I’ve always been puzzled by the idea of the unforgivable sin, identified in Mark as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Mark 3:28-30).
The passage in which this claim is made describes a whirlwind of action in which Jesus has been healing so many people in so many places that no one can keep up with it. The desperate and the downtrodden are beyond thrilled by this unexpected outpouring of compassion and hope.
An elite group of scholars come all the way from Jerusalem to study this Jesus phenomenon. Their professional conclusion is that he is possessed by the devil. It is to this group of people that Jesus addressed his comments on the unforgivable sin. Why is this the one and only sin that can never be forgiven?
The reason, I think, has to do with the nature of truth. The concept of truth is so crucial to Jesus’ ministry than he speaks of it more than 100 times in the Gospels. In the Gospel of John, he says that the truth will make us free.
Look what has happened to the truth in this incident. Jesus gives the blind their sight. He cures diseases and disabilities. He causes the lame to walk. He lifts up the downtrodden, and gives hope to the hopeless. By any objective measure, Jesus is doing more than anyone to help the lives of those around him. Yet when the scholars look at this fact, they declare that Jesus must in league with Satan.
If you can look at all the loving, life-giving things Jesus is doing, and conclude that this is the work of the forces of evil, what possible help is there for you? You have so blinded yourself to the truth that there is literally nothing anyone could say or do that could possibly get you to see the truth — the truth that you need to set you free.
Jesus referred to Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Truth. One of the key functions of the Spirit is to reveal and preserve the truth. By their willful and blatant disregard of the truth in this situation, the scribes are attacking the work of Holy Spirit. When you cannot distinguish the healing, renewing work of the God from the work of the forces of evil, how can you possibly live in the kingdom of God?
Why is there no forgiveness of this? Because once you have destroyed the truth, you have destroyed any possible path to forgiveness.
Change requires recognizing the need to change. If your vision is so damaged that when you look at the most wonderful gift in creation and all you see is evil, how can you possibly come to see the error of your ways? How do you change?
If you are surrounded by the light of Christ and the love of God, and the more brightly the light shines, the more you see only darkness, what good is more light going to do? If God offers me forgiveness and I see that as just another scheme of the devil, I make it impossible for that forgiveness to reach me.
The truth is what sets us free. When we lose the ability to recognize the truth, when we can no longer distinguish evil from good, the result is a catastrophe of epic proportions.
This was not just a warning for Jesus’ enemies over 2,000 years ago. Right now, the truth is under attack from many sides. Postmodern relativism says that there is no such thing as objective truth; that it’s all subjective.
Elsewhere, from the lowest dregs of society to the very top levels of leadership, lies are told whenever the truth is inconvenient. Lies are tolerated as the cost of doing business. Lies have become accepted strategy for negotiating, for gaining power, keeping power, manipulating public opinion, and promoting agendas.
Regarding news, claims of fake news, hysterical accusations, and propaganda, I’ve had so many people ask me, in frustration, how can we tell what’s true anymore?
That is exactly the environment in which evil thrives.
Now we’ve probably all bent the truth at one time or other. In some situations, it may spare unnecessary hurt feelings or may advance a good cause. Even the worst lie told for a malicious reason can be forgiven if there is repentance.
The danger in telling lies comes when this becomes habit, or a deliberate strategy, or just something everybody does. When that happens, we begin to lose sight of the truth. We lose the ability to distinguish between good and evil. When we can no longer tell the difference between good and evil, or worse, when we start to believe that good is really evil and that evil is really good, there is no possible avenue for God’s spirit to work.
Working Preachers, as I bid this column farewell, I am compelled to ask, If we do not publicly insist that honesty and truth be a nonnegotiable, who will? Even if the truth hurts, or is inconvenient, or costs us something, it is still the path to freedom, to living as God wants us to live.
We are called to learn the difference between our opinions and truth — to set aside our opinions and seek the truth, wherever that search may take us. We are called to resist forwarding email claims or liking tweets or blogs, the accuracy of which we cannot verify. We are called to name and reject falsehood when it occurs so that we and our congregations can always tell the difference between good and evil; so that we do not get sucked into doing things in the name of God that God hates. So that when we fall short of God’s will, we can recognize that, and ask for the forgiveness that will restore us.
God has given us the Holy Spirit to guide us in the truth, because God wants us to be free, to live and actively participate in wonderful reign of God in this creation.
Sanctify us in your truth, Lord. Your word is truth. Amen.
Our deep gratitude to Nathan Aaseng, who has retired after 10-plus years of writing in this space. In more than 100 Working Preacher columns, Pastor Aaseng has shared reflections on the rhythms of preaching in a parish in central Wisconsin.