This sermon was given by Rev Sue on Sunday 10 June 2018.
One of the most uncomfortable things about reading the Bible is that when Jesus talks about sin, he is never pointing his finger away from us at the other people, the bad ones, the ones not like us. Again and again it is the religious leaders of the day, the respectable people who come in for criticism. In today’s gospel reading the scribes, the religious leaders had come from Jerusalem because they had heard about the new leader in rural Galilee who was attracting the crowds. Jesus had been healing people who were thought to be possessed by demons. So they told the people that Jesus must be possessed by Beelzebub, the chief demon, because other demons obeyed him. Jesus invited the scribes to speak to him directly, and pointed out the flaw in their argument. They were saying that Jesus was possessed by Beelzebub, the chief demon, who gave Jesus power over other demons. Jesus calmly pointed out that you would expect all the demons to be on the same side. If demons were being cast out, it was a sign of a power greater than Satan’s.
Next comes the difficult bit. Jesus begins to talk about blasphemy. His first statement is positive: people will be forgiven for their sins and for whatever blasphemies they have spoken. To the scribes, this would come as a bit of a shock, as they thought that saying things like “the law is not from God” would mean that someone would forfeit their place in the life to come. But Jesus went on to warn that blaspheming against the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven. Now that surely is the saying of Jesus that has caused more sleepless nights than any other, when people have worried what they might have said in a thoughtless moment. But if we stop and take a step back, we realise that God our loving Father is not going to punish someone for speaking carelessly about Him if He can forgive horrible and violent crimes. People have often struggled, wondering whether they had committed the unforgiveable sin, and would be eternally punished. The sin here that prompted Jesus’ words is the slander of the scribes who said of Jesus “he has an unclean spirit”. They were calling goodness evil, and asking other people to believe them. The emphasis is on what can be forgiven. The raging against God when we are angry with what is happening to us or to others is forgivable. The turning away from what we know in our hearts to be the light, when we cannot face the truth or the demands of the gospel is forgivable. If that was not so, heaven would be a very empty place. What is unforgivable is to recognise goodness and deliberately call it evil. Even worse, to encourage others to do the same. The sin is unforgivable, because we cannot pray for forgiveness unless we acknowledge both our own sinfulness and the nature of God. If you have ever wondered whether you have committed the unforgiveable sin, you have definitely not done so. Because it is the complete refusal to acknowledge that you might be wrong.
Isaiah puts it like this
Ah, you who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet
and sweet for bitter!
In Camelot, the musical about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Mordred, the evil knight who brings the kingdom to its end sings a song called the Seven deadly Virtues, in which he lists the virtues one by one and explains how he despises them.
The seven deadly virtues, those ghastly little traps
Oh no, my liege, they were not meant for me.
Honesty is fatal, it should be taboo
Diligence, a fate I would hate
If charity means giving, I give it to you
And fidelity is only for your mate
One commentator writes
“Compassion, generosity, mercy, honesty, honor, loyalty, justice, friendship, and love. It is these values by which people are able to co-operate and society is able to function. It’s not that he absolutely can’t comprehend good; he understands exactly what goodness entails, and views it as an unnecessary burden that would hold him back. He sees goodness as nothing but a weakness to be exploited in others.”
Mordred is a villain who deliberately sets aside what he would call conventional morality, and we would call goodness, and cares nothing for those people he tramples over for his own ends.
If we turn to another work of fiction we can see how this sin against the Holy Spirit can lead to the worst and most callous crimes. Macbeth is probably one of the best known plays of Shakespeare. It is a study in evil. The very first scene ends with the words of the three witches “Fair is foul, and foul is fair:” They then go on to make prophesies to Macbeth, which his wife uses to justify a plot to murder the king. Macbeth slides into evil, one step at a time. His wife, however, knows just what she is doing. When Macbeth is beginning to waiver in his resolve to kill the king, she calls him a coward. When he tells her that to kill the king is not a deed worthy of a man, she tells him that she would kill her own babies rather than go back on a plan. Like the witches, she deliberately turns good and evil around – she tells her husband that murder is brave and conscience is weakness, and goaded by her he commits three brutal and callous murders.
Jesus does not say that the scribes are committing the unforgivable sin, but he is warning them of the potential danger.
Just once in my counselling sessions in prisons I met a man I couldn’t work with. He was consumed by revenge. His goal when he was released was to get back at people who had wronged him. His believed that he should never accept any offense against him and his family, but pride demanded that opponents should be made to pay. The bitterness was so central to his thinking that he left me no room to work – there was nothing I could do to help him cope with the anxiety he felt.
It is easy to see evil at work in gangland culture, but it can also have a more sophisticated face.
In his book the Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis pretended to write as a devil giving advice to a junior colleague on the best ways to tempt people. In the preface to the book, first published during the Second World War, he wrote
The greatest evil is not done now in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not even done in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clear, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.
And finally, always, we must come back to ourselves. The sin most hated and exposed by Jesus was the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. We must recognise evil masquerading as good and condemn it whenever we see it. But we must regard the sinner with compassion and pray for their forgiveness. It is for God alone to judge, and the moment we begin to think ourselves a better human being than anyone else, when we shore up our own self esteem by despising another, then we have become judgemental. Our hearts harden and we cannot see the plank in our own eyes for noticing the sawdust in someone else’s. We are calling our own pride, virtue.
But don’t be discouraged. Let me remind you that the moment you realise your own shortcomings is a moment of grace. Thank God for the insight as well as praying for forgiveness. Let us end on a happier note.
Surrounding the discussion with the scribes is the story about Jesus’ family. They, too, had heard people saying that Jesus was mad, and when they heard that he didn’t even have time to eat, his mother and brothers went to forcibly bring him home for a good meal and some time to calm down. Jesus issued them a challenge, too. His family are the people who follow him and are listening to him speak – his mother and brothers have the choice whether to join him or not. The story ends there for the time being, but later we read that Mary, his mother, was with the other disciples after the resurrection, and that one of Jesus’ brothers, James, led the early church. They had come to realise that Jesus was not mad, but the authentic voice of God. Even the people we most revere as Saints got it wrong at times. There is hope for us yet.