As a child, I was always afraid of the “unforgivable sin,” which Jesus talks about in today’s gospel lesson (Mark 3:19-35). In the passage, he notes that because the Scribes had assumed that Jesus was possessed by an evil spirit they had committed the unforgivable sin, which was to “blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.” Basically, instead of seeing the Spirit at work they called it the Devil, and thus earned themselves a quick trip to hell. More than one Sunday school teacher tried to explain to me that it wasn’t the sort of sin that once committed left an indelible go-to-hell mark on your salvation passport. They claimed it had more to do with failing to experience God’s love and forgiveness. But I didn’t buy it then, and I’m not sure I buy it now.
It’s pretty clear: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness but is guilty of an eternal sin.” To me, blasphemy means to make ungodly that which is godly, so blasphemy against the Holy Spirit involves profaning the Spirit’s work in the world. But how often have I done that?
I grew up in a small town in an era in which kids rode their bikes all through town until sunset, when they returned home. In my hometown there was a “crazy” lady who walked around and approached people, trying to convince them that the world was coming to an end. She liked to approach children because we were the ones least likely to assert dismissive authority over her. She scared me. Both her words and her appearance were off-putting. When I asked my mother about her, she told me to ignore her as a harmless irritant. “She’s not sane,” she explained. “She has some mental issues that make her do odd things.” I believed it, and I passed the good news along to my friends the next time we saw her. But what if she was really doing the Lord’s work? What if she were possessed by the Holy Spirit and had been led by God to preach the message of repentance to the residents of our small town? Was I blaspheming the Holy Spirit?
How often have I denied God’s work and written it off as ungodly? Prophets in all shapes and sizes have a history of such denigration. Who are the prophets of this age—those whom we have labeled as “rabble-rousers” in order to deny the godliness of their work? Suffragettes. Freedom riders. Advocates. There are some within our church that believe that the liberalization of our faith is heresy and the devil’s work. But what if it’s the Spirit’s work? Is that an unforgivable sin?
I don’t think Jesus is trying emphasize the consequences as much as he wants to draw our attention to the mechanics of the sin itself. We must be open to the Spirit’s work. We cannot be like the Scribes—who already knew before Jesus even arrived what would actually qualify as the Spirit’s work. Anything that didn’t fit on their predefined checklist would certainly be the Devil’s work. And that’s us. We are the scribes. We are too quick to label as heresy that which might be the radical work of the Spirit. Doing that once and discovering one’s error isn’t unforgivable. But living a whole life denying that the Spirit might be doing things beyond our understanding or expectation is.