Blaspheming the Holy Spirit

So this is an interesting passage, to say the least. It is a passage that features something that biblical scholars call a “Markan sandwich.” This term is used because Mark often starts a story, interrupts it with another story, and then concludes the original story later. We have other instances of this, such as the instance of healing or the raising of Jairus’s daughter.

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
June 9, 2024—Pentecost III
Mark 3:20–35
Text transcribed by YouTube, Reconstructed by ChatGPT. Please forgive any typos.
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Jesus is told that Jairus’s daughter is sick and would he come heal her? He begins to go, and then on the way, another woman comes and touches him and is healed. They have a conversation, and then he arrives at Jairus’s house and raises the daughter. This kind of thing happens about eight times in Mark’s gospel—these curious “Markan sandwiches,” they’re called. Matthew will often edit them in his version and put them together where they belong, or at least where they belong in Matthew’s mind. It’s a curious narrative device that Mark uses often as a way to fill the time between the beginning and the end of a story because his gospel proceeds at a breakneck pace, running continuously with little downtime.

However, it’s not right to say that the inserted story has nothing to do with the story that sandwiches it. Often, they have connecting themes. The story of the raising of Jairus’s daughter, for example, is about Jesus raising to new life a 12-year-old daughter who has died. In the intervening story, he heals a woman who has been suffering from a hemorrhage of blood for 12 years. In the end, he says to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” Thus, there is a linkage between the two daughters—one a literal daughter, one a spiritual daughter—and their healing because of faith in Jesus.

We get something of that here, but it is less obvious because the story begins with a curious admission. The family of Jesus hears that Jesus is going around preaching and teaching and that he’s being surrounded by so many people that they can’t even eat. They’re so jammed in, and they go to get him because they’re thinking to themselves, “He’s lost his mind.” Now, some translations will say “because people were saying he’s lost his mind.” That’s a way of making Jesus’s family look a little better. The Greek just says, “for they were saying he’s lost his mind,” which is ambiguous at best or shows that Jesus’s family was as suspicious of what he was up to as anybody else. What is he doing? He left that great job he had as a builder, and now he’s walking around Galilee drawing all these crowds and casting out demons. He’s gone nuts.

Okay, so that’s how the story begins. Jesus’s family sets out to literally rein him in, to kind of restrain him, and say, “You got to settle down, Jesus. You’re acting nuts.” Then we shift to the present moment where Jesus has been teaching and preaching, and he is being accused by some of being in league with demons. They’re saying he’s casting out demons because he’s in league with demons. They are attributing his work of exorcism, of healing, of restoring people from their afflictions, to some kind of demonic power.

Jesus responds in two ways that are very instructive. The first way is through simple logic. He says, “How could Satan fight against Satan and win? A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, and a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Now, it’s interesting that we might know those verses more famously through Abraham Lincoln, who spoke of “a house divided against itself” meaning the United States of America during the Civil War. It’s precisely that connection that Jesus’s audience would have understood—not the American Civil War, but the many civil wars that the Roman Empire had gone through in the preceding centuries. There was the war between Julius Caesar and the Senate, and Gnaeus Pompey, and then there were the wars a decade or so later between Octavian and Mark Antony on one side against Marcus Brutus on the other. The Roman Empire had been riled by civil war and strife. The Jewish people had known internecine fighting. In fact, that fighting between elements of the Jewish royal family is what led to the Roman intervention, the Roman occupation, and having a governor now over the people of Israel. Their independent kingdom was gone because of this internal fighting. So, this image of “how can you have internal conflict—demons fighting against demons, Satan fighting against Satan—and how does that work, how does that last?”

Then He says, “What I’m doing is like what you have to do if you’re going to plunder someone’s house, especially the house of a strongman.” It’s a very interesting image that Jesus is saying, “You know, it’s like when you burglarize someone,” as if this is a common experience that his followers or listeners have. But the metaphor is clear: You can’t go in and plunder someone when that person is strong. “I am like the one who goes in and ties up that person so that everything can be plundered.” In effect, he’s saying, “I’m the external threat; I’m not the internal threat. I’m not on the side of the demons fighting the demons. I am the one who comes from outside. I am the one who can tie up the strongman. By committing these exorcisms, by casting out demons, I am weakening Satan for his eventual and total final downfall.”

