Earlier this week I posted “Unforgivable,” a meditation on how we read and receive the threat of unforgivable sin as presented in this week’s gospel. I shied away from defining the unpardonable; blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. I maintain that the attempt to describe it is mostly unhelpful in pastoral care. Too many people already consider themselves beyond redemption, and the burden of pastoral and theological reflection is to bring grace to bear upon the burdens of the world.
I also offered the opinion that this saying could be hyperbolic, rather than being intended as realistic. The context of the saying as it stands in this week’s Gospel lectionary selection lends itself to that kind of a reading. The immediate and preceding context is the argument about whose authority Jesus borrows or uses to carry out his ministry. But it leads into the difficult and dangerous territory of family relationships and affectionate bonds.
Immediately after the exchange about Satanic power, divine intervention and the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit comes the famous story of Jesus’ mother and brothers arriving, and their announcement to Jesus.
Jesus’ response is generally interpreted as a rejection. But is it? Jesus says nothing against his birth family, but seeks to include within it all who are seated around him and all who follow God’s will, whatever that may be. In Mark’s story, Jesus does not disown his family, but he also suggests that he is as connected to every other of God’s children as to his blood brothers.
In the gospel of Luke, this little story of family is set by itself in the midst of many other sayings, and completely disconnected from the blasphemy pronouncement. In Matthew, it is separated by a building up of rhetoric – the sign of Jonah, the faithless generation – and the arrival of Jesus’ family comes just when he is on a roll; you can hear him breaking out and saying, “You’re not hearing me! These are my brothers and sisters! These are your brothers and sisters! God’s kingdom means we live together within God’s will for each of us and all of us together!”
Back to Mark. If we choose, then, to read forward as well as backward in this gospel
(and since we’ve been given the gift of juxtaposition by the coming together of the gospel in that order, and the division in that way by the lectioneers, all, we hope, guided by the Holy Spirit, then why not?),
then we may find that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is nothing else than to deny our family, our siblings, our fellow children of God, our neighbours, who contain the same spark and spirit of the divine, who are made in the same image as we are. It is to restrict our love to those who look like us, who grew up with us, who share our name, our “values,” our culture, our home.
Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, then, is to say that I am made in the image of God, and you (or more often “they”) are not. It is to say that this group of people is “unnatural;” not part of God’s design for creation. It is to call this person “inhuman,” that person “beyond redemption.” It is to live with and to live out all of the actions, policies, prejudices that flow from such blasphemies against that Holy Spirit who breathes life into us all.
Yes, that makes us all guilty (unforgivable? Let’s hope for hyperbole). Yes, it also fits well with Jesus’ insistence on the love of God spilling over into the love of neighbour.
Yes, it is a cautionary tale against prejudice, unkindness, bigotry, exclusion and hatred.
It is also a lesson in love.
Because the greatest commandments are not “do not” or “beware of.” They are “love.”