June 10, 2018
The Third Sunday after Pentecost
Who has the authority? That question has come up a lot for me. Like many kids in my culture of origin, I was raised by authoritarian parents. There was never any question about who was the boss of me. It was my parents – until I reached adolescence and began to be the boss of myself. I wasn’t a good boss because, when a child grows up just following the orders of her parents and other designated adults, she doesn’t learn to trust her own, inner moral authority.
I first remember becoming conscious of the authority question when I had my first real job, after earning a Bachelor of Music degree with a concentration in organ performance. At the public university I attended, organ performance was the route to a career in church music, and soon after graduation I had a full-time job as organist-choir director at a Catholic church in a suburb of Seattle. My responsibilities included what Glen and Liz and a few other musicians around here do every week: choosing the hymns for the congregation to sing. I was educated and well prepared to do this. However, I soon ran into a problem: some of the people in my church, including important people like parish council members, didn’t like some of the music I chose. And who was I to say I was right and they were wrong? When they wanted “Sing My Tongue the Glorious Battle” for a communion hymn and I preferred “Gift of Finest Wheat,” my education had not equipped me with the power to assert my taste over theirs.
Authority is a major theme in the second and third chapters of Mark’s gospel. First, Jesus heals the paralyzed man whose friends have removed the roof and lowered him on his mat into the crowded house. Jesus says to the man, “Your sins are forgiven.” The religion scholars there whisper, “That’s blasphemy! Only God can forgive sins.” And Jesus says to them, “So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . .” and then he tells the paralyzed man to stand up and walk.
Next, the scholars object because he’s eating with tax collectors and sinners and his disciples do not fast while the disciples of John and the Pharisees are fasting. Then, in the passage we read last Sunday, Jesus’ disciples pluck heads of grain in a field because they’re hungry – but that is unlawful work on the Sabbath. Jesus then enters the synagogue, and with the Pharisees watching to see whether he will defy the law again – heals the man with the withered hand.
By this time, such huge crowds of people are following Jesus that he tells his disciples to get a boat ready for him, to enable him to leave without being crushed by all the diseased and disabled people desperate to touch him. And, among the crowds, the unclean spirits who see Jesus recognize his authority and shout, “You are the Son of God!”
Then there’s a short interlude in the middle of Chapter 3, where Jesus appoints his twelve apostles “to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons” – which is what Jesus is doing in our reading today. Jesus is at home, in Capernaum, and his ministry of casting out evil spirits has apparently attracted the attention of the religious leaders up in Jerusalem, who have sent an investigating team from the Sanhedrin. 1 They make a direct attack on Jesus’ authority, saying, “He casts out demons through the ruler of demons.” And Jesus’ response is, “How can Satan cast out Satan? . . . If Satan has suffered mutiny in the ranks and is torn by dissension, the Devil is finished and cannot endure.”
Then Jesus asserts in the strongest of words the authority by which he is acting. “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
I am rather literal-minded – I don’t have much imagination – so my first response to any scripture is to read it . . . literally. It says what it says – how could it say anything else? And so, some of the sayings of Jesus – and this is one of them – scare me. What does Jesus mean? How can there be an unforgivable sin? What if I’ve committed it? What does it mean to blaspheme the Holy Spirit? If the Holy Spirit is God, and Jesus is God – how can you commit an unforgivable sin against just one of them, and aren’t the three supposed to be One God anyway?
Usually, by this point, I’ve concluded that I just don’t understand this scripture and I’m not going to deal with it. But this time, instead of pushing it away or rushing to find a commentary to make sense of it, I decided to sit with it and reflect on it, to see where that might take me. Where my thoughts then took me was even worse. The Spirit – ruach, in Hebrew – is wind, or breath – life itself. What if the unforgivable sin is denying, rejecting, or turning away from life? We all have done that – in all sorts of ways, large and small.
I needed to get out of my head, to drop down to my heart.
Occasionally it’s useful to remind ourselves, as Richard Rohr puts it, “to explore the mystery of Creation with something other than our minds.” 2
There’s a story told about St. Francis of Assisi. Toward the end of his life, he had reached a state of self-surrender that was so close to a mystical union with God that his followers already regarded him as a saint, and several miracles including healings were attributed to him. He undertook a forty-day silent retreat at the top of La Verna mountain. One night, his disciple Brother Leo saw him kneeling in the moonlight, gazing up into the sky with his arms outstretched and murmuring, over and over, “Who art thou, my dearest Lord God, and who am I?” I love this story because, if St. Francis – who, among all the well-known saints, was possibly the closest imitator of Christ – if at that point he was still praying, “Who are you? And who am I?” well, that can certainly be my prayer, too.
