Proper 5B Sermon (1997)

Proper 5
Texts: Mark 3:20-35;
2 Cor. 4; Gen. 3:8-15


Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” (Mark 3:28-30)

What’s going on here? Jesus’ words start out as we would normally expect, declaring an apparently unconditional forgiveness. Everyone will have their sins forgiven, he says, no matter what blasphemies they may utter. That’s the Jesus we’re used to and expect.

But what’s this part about a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? And especially the part about an unforgivable, eternal sin? That’s not at all the Jesus we have come to know, the words we have come to expect hearing from him. The seemingly unconditional forgiveness from God apparently does have one condition! What’s this all about?!

These words from Jesus should be especially troubling to Lutherans. We emphasize a theology of grace; we emphasize forgiveness of sins. Unconditional forgiveness. I’ve found it most important, when as a pastor I am with a troubled parishioner that is loaded down with guilt. He or she feels certain that what they have done is so bad that they couldn’t possible be forgiven. And I am able to give them the reassuring news that there is no unforgivable sin. As long as they are sorry for what they’ve done, God will forgive it. I can reassure them because Jesus even forgave those who were crucifying him. Forgiveness is so central to our faith. If we do nothing else this morning, I think we need to try to understand these mysterious words of Jesus about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit not being forgiven.

Let’s begin with the wider picture. Jesus has begun his ministry spectacularly. Mark tells us that he has been preaching and teaching the Good News with authority. He has been healing all kinds of people and driving out unclean spirits. Yet here in Capernaum, our text today begins with two very curious responses to all this. Jesus’ family says that Jesus is out of his mind. And the scribes from Jerusalem say that he is possessed by Beelzebul, a demon. A rather curious response to all these wondrous works that Jesus has done, don’t you think?

But what has happened just before this. Do you remember last week’s passage? All that stuff about the Sabbath? After restoring a man’s hand on the Sabbath, it ended with Mark’s observation that: “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” Destroy him! Again, a rather drastic response, isn’t it? Why would they want to destroy Jesus for healing a man’s hand on the Sabbath? The answer: because Jesus was breaking the rules that their society was based on. Their whole way of life was built around clean and unclean, holy and unholy, which extended to times and places and people. The man with the withered hand was seen as unclean, unholy, for example. And Jesus reached out to touch him, to heal him, on a holy day, no less. He could have at least waited until the next day. But Jesus seemed to disregard many of the rules of cleanliness and holiness that their whole way of life was built on.

It is difficult for us to relate to all their rules, but we have our own, don’t we? Think of our most basic sense of right and wrong, our system of laws that forms the basis of who we are. You can’t go around just disregarding those things. If we are faced with someone who doesn’t seem to respect our laws, someone like a Timothy McVeigh, then how do we consider him? As a lawbreaker, as a threat to us, because he doesn’t seem to respect our way of doing things. In fact, someone like a Timothy McVeigh seems to have declared war on our way of life. Many say that he must be destroyed.

Now, I think we can at least begin to understand how the political officials — the scribes and Pharisees and Herodians — were reacting to Jesus. He must be destroyed, they say. Jesus’ way of doing things, no matter how flashy all the healings were, seemed to disregard their most basic way of doing things. Jesus seemed to be coming with a whole new way of doing things that threatened their way of doing things, so they plotted to destroy him. Yes, he was doing spectacular things, including driving out unclean spirits, but those political leaders assumed what they had to assume from their perspective: namely, that his power for driving out unclean spirits was itself from an unclean spirit. “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” they say, “He must be able to do it because he himself has an unclean spirit.” How else could someone who was threatening their way of doing things be showing such power? There must be an evil power behind what he does, they thought.

So what was this terrible power that Jesus had which seemed so threatening to them? In a word, forgiveness. Yes, forgiveness! Forgiveness is about letting go of those boundaries we set between us. With forgiveness, one can overlook the boundaries between holy and unholy, saint and sinner. If, for the people of Jesus’ time, sin was a mark of being unclean, then forgiveness also erased those boundaries between clean and unclean. It threatened their way of doing things.

And we need to ask: how about us? What does forgiveness do to many of our distinctions, like lawful and unlawful, citizen and criminal? Doesn’t forgiveness threaten to make a mockery of those kinds of boundaries, too?

Let’s take a quick look at Jesus’ response to their charge of being possessed by Beelzebul, by a demon, by a Satanic power. Jesus’ response seems so logical (Mark 3:23-26): “How can Satan cast out Satan? 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.” That makes sense, right? How could Jesus be of Satan and cast out Satan? The end would be a house divided that would eventually fall.