So, his first response is to use logic, to use parables, and to say, “What you’re saying makes no sense because how would that work out exactly? What is the point of having me be on the side of the demons attacking the demons? If it were for show, that would be one thing, but it’s actually working. It’s diminishing the power of Satan. How would that work exactly?”

But then he transitions to something else. Then he transitions to what is one of the most difficult verses in the New Testament because it contemplates the idea of an unforgivable sin. That’s not something we’re comfortable with because all the other evidence we have, all the other sayings and teachings, suggest that God’s grace and God’s love are infinite and merciful and, therefore, we cannot be so lost as to never be redeemed. This idea of an unforgivable sin or an eternal sin is really haunting. In fact, I remember a time when someone reached out to me who was really worried about this verse because he didn’t want to do it, whatever it was, and he wanted me to explain to him what this sin, blaspheming the Holy Spirit, was or slandering in the translation we read earlier. What was that? How could he avoid it so he could be sure that he wouldn’t commit this unforgivable sin?

Now, I think it’s possible that there is some degree of hyperbole here on Jesus’s part. It’s also possible that he is using a kind of Jewish thinking about what it means for something to be unforgivable. In Judaism, they have a concept called “Chillul Hashem,” and it means profanation of the name. It is committing any sin that causes Judaism or God to fall into disrepute. If you commit a heinous crime and say you’re doing it because you’re Jewish or because you believe in God or because God told you to do it, that is profaning the name of God. In Jewish thought, there is no sacrifice, no atonement you can make for that sin. The only atonement you can have for that is your own death. It’s not to say you should be killed, but it means that when you die, you have atoned for it. My sense is Jesus might be talking about that—that this is not a sin you can apologize for or make amends for with the routine mechanisms for atonement. This is an eternal sin, a sin that lasts your whole life. I don’t know, and it’s possible that he means the more serious thing.

But in order to understand why, we need to understand what it means to blaspheme the Holy Spirit. What it means, I think, is that it’s not just the mistake of mistaking something evil for good. We do that a lot. It’s happening all around us. People look at something that is evil and say, “Oh, that’s wonderful.” That’s sort of par for the course. Blaspheming or slandering the Holy Spirit is when we declare that which is good to be evil, that which is of God to be of Satan.

Here’s where it ties back to the earlier part. Jesus is casting out demons, and they are accusing him of being demonic in doing so. What he’s saying is, “Be careful because you are calling what God is doing, what is good, evil.” That is the unforgivable part. That is the blasphemy that is hard to overcome because what you have done then is not simply made the mistake that human beings all too easily make, which is to get confused about what the right thing is and say, “Was that right? I thought it was right but it turned out to be wrong.” This is intentionally declaring evil what is good.

Part of this is a judgment on the religious leadership because they are the ones making the accusation, and they of all people should know better. They should know what work is of God and what is not. They should know what God’s doing is like and what Satan’s doing is like. But either they’re saying it for malicious purposes or for other purposes, but they are wrong by attributing to evil what is clearly good. That, Jesus says, is a real sin because what it does is not just simply make a mistake; it actually becomes a hindrance. It becomes willful opposition to what is good in the world.

There are all kinds of examples of this we might draw on in our lives and our experience. One struck me this week. Dolly Parton came out and said that love is love and that she doesn’t judge people for who they love. She received all kinds of vitriol,

all kinds of people claiming that she was speaking from an evil perspective. This verse came to mind: How is it evil to declare love for all people? That seems like the most Christian thing that you could do. It’s Dolly Parton, for God’s sake! As if we need to prove that Dolly Parton is a good person. We know that she is coming from a place of love, from a place of deep Christian conviction. For people to criticize her as actually working for evil is, on some level, this exact thing, this exact problem, this exact sin—this declaration of that which is good as evil.