The psalm given in our lectionary readings for today is Psalm 130, one of my favorites. I read from the translation by Nan C. Merrill, on page 278 in Psalms for Praying, which includes the lines:
If You should number the times we
stray from You, O Beloved,
who could face You?
Yet You are ever-ready to forgive,
that we might be healed.
[the entire psalm may be read at https://books.google.com/books?id=CDQ0WlQLw6QC&pg=PA278&lpg=PA278&dq=nan+merrill+psalm+130&source=bl&ots=9kNEMTayGp&sig=67cNNbMzsv0Bxp2b0SR4e6bEO8s&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiz0eCA1M_bAhWL2FMKHdd2DRUQ6AEIVzAI#v=onepage&q=nan%20merrill%20psalm%20130&f=false]
And when the Pharisees’ ask, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
This is the context of the authority of Jesus. This is what I begin to understand when I drop down to my heart.
But, getting back to the difficult saying about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, after spending some time in prayer, I then consulted The Anchor Bible, which says, “The blasphemy under discussion here is that of attributing the positive good of works of healing to an evil agency.” 3 That simply echoes the reason Mark gives for Jesus’ statement – “because they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’”
A bilingual teacher I work with translated for me something a Spanish-speaking mother said as she was talking about being exasperated with the behavior of her child: “No aguantaré pulgas,” which literally means “I won’t put up with fleas.” It’s a saying that means, “Enough of this nonsense.” I think this might be close to the message in Jesus’ statement. He has been healing sick and broken bodies and restoring peace to tormented souls. And the religious scholars see only that he’s breaking all their rules, so time after time they challenge his authority, and finally he says, enough already. He tells them their argument is absurd: “Does it make any sense to use Satan to get rid of Satan? . . . Do you think it’s possible in broad daylight to enter the house of an awake, able-bodied man, and walk off with his possessions unless you tie him up first?”
Then he confronts them, using his strongest language. I read now from The Message, the translation by Eugene H. Peterson: “Listen to this carefully. I’m warning you. There’s nothing done or said that can’t be forgiven. But if you persist in your slanders against God’s Holy Spirit, you are repudiating the very One who forgives, sawing off the branch on which you’re sitting, severing by your own perversity all connection with the One who forgives.”
The religious authorities accuse Jesus of being in league with Satan. The people who see what he is doing and hear his teaching follow him, crowds of them, bringing all their sick, paralyzed, and demon-possessed loved ones to him.
People who are new to Seekers often wonder, “Where’s the authority here? Who’s in charge?” We don’t have a pastor; we have a Servant Leadership Team, which at this time consists of Brenda, Trish, Joan, and David Lloyd – four members who together take on some of the functions of a pastor. There’s no single person “in charge,” yet we take authority very seriously. From its origins with the Church of the Saviour, Seekers Church has referred to “authority at the point of call” within mission groups, which means that, as each person in the mission group exercises their gift, every other person will confirm and be obedient to that gift. Yesterday my mission group, Celebration Circle, had a day-long retreat at Brenda’s house, which we do periodically for the purpose of discerning together the gifts that each of us has and, based on those gifts, prayerfully considering who among us is called to each role in the life of our mission group.
In closing, I quote Loretta Ross-Gotta, a retired Presbyterian minister, who says this:
Boundaries are the means given to us, so that we can risk being together in community on this earth without violating one another’s sanctity. … So how does one set bounds? … Just tell the truth. Tell the truth. One must deeply claim and trust that one is holy and that God’s word dwells and speaks within. When we doubt that, we waver and compromise our spiritual authority and succumb to the need to please and placate.
Jesus, who was truth, let the chips fall where they would. He called evil evil, hypocrisy hypocrisy, and sin sin. The truth, the bare truth that sets us free, sets the only boundary we need. 4
- S. Mann, The Anchor Bible: Mark, Vol. 27. (Doubleday, 1986), p. 253.
- Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, 5/21/18 (https://cac.org/category/daily-meditations/).
- Mann, p. 256.
- Loretta Ross-Gotta, “The Bounds of Holiness,” Give Us This Day: Daily Prayer for Today’s Catholic, May 2018, p. 304-5.