Written for our weekly Diocesan reflection video. You can watch it on Vimeo here
Mark 3:20-35 (click here to read passage)
Most of us have had an experience where we wondered if a slip of the tongue has spoiled things. A job interview, a tricky meeting, maybe even a first date can all contain that fear of blowing it by saying something wrong.
The gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Mark 3:20-35) has prompted that thought for many Christians over the years. They have been troubled by Jesus’ words that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an eternal sin and have then lived in fear that they might have blown their salvation by a slip of the tongue. And even if that isn’t your worry, it seems inconsistent with the rest of the teaching of Jesus that something might be unforgiveable. So, what is going on, and what did he mean?
First, this is addressed to scribes from Jerusalem, who are persisting in saying that Jesus’ words and actions come from an unclean spirit within him (3:22,30. In the Greek, the verb "say" is in the imperfect "were saying", suggesting persistence.). As scholars, they knew the scriptures better than anyone, and yet they had been persistently saying he was inspired by evil. We therefore need to understand this apparent harshness in that context. After all, we know that Jesus’ family were worried, and the crowd said he had gone mad, but only the scribes get this reproach. And even then, Jesus doesn’t directly state that they have already committed this terrible sin.
We also forget that Jesus sometimes speaks like one of the prophets of the Old Testament. Those prophets of old often seem to be foretelling doom and destruction, and yet the fulfilment of their prophecies aren’t always seen through those apparent predictions coming to pass. This is best illustrated in the story of Jonah, who reluctantly ends up in Nineveh to predict the demise of the city (Jonah 3:3-5), but they change their ways and the destruction doesn’t happen – much to Jonah’s disappointment (4:1-3). His prophecy was fulfilled, not by a prediction coming true, but by producing change in the hearts of the citizens of Nineveh.
I think we need to see Jesus’ words in that way here. I believe he is seeking change in the scribes – here his harshest critics - by confronting them in the role of a prophet.
Therefore, we need to turn this passage round. Rather than see it as a limitation, or a catch-clause in a kind of divine contract, we need to look at it differently and more positively. This is really about how difficult it is to escape the reach of God’s grace.
God’s grace, his love, his forgiveness, and his offer of reconciliation are available to everyone, always. In Jesus, that offer is made in person. The text indicates that the only way to place yourself beyond the reach of that infinite and inclusive offer would be to consciously, wilfully and persistently identify that offer with something evil to the very end. Only that can be described - in Jesus’ words – as eternal sin. This is not about a slip of the tongue, or a bad day at the office, or even a difficult spell that we all have in our lives; it is about being completely and permanently closed to receiving anything of the light, love, grace, forgiveness and reconciliation of God represented in Jesus.
A good panel at a job interview do not judge on one comment in isolation from everything else they know about you; they look at the whole picture. A relationship with real potential doesn’t crash with one wrong comment on a date – it works at it to understand. Likewise, our relationship with God doesn’t hinge on a slip of the tongue, a moment of doubt, a mistake in life.
I’ll conclude with some wisdom from Charles Cranfield, who wrote a classic commentary on Mark’s gospel:
“It is a matter of great importance pastorally that we can say with absolute confidence to anyone who is overwhelmed by the fear that they have committed this sin, that the fact they are so troubled by it is itself a sure proof that they have not committed it.”