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Is Anything Unforgivable?

Sermons On The Gospel Readings
Series I, Cycle B
One morning I was roused from sleep around 3 a.m. by the ringing of the telephone. The person on the other end of the line was distraught because, she said, she had committed the unforgivable sin. It is interesting to me that such calls often occur at such an hour, after the bars have closed. The woman went on to say that at some point in her life she had really been angry about something, and had said, "Damn the Holy Spirit." Now she was remorseful, but she knew that Jesus had said that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable. Therefore, she was sure that there was no hope for her, either in this world or in the next.

Her situation is certainly not unique. The eighteenth century poet, William Cowper, suffered recurrent attacks of insanity due to his belief that he had committed the unforgivable sin. After one such terrible bout he wrote:

Damned below Judas; more abhorred than he was,
Who for a few pence sold his holy Master!
Twice-betrayed Jesus, me, the last delinquent,
Deems the profanest.
Man disavows, and Deity disowns me....

There, indeed, is despair -- the despair of one who feels disowned by God.

It has been my experience that there are still individuals who feel that they have done some deed so heinous that they cannot be forgiven by God. Seeing the distress caused by such an idea, one would like to dismiss it as unsound and damaging to human life. But, unfortunately, we cannot get away from the fact that Jesus did mention it. He said: "... whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin." It seems so unlike Jesus to suggest that any sin in unforgivable. In fact, some scholars doubt that he ever said it, or that if he said it, he said it quite so emphatically. As for myself, if I had a list titled "Things I Wish Jesus Had Never Said," undoubtedly this saying would head the list. But three Gospel writers thought it important enough to include it, so we had better try to discover its meaning.

The setting in which these words were uttered gives us a clue to their meaning. At the beginning of the chapter Jesus has healed a man who had a paralyzed hand. In the passage we are looking at, religious authorities have apparently come down from Jerusalem to observe the various things Jesus was doing and to discredit them. They saw his obviously good acts in behalf of others, and they said that Jesus was able to accomplish these things because he was in league with Beelzebul, the ruler of demons. Jesus counters by saying that if illness and demon possession are the domain of Satan, Satan would hardly be consenting to this abridgment of his powers. He then goes on to draw the conclusion that something about the attitude of the religious authorities is unforgivable.

The first thing that I would like to point out is that Jesus draws a distinction between blasphemy in general, which he says is forgivable, and blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which he says is not forgivable. Christians reading these word are likely to understand Holy Spirit in the sense of the third person of the Trinity, and feel that, somehow, it is possible so to offend the Holy Spirit as to be forever unforgiven. I think that we need to understand the Holy Spirit as Jesus' Jewish audience would have understood it, for no idea of Trinity had yet been introduced. For them, the Holy Spirit of God had two functions. One was to bring God's truth to people, as when a person was inspired to speak a word in God's behalf. The other function was to enable people to recognize and accept that truth when they were exposed to it. For them, the Holy Spirit was an inner light, given by God, which resides in every person, enabling us to recognize goodness and truth. To sin against the Holy Spirit, therefore, would be to go against the light we have been given.

What Jesus was talking about was spiritual atrophy. We know that people lose those faculties which they do not use. Certainly that is true of our physical bodies. Whenever I take a vacation, my body says, "I want a vacation, too," which means, "I don't want to do that usual regimen of morning exercises." I give in, but when I return to the regimen, I discover, all too painfully, that certain muscles are no longer able to do what they used to do. They have to be educated all over again. If the disuse were to go on for an extended period, the atrophy might become permanent.

This is also true for our minds. I took four years of high school Spanish, and came away with good grades, but I do not have much occasion to use it. When I communicated with the Spanish speaking gardener, telling him how I would like the bushes trimmed, I came back to find that he had understood the opposite. When we don't use a language, we lose it.

This is especially true in the area of esthetics. Charles Darwin tells how, as a young man, he loved music and poetry. But he so gave himself to biology that he completely lost that love, and as a consequence, in later life he wrote that poetry meant nothing to him, and music was only a noise.

This has its application in the spiritual realm as well. In the scripture we are dealing with, Jesus has healed a man, and apparently cast out demons. These were good acts, and any unbiased person would have declared them to be so, but the vision of the religious authorities was so distorted by anger, fear, and hatred that they called these good works evil. They called the light darkness, and they tried to persuade others that actions which were obviously good were evil, and done by an evil person for an evil purpose. In this they demonstrated their own blindness.

In Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, the waters in the farthest recesses of the cave are completely dark. The fish that swim there are blind. The structure of their eyes is intact, but the optic nerve has atrophied. They have eyes, but cannot see. If they were to swim out into the sunlight, they could not tell the difference between that and midnight. Jesus was suggesting that if a people shut their eyes and ears to goodness long enough, they eventually come to the place where they can no longer tell the difference between good and evil. They have extinguished the light that is within them. Those religious authorities could look at goodness, and instead of being moved by it, they could call it evil. The sin against the Holy Spirit, about which Jesus spoke, is the act of so consistently refusing to see God at work in the world that, eventually, God's work can no longer be recognized, even when it is fully displayed.

Still, one must ask, what makes this particular situation unforgivable, when other, seemingly more heinous acts, are forgivable? I do not think that Jesus is in any way limiting the desire or ability of God to forgive. The situation is not unforgivable because God refuses to forgive it. There is nothing that God cannot forgive if the person involved humbly seeks such forgiveness. That is precisely why those who worry about whether they have committed the unforgivable sin are the ones who needn't worry about it. Their consciences are still sensitive to right and wrong, goodness and evil, or else they wouldn't be worrying. And if they are sensitive, they are not blind to the light.

It is this very awareness that we are not all that we could be, that our conduct leaves something to be desired, that leads to our salvation, to our right relationship with God. This awareness is a sense of sin, and it is a healthy thing to have. It doesn't have to be the conviction that one is the worst person who ever lived, or that one is utterly unlovable. It is simply an awareness that we have, thus far, missed the mark, and that our relationships with our better self, with other people and with God, could be better than they are. When such an awareness exists, God has a channel through which to approach us.

I am acquainted with two women who were good friends with each other until one said some hurtful things to and about the other. Their relationship came to an end. In time the offended person found it in her heart to forgive the offender, but she couldn't get through the barrier which the other had erected, so they had no benefit of a relationship with each other. All they knew was alienation, in spite of the fact that forgiveness was available. Years later they resolved the difficulty, but there were all those years of alienation which could have been years of restored relationships, if one of them had been willing to open the channel through which forgiveness and reconciliation could flow.

God has already forgiven us, already accepted us, and desires to share with us the kind of relationship for which we were intended. What separates us is not God's unwillingness or inability to forgive, but our unwillingness to accept what God offers.

If we already know that God accepts us, and we have availed ourselves of that acceptance, is there any message for us in these words of Jesus? I think that there are two messages.

For one thing, these words hold out a warning. The warning is that we must beware of ascribing evil motives to the good actions of others. When the Roman Catholic Church considers elevating a deceased person to sainthood, an actual trial is held in which one person attempts to propose all the good things that the person did in his or her lifetime. There is another person who is appointed to be the devil's advocate. It is this person's job to call into question everything which the person under consideration has done, especially to discredit his or her motives. It is a poor occupation to be a devil's advocate. And yet, we are too often just that when we seek to protect our advantages or to defend our security. We are tempted to discredit someone else's good work or generous act by finding a bad motive, so that the person will not be such a threat to us. Such an attitude eventually leads to moral blindness, the discrediting of goodness, and hardness of heart.

In the play Amadeus, the eighteenth-century composer, Antonio Salieri, is depicted as a pious and devout man who seeks to glorify God by his music. As he becomes acquainted with Mozart, he becomes more and more consumed by jealousy and anger over Mozart's greater brilliance. He does everything in his power to discredit his great contemporary. Eventually, Salieri commits himself to the destruction of Mozart and to enmity with God. In seeking to protect his own advantage and security, a good person loses his own soul. Jesus is warning us about this.

There is also a positive message to be learned from these words. The lesson is that we must keep ourselves alert to the way God is working in the world. Remember that those who were seeking to discredit Jesus were religious people. Their problem was that they just didn't expect God to be acting as Jesus said he was acting, so they missed the movement of God in their midst, and in fact, they called it evil. Today God may be speaking to us in causes that are unpopular, or in political events that cause us to feel threatened and insecure. The cries for justice and fairness in the world may come from quarters that we are not accustomed to listen to. We need to exercise diligence so that we don't miss the voice of God today just because it happens to be spoken by unfamiliar lips.

I once sat in on a class my wife was taking in music appreciation. The instructor was asking the class members to listen for the recurring theme as it was passed from one instrument to another and was modified. I quickly lost it, but others in the class, who had benefited from their training, were able to keep track of the theme and even state which instrument was playing it. It is a law of life that we hear what we have trained ourselves to hear. What we must do is to train ourselves to listen for the voice of God in areas where we have not expected to hear it. We hear that voice only by attentive listening: by asking ourselves whether there is a valid message in those things which make us uncomfortable.

Jesus spoke of an unforgivable sin, not because any act is unforgivable, but to warn us that our own hardness of heart can close the channels through which God's forgiveness flows and, as a consequence, leave us feeling alienated. Let us, therefore, affirm the good that is in others, so that our own hearts become generous and accepting of others, even as God is generous and accepting of us.
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