, Beelzebul! Jesus turns this argument around on them – the “house divided against itself” statement (v.25) that President Lincoln famously invoked during the American Civil War – and turns it into a declaration of his attack on that very demonic stronghold.
Far from being an acolyte of Beelzebul, Jesus is the one who breaks into his house, binds the “strong person” and plunders his house (v.27) with his exorcisms. It is at this point that Jesus utters the “unforgivable sin” pronouncement. It is those who oppose the work of God in and through him by the Holy Spirit, indeed those who attribute this very work to an “evil spirit” (v.30), who commit this “unforgivable sin.”
The logic here is that if we treat the work of the Holy Spirit, who alone is the bringer of salvation and forgiveness, as a foul demonic power, then we have excluded ourselves from the very source of forgiveness and salvation and, hence, from being forgiven. And as long as we continue in such intransigent opposition to what God is doing in and through Jesus, we remain “unforgivable”!
It’s not just the legal experts that fall prey to this temptation. Even his family, at this point in time, considers him mentally unbalanced (v.21) and want to get him out of the spotlight. At the end of our reading, however, Jesus redefines his “family” as those who do God’s will (v.35). That is, those who embrace him as the One in and through whom God’s Spirit is doing God’s work.
To “insult (“blaspheme” in earlier translations) the Holy Spirit is to misconstrue and oppose his work in and through Jesus. Believers who worry about having committed such an “insult of the Holy Spirit,” by their very worry and sensitivity to it, show that they need not be concerned about having done it. For such a sin is characterized by a settled and convinced opposition to Jesus as the one who does God’s work. Worry or concern about it evidences that one has embraced Jesus and is on his side (as it were) and need not be concerned about committing this sin.
Ultimately, though, is not about committing or not committing a sin, but about Jesus. Who is he? Who do you say he is? This is the question to which this “unforgivable sin,” and, indeed, the whole gospel story pushes us! So, I leave us with Jesus’ question to the disciples at Caesarea Philippi: “Who do you say that I am?”