The Unforgiveable Sin: Failure to Repent

Jesus occupies the templeMark 3:20-30

Jesus went home, where a crowd gathered before they could even finish dinner. When his family heard about it, they came to put a stop to him. He’s gone mad, they said.

Then the agents came from Jerusalem repeating over and over the charge: “He’s possessed by Beelzebul. He exorcises demons because he’s working for the king of demons.”

Then Jesus called them together and gave them a koan:

How can Satan exorcise himself?
A nation in civil war is a nation falling apart.
A family rent with division is a family falling apart.
If Satan is schizophrenic he won’t be in business much longer.

Nobody breaks into a powerful person’s house and steals his stuff without tying him up first.
But once he’s tied, his house can be plundered at will.

Trust me, people can be forgiven just about anything:
Wrongs and mistakes of all kinds.
But those who curse the means of their salvation
Are truly doomed forever.

(He said this because the agents had accused him of being possessed.)

First, it’s a koan. Don’t let the metaphysics get in the way. Here and elsewhere in Mark, the apocalyptic rhetoric is a lens, not the thing itself.

Second, yes, Jesus is talking about a home invasion here. And Jesus is the invader.

It’s not that Satan is schizophrenic. On the contrary, the forces of evil are powerful. It’s that Jesus is breaking and entering, and taking away and setting free the people who have been held captive by satanic forces – namely the agents who have come to shut him down. Jesus is talking about his eventual occupation of the Temple, their house, and his setting the people free from the legal, economic and social system they have constructed to keep them in submission. Note that the Temple has now become the house of Satan.

In my years of pastoral ministry I’ve heard a great deal of hand-wringing over what is the “unpardonable sin.” Most of it centered on what one can or cannot say about the Holy Spirit, or God in general, or whether you can “lose your salvation.” All that misses the point. To quote brother Ched:

To be captive to the way things are, to resist criticism and change, to brutally suppress efforts at humanization – is to be bypassed by the grace of God.

Simple. Except that the places and things that we ordinarily think of as the most holy (the Temple, the church building, “we’ve always done it that way,” even the Bible itself) are the ones most likely to turn out to be the home territory of the unholy.

Walk Away

wilderness sign
Photo credit: bopacasi

Mark 1:1-8

It all started with Jesus, the child of God.

Isaiah the truth-teller wrote:

Watch! I’m sending it out on the early warning system so you will be ready –
A clear signal breaking through the noise:

“Get the road home ready.
Straighten up!”

So John showed up in the middle of nowhere, dunking people in a river telling people to straighten up because it’s time to break free. People came from everywhere, even from Washington DC, to renounce their misdeeds and get cleaned up in the river.

John dressed in ratty coveralls and leather suspenders. He kept to a strict vegan diet. And his message: “Get ready for someone so cool I’m unworthy to even tie his shoes! I just got you wet. He’ll set your life on fire!”

Usually, people go to Washington to have their big rallies and protests. Not John. Against all the advice about how to lead a movement, John’s strategy was to get the people out of Washington. In Washington, the movement is in danger of selling its soul for access. But the whole point of the movement is to break free.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be Washington. It’s whatever and wherever bad habits and old misdeeds are tying your hands, keeping you from really living. It’s whatever and wherever traditions, taboos, rules, corporate cultures, or group-think, or your “my (mother/father/3rd grade teacher/fill-in-the-blank) said I’d never amount to anything” script hamstring the greater good that is calling. John is about getting you to walk away from all of that, just walk away, get out of there, even if it feels like you’ll end up in the middle of nowhere – so you can be ready for your life to catch on fire!

Go ahead. I dare you. John dares you. Walk away.

Dangerous Diversion

Merrill Lynch Logo
Photo via Reuters

Exodus 32:1-14

When Moses didn’t come down from the mountain right away, the people went to Aaron, saying, “Make some gods for us, something we can put on a flag-pole. Moses brought us out of Egypt, but now he’s disappeared.”

Aaron said, “Rob your own family members of all their money, and give it to me.” So they did. They brought it all to Aaron, and with it he designed a logo. It was a fancy calf on a gold background. When they saw it, they all exclaimed, “Here it is: we work for this now. And this logo stands for our freedom.” Aaron set up an altar under the logo and made a proclamation: “Tomorrow there shall be bread and circuses!”

Early the next day, they all brought everything they had and gave it up to the new corporation. And they partied.

Meanwhile, back up on the mountain, God said to Moses, “You’d better get back down there. Those people of yours from Egypt have sold out. They’ve broken their contract with me, and they’ve designed a new logo, given up their freedom to a false god, and credited an imposter for all that I’ve done.” God said, “If this is the way its going to be with these turncoats, get out of my way: I’ll nuke them right now and we can start over with you.”

But Moses replied, “Why are you so angry? You’re the one who picked these people from Egypt! And if you do what you say, everyone will (rightly) say that you’re a pretty lame-ass God to bring a no-account people out into the wilderness and annihilate them. Chill out! Don’t do it! Remember how you promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that you would do right by their descendents and get them to the promised land.”

So God didn’t nuke them after all.

It’s hard to say whose behavior is worse in this story.

  • Is it Aaron, who sets himself up as the CEO of the world’s first Halliburton?
  • Is it the people, who willingly sacrifice their freedom and prosperity for a false sense of national security?
  • Is it God, who – let’s say it – really ought to know better?

As great as freedom sounds, the reality is it’s not so easy. Not even for God.

It’s much easier for Aaron to replicate the familiar oppressive religious-economic-political system where manipulating a logo and charging a lot of money (or collecting everyone’s earrings) gives the appearance of knowing what you’re doing.

  • It’s much easier to tell people what they want to hear than to ask them to live with uncertainty.
  • It’s much easier to give people a prefabricated symbol than to help them forge their own identity.
  • It’s much easier to pacify people’s desires with bread and circuses than to engage their creativity to form a meaningful community.

The story of the people’s complicity in the disaster is a parable of the last 10 years of American life. And the depiction of a God tempted to take the easy way of oblivion rather than the hard way of engagement is the temptation of those in power. Indeed, Moses speaks for all of us who are disgusted by those who insist that God must be nothing more than a child-despot with a finger on the red button.

There comes a moment of truth in every freedom story – whether it’s in the Old Testament desert, in the modern United States, or in an individual life – when the uncharted territory of real freedom appears so dark and terrible that any excuse to turn away, to recast God into our preferred image, to pretend life can be orderly and secure regardless of the cost, becomes alluring.

Mortal or immortal, it’s in that moment that we stand on the razor’s edge between new life and utter annihilation.