3. The Unforgivable Sin
“And the scribes, the ones who came from Jerusalem, said, ‘He has Beelzebul,’ and ‘He is casting out the demons by means of the ruler of the demons.’” Some members of the crowd may have speculated that Jesus was mentally unstable. The representatives of the Jerusalem establishment say that he is possessed by and in league with the Demonic.
The gaslighting is raised to the level of an existential threat. Sorcery is punishable by death according to regulation and practice in the Hebrew scriptures. If the authorities can make the charges stick, Jesus will leave the encounter with at least a fatally damaged reputation. If things get serious enough, Jesus may leave the encounter on a slab.
As noted earlier, the authorities were engaged in what can be called “deviance labelling.” Malina and Rohrbaugh offer this description. “Most serious of all were accusations of sorcery, that is, being possessed by and having the power of “the prince of demons,” Beelzebul (Mark 3:22). Such labels not only marked one as deviant (outside accepted norms or states) but,” they continue, “once acquired, could be nearly impossible to shake” (page 200).
I suspect that many of us recognize this strategy for dealing with inconvenient truths in our lives. The problem is not “us,” we may say. “It’s you.” The one or ones upsetting the social applecart are blamed for the upset. An old adage in athletics notes that it’s always the second punch that draws the penalty. If I can keep the focus on your strong reaction to my bad behavior, then I can keep the spotlight of my own history of misdeeds.
This is the strategy in numerous current conflict situations. Protestors in our city have engaged in what I would view as unproductive strategies recently in calling attention to the poor performance of our local police. That has created yet another opening for authorities to focus on the protest rather than on the history of bad behavior which is the subject of the protest. In Palestine and Israel, the Israeli strategy is always to focus on the most recent attacks by “terrorists” in order to distract from the colonizing land confiscation that has prompted the violent responses.
If the problem is “us” rather than “you,” then we have to look at ourselves and change. It’s far easier in the short run to demonize the opposition than to engage in repentance and repair on our part. Demonization makes punishing and destroying the other far more palatable. We can describe the Other as cunning and greedy vermin, bloodthirsty savages, black beasts, rapists and thieves, or disease-carrying foreigners. This demonization results in segregation, separation, ghettos, concentration camps, enslavement, lynchings, removals, erasures, and genocide.
How does Jesus respond to the charges? First, he does not respond in kind. He seeks to dismantle the tortured logic which undergirds the charges uttered. Beelzebul is not much of an adversary if this is the best the ruler of demons can do. If the charges are correct, then the regime of the Evil one is hopelessly divided. The House of Demons will not stand. Civil War in Hell is no way to conquer on earth. If this is the state of things, then Satan’s end (telos) has come.
Of course, that is not what is going on, as Jesus notes in verse 27. “The Stronger One has arrived, and the Strong One finds his house being burgled” Hurtado write. “Jesus’ healings, and particularly his exorcisms, are signs that God’s kingdom is indeed arriving, the kingdom in which people who have been held captive will at last be set free.” (Kindle Location 830).
“The outrage here is that in assessing the unexpected behavior of Jesus, given his social status, his opponents attribute it to an unclean spirit rather than to a holy spirit,” Malina and Rohrbaugh note. “What God is doing they attribute to evil. To speak outrageously and insult God by claiming that God’s activity is the result of unclean spirits cannot be forgiven” (Page 200).
“If the label could be made to stick, implying that Jesus was an evil deceiver in the guise of good,” write Malina and Rohrbaugh, “his credibility with his audience would have been irreparably damaged. Jesus’ response was to underscore the ludicrous quality of the accusation in itself and to enlist the regional loyalties of his audience. By accusing his accusers, Jerusalemites,” they conclude, “of ‘blaspheming against the Holy Spirit (3:29), Jesus accused them of denying the power of God present in Jesus’ activities” (page 201).
Perhaps Jesus’ argument and his conclusion were resisted by the authorities. He continues with his description of the “eternal sin” in verses 28-30. “The idea of an unforgivable sin has haunted the minds of sensitive people in all Christian centuries,” Hurtado observes, “but all such anxiety is misdirected” (page 66). He notes that the sin Jesus describes is rejecting his message by calling it Satanic. This is the specific “sin” to which the text refers.
Hurtado notes that this sin entails despising the very forgiveness which troubled sinners seek. “So,” he suggests, “the very anxiety lest one may have done something that cuts one off from Christ’s forgiveness is, ironically, evidence that one believes Christ to be sent from God, and thus proof that one cannot have committed the sin warned against here” (page 66).
“From Mark’s point of view,” Hurtado notes, “the irony is that Jesus’ critics committed the very sin for which Jesus was unjustly condemned” (page 69). “It isn’t that God gets specially angry with one sin in particular,” Tom Wright suggests. “It’s rather that if you decide firmly that the doctor who is offering to perform a life-saving operation on you is in fact a sadistic murderer, you will never give your consent to the operation.” (Kindle Location 835).
The scribes “are guilty of an unforgivable sin because they mistake the Holy Spirit for Satan,” Meda Stamper writes. “They recognize that Jesus must be drawing on great power to perform exorcisms but fatally misidentify its source because he does not behave as they expect a righteous person to behave, which is to say, most of all, that he is not one of them” she continues. “He associates with the wrong people, breaks Sabbath laws, and blasphemes by forgiving sins, and so they commit the greatest blasphemy of all.”