Yet there’s a small problem here. St. Mark uses the word “parable” for the first time in his gospel precisely at this spot when Jesus would seem to be so logical. The problem, as we have noted in the past, and as we shall see again in coming weeks, is that Mark uses the word “parable” in a certain way. “Riddle” would be a good translation. The parables were like riddles, and riddles are often designed to catch us in our logic. So when Mark tells us that Jesus spoke a parable, that’s a signal that everything is not as logical and as transparent as it might seem. Jesus will say to his disciples in the next chapter that (Mark 4:11-12), “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.'” There it is again! Not being forgiven! The parables would seem to be a way to confuse matters.

Here, then, is what I would suggest to you that this riddle, this parable, is all about: “How can Satan cast out Satan?” The answer from Jesus is not that it’s impossible, but that it happens all the time. It happens all the time because instead of basing our human ways on forgiveness, we base them on accusing others and then casting them out.

Our First Lesson shows us our true selves from the beginning: instead of seeking forgiveness or forgiving one another, the man blames the woman, and the woman blames the serpent. And the serpent is cast out. The serpent may have played the role of Satan in tempting them to eat the fruit, but then the man and woman play the role of Satan in blaming the serpent. Satan casts out Satan!

Yes, one of our favorite ways of casting someone out is to call them Satan, to label them evil to the core, someone like Hitler or Timothy McVeigh. If they are of Satan, then we are justified in casting them out. But the irony in all of this, the parable in all of this, is that, in calling someone Satan and casting them out, we are ourselves playing the Satanic game par excellence! We’ve talked about this before (see sermon for Lent 2B): Satan was the Accuser! He’s the one who labels people as bad, as unclean, or unholy, or unlawful, or a criminal and then cast them out. So, yes, Satan does play the game of casting out Satan. That is what and who Satan is.

And what is the result of that game? A divided humanity. A humanity that is forever divided between good and bad, clean and unclean, lawful and unlawful, sinner and saint, or however else we want to divide them, but we will always thus be divided. The ultimate end of such division is a house that cannot stand. And the only alternative to all of this is forgiveness, an erasing of all those divisions, a letting go of all those boundaries we construct.

Sound crazy? Yes, but think of the McVeigh trial this past week, and all that’s led up to it. Where did it all begin? Supposedly, it began with the tragedy of Waco, TX, when more than 80 Branch Davidian cult members were burned to death. The Oklahoma City bombing was done by McVeigh on the two year anniversary of that tragedy. It began with a person like David Koresh, the Branch Davidian leader, who loved to call everyone else Satan. Everyone else was bad, so they were going to stockpile weapons against all us Satans. The US government said you can’t do that, and the tragedy ensued when they tried “casting out.” But people like Timothy McVeigh, and the militia groups he’s part of, see the government as a Satan in all this. He saw himself as protecting himself against a Satanic government. His bombing of the federal building was his effort at “casting out.” This week it is the rest of us who have again said that he can’t do this. But do we make him into a Satan again and violently cast him out? Do we join the long string of “casting out”s? And do we then fear what like-minded people to Timothy McVeigh might do who think our government Satan? Will they set off more bombs in attempts to cast out Satan? Crazy, isn’t it? Where does it all end?

It ends, says Jesus, with a house that cannot stand. All these games of playing Satan by accusing, convicting, and casting out only make for a house divided that cannot stand. The only thing that can ultimately change things is forgiveness. It only ends when we take the risk in believing in the power of forgiveness to bring new life. The Holy Spirit constantly brings that power of forgiveness to us, an offer for new life, an offer to base our lives on that forgiveness rather than on accusations and castings out. And so “the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”? It’s simply refusing to believe in the power of forgiveness. That’s why we cannot be forgiven that sin: If you refuse to believe in forgiveness, then you can’t be forgiven.

And so we answer that call of the Holy Spirit again this morning. In a moment we will focus our attention on the cleansing waters of our baptisms, confess our sins, and let the restoring words of forgiveness wash over us. So restored, we can go our way again today with a new lease on life, with a call to live by the forgiveness of sins, to let go of all the ways in which we are Satan trying to cast out Satan. Does it sound crazy? Yes, it is. Jesus’ mother and brother and sisters thought it sounded crazy, too; they said he was out of his mind. But Jesus has called us to be his new family, and to do God’s will, to live by forgiveness as the only true power of life. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, June 7-8, 1997

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