Mark 3: 20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” 22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebub[c]! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” 23 So Jesus called them and spoke to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can rob his house. 28 I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. 29 But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.” 30 He said this because they were saying, “He has an evil spirit.”
In all the summers that I worked painting houses, I never saw anyone actually paint themselves into a corner. You know, where someone starts painting a floor from the doorway and works their way back into a corner with no exit. That was too obvious. But I’ve seen lots of other ways that people can paint themselves into corners. Like the relative of mine who went to saw down the limb of an oak tree that was hanging over his house. It was about thirty feet up. So, to get to it, he nailed boards into the tree trunk, 3 feet apart from each other, so he could climb up them. As he climbed from the last board onto the limb, the board came loose, fell and took down the one just below it. Uh-oh, He was stuck there until his wife came out wondering what was taking him so long.
Sometimes, getting ourselves stuck is not so funny. The most common corners into which people paint themselves have to do with conflicts, grudges and the giving and receiving of forgiveness. Or not. Either someone else started the conflict, and they must be the first to reach out, some people insist. Or they say, “What I’ve done is so bad, I can’t bring myself to face the person I offended.” In fact, one of the most common tattoos I’ve seen lately says, “Unforgiven.” I think its there on the forearm or the neck as a way of saying, “Don’t mess with me; I might do something unforgivable…again.”
There are other ways to wear that tattoo that are not as visible. Having grown up in Ohio, I’ve met more than a few people with ethnically Amish or Mennonite last names like Yoder, Beck or Stoltzfus. When I’ve asked them where their roots are from, I might hear, “My grandpa was from Holmes County,” a heavily Amish area.
“So was he Amish?” I ask. To which they usually reply, “I don’t know; Grandpa didn’t talk much about anything with anybody. I’m told I’ve got cousins still back there, but I’ve never met them; they don’t talk with us, either.” Evidently, something sent Grandpa or his parents packing, and the grudges, the silence and the separation have long taken on lives of their own, replicating themselves in other relationships like the flu virus, long after anyone remembers the original conflict.
A few years ago, a soldier, back from a tour of duty in Iraq, called me to come visit him at a local hospital, where he was being treated for severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He couldn’t sleep for all the flashbacks, depression and anxiety he was suffering. If the public knew what all he and his comrades did, and were ordered to do, he said, we might not want them back. Could all that he did be forgiven? he was wondering. I told him that I was outraged at the people who put him in such positions, and not at him. Instead, I was glad that he had survived. And I assured him of God’s forgiveness for whatever he had done. Then we prayed. When I called to arrange another visit, I was told that the Army had transferred him out and no one would tell me where.
In one or two cases I’ve even spoken with people laboring under the fear that they may have committed what Jesus calls in today’s passage, “the unforgivable sin,” or “the eternal sin.” That grieves me so greatly because the weight and focus of Jesus’ words today go in the very opposite direction. He says some amazing, jaw-dropping things about forgiveness that should lighten everyone’s load. In fact, when someone comes to me and asks, “Do you think I may have committed the unforgivable sin?” usually because they got angry at God, that’s my first clue that they have not, just by the fact that they even care about forgiveness and want it. When we look over today’s passage and at what Jesus says, and why, relief spreads over their face as they realize they are not the targets of Jesus’ warning, and if anything, that they are the intended audience of his words, “All the sins and blasphemies of mortals will be forgiven them.”
But to understand this passage, we have to know who Jesus is and how he sees himself. He’s the thief who ties up the strong man and plunders his house. The strong man is Satan, or “Beelzebub,” which means, “the Lord of the Flies,” in Aramaic. A fitting name for the scavenger of spiritual death, and the spreader of spiritual disease. Through his deliverance ministry, Jesus has demonstrated his power and strength to tie up Satan and carry off his goods, which are people. What most keeps people bound under the spell and power of Satan are guilt, grudges and un-forgiveness.
