Do you sense the tension? We are only in chapter 3 and the tension between Jesus and the religious establishment is sky high, and has been since the beginning of chapter 2. Already in chapter 3 it is starting to bubble over, and the nicey-pants-flannel-graph-Jesus with children on his knee appears to be absent here. This Jesus is one with whom many of us are uncomfortable. One of the most troubling verses in the Bible comes at the end of this passage, and not only are these words in the Bible, they come from the mouth of Jesus: “But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of eternal sin” (3:29, emphasis added). What is Jesus getting at here? Is this true? Is there unforgivable sin?
Well, there is certainly an argument that says “yes”. It’s right there in the text. You don’t have to stretch to find it. But I’ll be honest with you: I struggle with that interpretation. It doesn’t match up with the broader Biblical narrative of God’s steadfast love embodied in the life and work of Jesus. My interpretation is only mine, and is not without flaws, but here’s how I see this:
These words from Jesus do match up with the radical grace and forgiveness that we often ascribe to Jesus who said of his accusers and condemners as he was crucified, “forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Any singluar verse must be understood within the grand sweep of the broader narrative. Is it possible that there is a specific and universal “unforgivable sin”? Yes. I have to concede that. But is it also possible that there’s more to this than that? I think so.
You see, Jesus is saying this in a very specific context. He’s talking to those who are angry with him, threatened by him, trying to trap him, and with whom he now knows that he cannot do anything right. They are going to critique anything and everything he says and does, and have in fact already set out to get him killed, because what he’s saying and doing is turning their system upside down. I think that informs Jesus’ response here. I think he knows he can’t win with these guys, so he’s jabbing them. He is, in a sense, fighting fire with fire. I think he’s saying, “they have me pegged as destined for eternal hellfire with no hope of redemption so I will throw it right back on them”.
I will admit this could be a stretch, but I think it’s possible that what Jesus is doing here is naming the un-penetrable wall they have put up with him, and he is then distancing himself from them. I think he’s closing the door on the relationship with them, essentially saying, “look, until we can sit down and have a real conversation, we’re done. So just as you can find ‘evidence’ to condemn me to hell, so too can I with you.”
I think it’s possible that what Mark is doing with this narrative is not so much giving us a rule about unforgivable sin as he is setting up the irreparably broken relationship between Jesus and the religious establishment, who are the ones who hold the power to condemn him. Remember, much of Mark is fast track to the cross, so in order to get there, Mark has to set up the relationships and context that will get there. So let’s be careful to take these singular verses and make grand sweeping statements about all of humanity with them. It’s a dangerous, and sometimes literally lethal, game. The Bible is not a “users manual for life”. It is a story. A user’s manual has no context. A story depends on it.
These are tough verses- so let’s not universally apply them to our neighbors; but let’s move toward these verses being okay with having some uncertainty about them, and let’s wonder about them. And, most importantly, let’s ask of such verses, “what is it asking of me?”