“Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an everlasting sin.”
Harsh words! I used to puzzle over them, as if they were somewhat misplaced at this point in Mark’s gospel. The scribes are accusing Jesus of consorting with Satan, his disciples are worried about his exhaustion and his family thinks he’s gone too far. His stern rebuke to them is chilling: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never have forgiveness.” What can this have meant then? And what does it mean now?
Let’s start with the context. In the liturgical cycle, we are in Ordinary Time. After Easter’s Alleluias and the Pentecost Spirit, we’re back to Ordinary Time.
Before the resurrection, ordinary time for Jesus was filled with discord and protest as he challenged the injustices of his day. He objected stridently to the way the religious leaders treated the ordinary people, ‘placing heavy burdens upon them and not lifting a finger to help.’ Although his own life was at stake, he did not waiver from witnessing God’s kingdom of mercy and justice. Those who challenged his ministry blasphemed against the Holy Spirit, an everlasting sin.
has always been pervasive in human affairs. Today’s Old Testament story about
Adam and Eve discloses that from our very beginnings people have been at odds,
blaming each other, and dodging responsibility.
Over the course of history, the fissures between people have deepened
and society has become even more inhumane and violent. We continue to blame, condemn and censure
each other. We continually seek
advantage over each other, even to the point of denying people the food and
space they need to live.
humanity’s ongoing history of conflict and oppression, we don’t always grasp
the patterns of meaning over time. From
a vantage point of 2000 years, we effortlessly proclaim that Jesus came to
establish God’s kingdom of mercy and justice. We profess that the Spirit at work through him
is God’s own Spirit. But do we really
make the connection between Jesus’ work and our ordinary times? Do we recognize
the Spirit at work today?
set the gospel in the United States. Jesus is a preacher and a protester in the
streets or under a bridge. His large following threatens church and government officials
because he calls for a living wage for unskilled workers; for protection of
African Americans from police violence and of women from sexual assault; and for
respectful treatment for immigrants yearning for a safe haven. Afraid of the growing public unrest, leaders
in power will dismiss his message, silence the protesters and disperse the
crowds. Maybe they ‘eliminate’ him for disturbing their peace. Those who claimed
him as a savior wander away, feeling hopeless.
Nothing has changed, life continues as it ordinarily does.
this scene, the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit starts to makes sense. The Holy Spirit’s work cannot be reduced to
comfort and consolation. Rather, the work
of the Spirit is turbulent. The Turbulent
Spirit upends our distorted priorities through the protests of the poor. Their
cries for justice echo through Christ’s teachings and actions. Their cries lay bare the anguish of the anawim throughout human history.
Now, the curse upon those who blaspheme the Spirit comes vividly to
life: to avoid eternal condemnation, we must not deny – indeed, we will not be forgiven if we deny – the
work of the Turbulent Spirit. Jesus’
life is our model for this and he warns us that nothing is more important than the
Spirit’s work, not even life itself. When we respond to the Turbulent Spirit, we
experience the Psalmist’s assurance:
“And God will redeem Israel from all their iniquities.”
concretely, what are we to take from today’s readings? Well, first, Jesus is absolutely serious,
deadly serious, that our lives must be permeated by God’s Spirit. The Spirit’s work must be our work. Second, the Spirit’s work is turbulent. We must embrace the dissent, discord and
violence of every day life. These are
not breaches of the peace. The Turbulent Spirit inspires the raised fists that
call us to make a just peace. So, finally,
we must examine our consciences: Where do we stand on the many injustices voiced
urgently in every human community? How do we answer the Turbulent Spirit? Will we impede the Spirit’s work or will we
amplify the Spirit by living a faith that does justice?
now is ordinary time, now is also a turbulent time. It is the time of our
redemption. The Kingdom of God is at stake for every one of us and for each of
us. Now, in ordinary time.
Alison M. Benders
Alison M. Benders, J.D., Ph.D., serves as Associate Dean and Senior Lecturer at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University. Alison earned her B.A. in Philosophy at Yale University, her J.D. at the University of Virginia, and her Ph.D. in Systematic Theology from Boston College. In addition to administrative responsibilities, she teaches theological anthropology, emphasizing an intersectional exploration of human beings as enmeshed in society and culture. Her research focuses on questions of racial privilege and social oppression. Her prayer book, Just Prayer: A Liturgy of Hours for Peacemakers and Justice Seekers (Liturgical Press), received the 2016 Catholic Publishers Best Book Award for Spirituality. Her most recent article, “Reconstructing the Moral Claim of Racially Unjust Mass Incarceration” was included in the edited collection Today I Gave Myself Permission to Dream: Race and Incarceration in America (Lane Center), University of San Francisco Press, 2018.