Now, the deeper question comes to this: What does any of this have to do with that sandwich? What does it have to do with Jesus’s family coming out to restrain him and then arriving only to be kind of, not quite rebuffed by Jesus, but certainly he doesn’t drop everything he’s doing to go out to talk to them?

I will say I have seen Jesus movies where they come to him and say, “Hey, Jesus, your mother and brothers and sisters are outside,” and he says, “Who are my mother and brothers? Those who do the will of God.” Then he smiles and goes to see Mom, and it kind of undoes the whole effect of what he said. What he is doing is radically reinterpreting what family means. He is expanding it. He’s growing it. He is saying the family connections that we have, that love that we have for our mothers, brothers, sisters, and family members, that is the kind of love we are to have for everyone who does good, everyone who follows the will of God, everyone who seeks to do good in the world. They are our mother, brother, and sister.

Yes, it does undermine traditional family hierarchies and traditional ordering of society. You bet it does. But that’s not the only thing that Jesus does that does that. Jesus does a lot of things that take the old way and say, “Yeah, that’s not as important as you think it is. This other thing is.”

Here we might be tempted to say, “Well, Jesus, family values are very important, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing you’re doing.” Expanding love is the good thing. It is the thing of God. It is the way that we overcome this idea that there is an “other.” We are so prone to seeing the world in terms of us and them. We really like that word “they.” “Well, they think this way. They do this. They are like that. They say this.” What Jesus is constantly reminding us of is that there is no “they.” There’s only an “us.” We are all in this together. We are all a family. We are all connected. We are all one if we could just get over our inclination to see it otherwise.

So, this idea that somehow family is greater than the traditional structures is a way of promoting the good. But it certainly draws the eye of those who rely on those traditional structures. When they call it evil, it is not because it is but because it reinforces the privilege, the power, the prestige, the very system that they benefit from. That’s what Jesus is calling out. If you would stand in the way of good, if you would stand in the way of grace, if you would stand in the way of love to preserve your own status and privilege, then you, my friend, have committed the eternal sin. You have called evil that which is good.

Still, this doesn’t make the text much easier. It’s still a strange passage, and there’s all kinds of discomfort we can have with it. Like, did he ever go see his mother and brothers? It doesn’t say. So, we can write whatever ending we like, but we’re left in that awkward tension. How do we know for sure that we are falsely or intentionally calling the good evil? How do we discern? How do we walk that line? These are not easy things. They require constant attention. They require thoughtful reflection. But that’s what discipleship is. It’s being a student, learning, growing, constantly questioning, constantly asking, “How do we align ourselves with love? How do we align ourselves with the good, with the just, with the righteous? What does it take to do that, and am I doing it, or am I the one calling the good evil?”

Still a hard task, but it is a hard task that Jesus is confident we can do. Otherwise, he wouldn’t tell us to do it if it were beyond our control. But it is part of the challenge of being a disciple and a challenge of working for the good in a world that wants to call it evil.

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The Text

Mark 3:20–35

He entered a house and once more the crowd gathered; so much so that it wasn’t even possible for them to eat. His family members heard about all this and left to rein him in. “He’s out of his mind,” they said.

Now, the scribes who had come down from Jerusalem had been saying things like, “He’s possessed by Beelzebul” and “He gets rid of demons in the ruler of demons’ name.”

Jeshua called them together and talked to them using a comparison. “How can Satan get rid of Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. So if Satan rose up against himself and were divided, he couldn’t stand—he’d be finished instead. No one can go into a strong person’s house and steal their furniture if they haven’t tied up the strong person first. Only then can you burglarize the house.

Trust me when I tell you that all of humanity’s sins—even whatever slanders they might say—can be forgiven, but those who slander the Holy Spirit will never have forgiveness; they’re guilty of an eternal sin.” This was all because they’d been saying, “He’s possessed by an unclean spirit.”

Then his mother and brothers arrived, stood outside, and sent a message asking for him. The crowd was around him when those who were sent to summon him said, “Look, your mother, brothers, and sisters are standing outside looking for you.” He responded, “Who is my mother and my brothers?” He looked around at the people sitting around him in a circle and said, “Look! My mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother, my sister, and my mother.”