Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Unforgivable Sin (& how to avoid it)

My compadres over at ThinkTheology are currently writing a blog series entitled "Follow Me", working their way through the Gospel According to St. Mark.

And  -- wouldn't you know it? -- by the luck of draw (or so they tell me), I was asked to comment on Mark 3:20-30. You know, the passage that introduces us to the thorny question regarding the "unforgivable sin".

This is a fascinating piece of Scripture. People have been wrestling for years over what "blasphemy against the Spirit" means, and whether or not Joe Average or Jane Anybody, followers of Jesus, might have accidentally committed it.

Charlatans have wielded this section of Scripture like a war club, (ab)using it to threaten anyone who might dare to question the outlandish things they are teaching and doing.

As always, context -- not just the surrounding verses but the whole of Mark's gospel -- provides more than enough clues as to (a) what Jesus meant, and (b) to whom He was speaking.

At the beginning of this passage, we read that there are two groups of people upset with Jesus: His own family and the "teachers of the law". His family is mentioned first, but it is not until the next passage in the ThinkTheology series (Mark 3:31-35) that they actually show up and Jesus speaks to their concerns. Today's section of Scripture deals with the second group of the offended: the teachers of the law (we could also call them the Legalistic Lecturers, if alliteration appeals to you).

The background context to this chapter:
(a) Jesus had healed a man during the Sabbath, which resulted in the teachers of the law blowing their religious gaskets (and they were already looking for reasons to discredit Jesus anyway)
(b) Jesus had developed a tendency toward healing people and casting out "impure spirits" (demons) which inspired many people to put their faith in Him
And to make matters even worse (from the viewpoint of the legalists), 
(c) Jesus had just commissioned His disciples to preach, heal, and cast out demons as well. (Oh no! -- you can almost hear the echoes of the Legalistic Lecturers face-palming themselves into unconsciousness -- now it's going to spread even more!)
Of course, Jesus had been doing the same things ever since the beginning of His public ministry: preaching about the Kingdom (Mark 1:14-15), healing the sick (Mark 1:32-34), and casting out demons (Mark 1:21-28). And the Legalistic Lecturers had been hounding Jesus ever since He healed the paralytic and (gasp!) forgave his sins (Mark 2:2-7). They didn't like His teaching, or that the crowds were following after Him. They were constantly on the lookout for ways to entrap or discredit Jesus.
Note: Their hearts were completely hardened against Jesus. They would use whatever means necessary to stop Him. To say they were obsessed with His downfall would be an understatement of, shall we say... biblical proportions.
And so they came up with the accusation that Jesus' ministry was empowered by Satan himself. Strategically, they chose to use the name "Beelzebul", because it would remind people of Baal, the #1 idol which had historically plagued the Israelites in the Old Testament.
This was not an off-the-cuff slip of the tongue on the part of the Legalistic Lecturers. This was a cleverly worded denunciation of Jesus' miracles by claiming that He was possessed by the same evil spirits as Israel's enemies (some translations substitute Beelzebul with Satan, but the intent is the same).
Jesus then calls the teachers of the law over for a private chat, and gives them a Lecture of His own. He points out their ridiculous lack of logic in suggesting that Satan would intentionally undermine himself. (They were clearly grasping at straws by this point.)

Jesus also drops the not-so-subtle hint that it would take Someone much stronger than Satan to overcome him and "plunder his house" (take his goods). Jesus' miracles of healing and casting out demons -- in this chapter alone -- served as clear examples of how Satan's "house" was already being plundered, even before the Cross.

And finally, Jesus calls them on the carpet re: their campaign to discredit Him. They were playing with fire, and not just figuratively. For them to reject Jesus as the Messiah was bad enough, although the consequences were limited to themselves; trying to dissuade others from following Jesus by accusing Him of being demonically-empowered was inexcusable in the extreme, and punishable eternally.

So, to cut the chase about whether or not Joe Average or Jane Anybody -- sincerely trying to follow Jesus -- might accidentally commit the unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, allow me to suggest the following checklist, based on today's passage:
  1. If you see people coming to faith in Jesus, and
  2. this causes you to become inexplicably enraged, and
  3. you obsessively spend most of your waking hours trying to find or invent a way to discredit Jesus, because
  4. you have decided that it's blasphemous for Jesus to forgive the sins of others, and therefore
  5. you work tirelessly to convince people who are interested in Jesus that He is actually working for Beelzebub, or Satan, or possibly Emperor Palpatine, then
  6. you might be guilty of the unforgivable sin.
Otherwise, just keep following Jesus.

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