All my life I've wrestled with hard texts in the Bible, those texts that upset, that make no sense, that tell me things about God, or me, I'd rather not know. I've tried not to be satisfied by 'solving' them, 'explaining' them, or ever thinking I could give the definitive answer. Nor would I want to. Reading sacred text is not like a literary sodoku, nor an exercise in literary comprehension and criticism, nor a way of practising that intellectual dominance we sometimes call understanding. Hard texts are reminders of our limited horizons, question marks over our concepts and constructs, speed bumps on the road of discipleship to slow down the comfortable cruiser.
In 37 years of ministry I've preached on the 'sin against the Holy Spirit which cannot be forgiven' several times. No, not the same sermon; and no, not with the same exegetical conclusions or sermon applications. Hard texts refuse to be tamed; they are theologically untidy; they are spiritual speed traps that catch out our complacent even carelessly quick rush to the truth of our own conclusions. And the text in Mark 3.29 lies like a granite boulder in the homiletical fast lane!
So here's yet another attempt at discerning the meaning of a text fraught with danger, and flashing with warning. In 1995, at ceremonies marking the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the liberation of Auschwitz, the Nobel Prize-winning writer Elie Wiesel offered the following prayer: “God of forgiveness, do not forgive those who created this place. God of mercy, have no mercy on those who killed here Jewish children.” How can one of the greatest human beings alive, ask God not to forgive? How can an unforgiving man be a great man, a wonderful human being?
One of the speakers at Wiesel’s award ceremony was Alan Dershowitz, Professor of Law at Harvard. Here is what he said: “There are many excellent reasons for recognizing Professor Wiesel. But none is more important than his role in teaching survivors and their children how to respond in constructive peace and justice to a worldwide conspiracy of genocide, the components of which included mass killing, mass silence and mass indifference. Professor Wiesel has devoted his life to teaching the survivors of a conspiracy which excluded so few to re-enter and adjust in peace to an alien world that deserved little forgiveness.”
Weisel has always argued that authentic forgiveness is a two way transaction. It is a gift of grace, to be received with joy; it is a gesture of newness that challenges old hurts; it is a dismantling of defences that risks further offence. Perhaps, in the end the unforgivable sin is the refusal of forgiveness. If I do not forgive my brother and sister as God has forgiven me, how can I claim to know, to understand, to experience, to live – a forgiven life. And if I refuse to accept forgiveness, because I do not think I am wrong, or I don’t care about the hurt I caused, then my heart is closed to the grace which defines true forgiveness. How can an unforgiving heart, a heart closed to others, be open to the God whose heart is open to all?
Jesus said that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable. What can that possibly mean? It is to see the good gift of forgiveness, and call it evil, to encounter mercy and resent it, to witness the renewal of human life as destructive power is expelled and the human spirit set free, and to make it a matter of principle to oppose it. It is to call blessing a curse, to fix the mind so firmly against the truth that in the end we are persuaded that wrong is right and evil is good. Such corrupt speaking, such debased thinking and emotional poison, is to speak against the Holy Spirit, and to place the heart beyond the reach of the God who demands obedient love, faithful living and truthful repentance.
The sin against the Holy Spirit is the exact opposite of Elie Wiesel’s life project – his whole life has been a demand that those who killed his people should seek forgiveness, name their evil, confront the truth, and thereby make possible a response from his people. To offer forgiveness when it is not asked, nor wanted, nor felt necessary, would deny the reality of evil and the immensity of the suffering it brings. Forgiveness is a moral disinfectant which can only be effective when it comes into contact with the contaminant. Only when hearts open to each other, only then can the gracious circle of forgiveness be completed, and the vicious circle of hatred be broken. There is a lasting and final reality in closing the heart to grace and mercy, and it is an eternal judgment that gives what we ask – freedom to make our hatreds and exclusions, our blindness and deafness, our chosen future. That is to sin against the Holy Spirit, and make forgiveness impossible – not because God won’t, but because we won’t, and therefore though it breaks God’s heart, God can’t.
If that's anywhere near the meaning of Jesus words it is indeed a hard text.