Unforgivable sin?

Second Sunday after Pentecost; 6 June 2021; Proper 5B (RCL); 1 Samuel 8:4-21, 11:14-15; Psalm 138; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35.

This year, we jump into Mark’s Gospel right in the midst of developing controversy (we’ve skipped over propers 1 – 4). Jesus’ family shows up, questioning his sanity, and then scribes arrive from Jerusalem accusing him of blasphemy (of using Satan’s power to cast out demons). After a retort from Jesus, the story returns to the question of Jesus’ family.

Mark often uses the device of intercalation (interrupting one story with another) as a way of interpreting both stories. Here, the story of the scribes’ challenge to Jesus interrupts the story of Jesus’ family. Mark embeds in this context the saying about the unforgivable sin — blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

When the scribes challenge Jesus for casting out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, Jesus retorts with a proverb about a house divided. Jesus cannot be casting out demons by Satan’s power, or Satan would be divided against himself and could no longer stand. And besides, in every encounter with a demon in Mark’s Gospel, the demon recognizes Jesus as the Son of God. The scribes clearly haven’t been around for any of these exorcisms.

Jesus adds the saying about binding the strong man to indicate that he is using a power greater than Satan’s power to bind Satan and plunder his house. Demon possession is often associated with cultures that have been colonized by outside, stronger powers. The story of the Gerasene demoniac implies that the demon Legion is in fact the Roman army (which, humorously, drowns in the sea in a herd of pigs — think of Moses and Pharaoh’s army!). If Jesus is binding Satan (the Roman occupying power), is Mark implying that the scribes have made their bed with the Roman status quo?

Mark then returns to the story of Jesus’ family. Jesus looks around at the crowd and replies that those who do the will of God are his mother and brothers and sisters. This is not a house(hold) divided against itself. In Paul’s theology, flesh is the arena in which we make distinctions, and the Spirit is the realm in which distinctions are overcome (in which households are not divided against themselves). Perhaps blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is to create division where the Spirit would overcome it.

The unforgivable sin is to accuse God of evil, or to use God to exclude some from the family of Jesus. This is to divide God against Godself, to create division and dissension where the Spirit would create unity.

In the Old Testament reading, Samuel warns the people against having a king. A king will take the best land for himself and his courtiers, conscript young men into his army and his labor force, and conscript young women as “perfumers” and cooks and bakers. The king will stratify society where God intends equality. Power in the world’s terms requires the privilege of some at the expense of others. Power is power over. This creates division where none should be. The amassing of wealth at the top of the pyramid is a good example.

If, instead, whoever does the will of God is family to Jesus, then a household uses its wealth for the good of all. Power for is different from power over. Perhaps the unforgivable sin is the destruction of the unity of the Spirit.

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