Don’t take my word for it; just read the newspaper, about clans in Somalia and Libya that are fighting each other now because they have been doing so for centuries. Or the Palestinian and Jewish conflict in Israel and Palestine. The recent observance of Minnesota’s 150th anniversary barely touched on the defining events of our state’s formation: the subjugation and expulsion of native Dakota people. No one alive is personally guilty of those events. But in the years that I taught at a Native American school, I was dealing with the trauma, the losses and the theft as though they had happened yesterday. So, are we all doomed to stand alone forever in our awkward, isolated corners of victimhood and victimizing? If so, then we are also doomed to keep repeating the injuries and offenses that got us into such corners.
But into these corners of guilt and grudges comes Jesus who says, “all the sins and blasphemies of mortals will be forgiven them.” This is a new and game-changing thing for a Jewish rabbi at the time to have said. For it is not certain, from the Law of Moses, that all things could be forgiven. Certainly not blasphemy, that is, any affront to the glory of God. For the Law of Moses prescribes for certain sins not forgiveness, but death. Witchcraft, cursing one’s parents, working on the sabbath, adultery, murder, idolatry and more carried the death penalty. In its defense, it was a way of showing that such things amount to a kind of death. For, as the prophet Ezekiel said, “The soul that sins shall die.” It was also a way of stopping sins from spreading throughout Israel.
But a sea change has come with Jesus and his New Israel, the kingdom of God. Not only his words, but his actions, his miracles, his healings and his relationships all demonstrate the mercy of God and God’s power to get us out of our corners of estrangement, guilt and grudge-keeping.
Of course, Jesus does not approve of the kinds of things that drew Old Testament death penalties. They still constitute a kind of self-inflicted death. But when he said to the men who brought him the woman caught in adultery, “Let those without sin cast the first stone,” it shows that, in God’s court of law, all those who would be judge, jury and executioner are actually seated with the defendants at the defendants’ table. No one but God, the Giver of Life, is qualified to take back the gift of life. And in the kingdom of God, the new Israel of Jesus, God is not delegating that authority to any mere mortal.
For this same God says, “I take no delight in the death of the wicked.” So, the program has changed, from that of expelling or removing the offender, even if by death, to that of reintegrating any offender, through seeking and giving forgiveness. Once that is accomplished, nothing of the sin remains, everything is new. The sword of Joshua, Israel’s military warrior and executor of punishment, has been reversed and inverted to become the cross of Jesus, the second Joshua, the peaceful warrior and executor of pardon and mercy. So when Jesus says, “all manner of sin and blasphemy by men will be forgiven,” he wasn’t just being nice and therapeutic; he was proclaiming a new legal regime, a new way of being the holy people of God, a new way of fighting sin and replacing it with righteousness. Under the leadership of Jesus, the Second Joshua, a new Israel has taked shape without recourse to capital punishment. No more death penalty, certainly not for the New Israel of Jesus.
But this wasn’t all that new. Prophets like Isaiah and Micah foresaw the day when the sword of the soldier and the executioner would be beaten into plowshares for peaceful agriculture. Jeremiah foresaw a new covenant when God would write the law inside people’s hearts, by means of His Spirit, instead of it being written on tablets of stone by hammer and chisel. Then the law and the honor of God would work its way outward, from the desires of our hearts, instead of being imposed from outside in, by the fear of punishment. So, when Jesus says, “All the sins and blasphemies of mortals will be forgiven,” and not punished by death, it was new, but not unexpected. Now we lay down the sword of battle, the sword of vengeance and punishment, and we take up the cross of patience, longs-suffering, mutual counsel and forgiveness.
Interestingly enough, Jesus does not say that all sins and blasphemies can be forgiven, but that they will be forgiven. So the question remaining to each and every human being is not if they can be forgiven, for we have already, on the Cross of Calvary. The question is if we have received and accepted the forgiveness that is already ours. And that’s what Jesus is warning the Pharisees about: giving and receiving forgiveness. Not because they had done anything worse than anyone else, but because they did not understand nor accept their own need for forgiveness. Nor were they as open to everyone else’s forgiveness. For the two always go together. If ever we have trouble forgiving anyone, all we need do then is to remember how much we have been forgiven, and have needed forgiveness. Then, forgiving others comes more easily. If the thrice-holy God can forgive, who are we to withhold mercy?