I am not persuaded that this is a “mistake” on the part of the Jerusalem authorities. I would suggest, rather, that it is a calculated effort to label Jesus as a deviant and subject him to policing, punishment, and ultimately, death. I would suggest that the real blasphemy is using the Divine to underwrite one’s own power, position, privilege, and property – knowing that this strategy must be rooted in falsehood (as Jesus so ably points out).
The authorities use demonization as a psychological, cultural, and political prop to support their place in the system. They try to use God as a means to their ends. If they can make the case that God is “on their side,” then they can have their way with Jesus and maintain the status quo. This is the real blasphemy – to use God for our purposes rather than to be used by God for Divine purposes.
Let us remember in advance one of the central moments in Mark’s gospel. Peter rebukes Jesus in Mark 8, and Jesus calls Peter “Satan.” Jesus declares that Peter’s mind is on human things rather than Divine things. Peter sees Jesus as a means to his ends and thus blasphemes. This may be a precise description of the actions of Judas as well, of course.
“This passage is in fact a powerful witness to the remarkable things Jesus was doing,” Tom Wright suggests. “The early church certainly didn’t make up the story about people saying he was mad, or in league with the devil.” That wouldn’t have been the wisest public relations move if there were a choice about including this story.
“Equally,” Wright continues, “people only say that kind of thing when the stakes are raised, when something is happening for which there is no other explanation – in this case, when a power is at work to heal people who themselves seem to be in the grip of demonic forces” (Kindle Location, 813).
I can’t help but think about the ways in which moderate white Christians responded to Dr. King when he engaged in disruptive tactics. Perhaps this is a Sunday to refer to that response as contained in their letter to him as he sat in a Birmingham jail.
How do we hijack God for our own goals and purposes? An obvious example, at least in historical retrospect, is the use of Christian and Hebrew scriptures to underwrite the Doctrine of Discovery, the American system of enslavement, the removal and erasure of Indigenous peoples, and the evangelization (colonization) of the global East and South by the (Christian) North and West. Blaspheming the Holy Spirit means demonizing the Other and sacralizing ourselves.
Therefore, white supremacy is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. It can be repented, perhaps, in this life. But first it must be named in our white churches and acknowledged for what it is.
The result of demonization is scapegoating. Inconvenient truths are suppressed. Shame and guilt are off-loaded on to the Other. I never stole anyone’s land, we say. I never owned slaves, we say. I never excluded and interned Asian people, we say. I deserve what I have, and I will fight to the death to keep it, we say. The result of blasphemy is violence. The Other will bear the punishment we deserve.
Part of the irony in Mark’s gospel is that this is precisely what Jesus does. He absorbs the charges of blasphemy leveled against him. He challenges the powers of empire and cultural supremacy that crucify him. He rejects the systems of power, position, privilege, and property that resist repentance, repair, and reform. In the midst of all the bad news, we proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Meda Stamper notes that Jesus’ triumph over the demonic is a sign of the final triumph to come. “Jesus’ stealthy binding of the powers of evil ultimately undermines Satan so completely,” she writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary, “that even when he appears to have succeeded in destroying Jesus in the crucifixion, the very destruction of the Son issues not in defeat but in the mysterious victory of God.”
Therefore, we (especially white American Christians) must always examine ourselves on the charge of blasphemy. It is the theological crime most likely to be on our spiritual rap sheet as a community of faith. We have used God to suppress our inconvenient truths for five centuries, and we continue to do so now. I would suggest chapter five of Jemar Tisby’s How to Fight Racism as useful guide in this self-examination, if a congregation is serious about the truth of the Gospel.
References and Resources
Guijarro, Santiago. “The Politics of Exorcism: Jesus’ Reaction to Negative Labels in the Beelzebul Controversy.” https://d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net/30239993/1999__Guijarro__Exorcism-Beelzebul.pdf?1353730298=&response-content-disposition=inline%3B+filename%3DThe_Politics_of_Exorcism_Jesus_Reaction.pdf&Expires=1622209905&Signature=ZVadoEoDb-kqMkfEwrdxjnnTeCLdTtkU0MwKpTCy4G3iEZGNcYSXFAZL033OpQBtWTr69blZOLxZ7wyOs4BY2TE7~QMjbhMb6uu9M~3NwS81Hj9cw2lOsOTrf8GilWS5CGAIclR9ntJHzpI39PohmVXeY3nNp~1TwkhxNif1-yPQjcM8cKbzTJpymVxvYGMyY4hMTOM4fkArz2qE7fEBaaSJit4QjhCBUB9-HBDd04-9JeU7dP57KYZYZQ8eUkVt5XH7jlgSDVbrOTdWf4MvVV04kaT-OoSdbqm-34EFO7JqSmNmq2ol-ur5PeVl2zpwyCbmJLEFzP4iSvTx82GGMw__&Key-Pair-Id=APKAJLOHF5GGSLRBV4ZA
Holland, Drew S. “The Meaning of Exesthe in Mark 3:21.” The Journal of Inductive Biblical Studies 4/1:6-31 (Winter, 2017).
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.
Griggs, Linda Mackie. “Gaslighting Jesus.” https://relationalrealities.com/2018/06/10/gaslighting-jesus/.
Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year B. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.
Tisby, Jemar. How to Fight Racism. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.