This is another one of those times when we cannot simply say that Jesus is a good man and a great moral teacher. Because worldly systems of right, wrong and morality rely on punishments and rewards. Either Jesus is divinely mandated to take the sword of judgment out of his disciples’ hands, or he is deluded, even demonic.
The Pharisees choose the second option: Jesus must be misleading the people by the power of Satan, they said. With that, their power, privilege and position at the judge’s bench, the jury box and the executioner’s scaffold remain safe. But then they have also just painted themselves into a corner. With this one last possible excuse—he drives out Satan by means of Satan—they not only have refused forgiveness and release for thousands of bound and tormented people, they have slammed the door on their own forgiveness and release. That’s what Jesus means by “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit:” resisting the forgiving, restoring work of the Holy Spirit to the point of ascribing it to Satan. Its not so much that that cannot be forgiven, as that they are themselves eternally and automatically rejecting and resisting forgiveness tooth and nail, to the bitter death. That’s why Jesus also calls it “an eternal sin.” Its like painting oneself into a corner on purpose, precisely so as to have no way out.
Actually, there is a way back out of this corner of guilt, grudges and unforgiveness, into which they have painted themselves, but only one: by repenting and renouncing their stubborn resistance to Jesus and his mercy. That would be like walking back over the floor they had just painted with the brush strokes of hard-heartedness and grudges. Its embarrassing but there’s no other way. Its called repentance. Oddly enough, in their case, its a matter of repentance not for being “bad” in the usual, conventional sense that my friends with the “Unforgiven” tatoos mean. Its a matter of repentance for what we usually mean by “good,” or at least, needing to appear better than others.
This passage may have something to say to the controversy around Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins. Bell questions whether or not the love and power of God would permit anyone to spend eternity apart from God. In other words, hell. Jesus’ words, “all sins and blasphemies of mortals will be forgiven” would back Bell up, telling us that never should we underestimate either the extent nor the power of God’s forgiveness. But Jesus’ words of warnings also tell us never to underestimate the power nor the willingness of the human heart to fight and reject the forgiveness of God, and thus paint ourselves into a corner for keeps. So its not a question of if God is willing to forgive, but are we willing to forgive, and be forgiven?
This is a matter of life and death in more ways than one. Eternal life is at stake, yes. But so are mortal lives today. Right now, in Ivory Coast, Mennonite mission workers are meeting with pastors and other people from the tribes and communities that were at each others’ throats during the recent civil war. Three thousand people died there this year, mostly civilians.
But the antagonism is not just a recent thing. The roots go back to the slave trade, when southern Ivoirians would raid the tribes and communities to the north for slaves to sell, while northerners might do some raiding of their own in the south, sometimes to impose Islam. They all know this history; to them its not history. For some people, the ancestors demand revenge as the price of peace. For others, honor must be restored by returning trauma for trauma. And so the cycle continues and widens.
When I was in West Africa last February, I asked about what the Ivoirian churches were doing to address this cycle, and heard that few Christians there even thought that it was their responsibility. Some were even saying that, if anything, they should defend mostly Christian southerners against mostly Muslim northerners by all means necessary. But now, with the help of Mennonite workers Martine Audeoud and Gary Wittig, Ivoirian Christians and their pastors are beginning to take the lead, meeting with traumatized survivors from all sides of the conflict, getting them together, working for the healing of people, of communities and districts that were divided and ravaged by the conflict. For they bring something that had never been heard nor considered in that tormented and traumatized region before the Gospel of Jesus Christ came, namely, that “every sin and blasphemy of mortals will be forgiven.” And if that seems too hard to believe, the world should be able to see one group of people who are willing to be the first to say, “I forgive” and “Will you forgive me?” whatever the past, whatever the risk. For that is precisely what Jesus calls disciples for.