“Blaspheming against the Holy Spirit…” I can still remember stumbling across this Gospel passage when I was a young boy. Yikes. It nearly frightened me to death. For several years of my young life I lived in a kind terror that I would accidentally blaspheme against the Holy Spirit and go straight to hell. It’s not that I would do this intentionally. But that was the problem. I was afraid I might goof up and blaspheme by mistake – kind of like if I were to accidentally step on a crack and break my mother’s back, or walk under a ladder, or say or do something which everyone knew was jinxed.
As it turns out, I was not alone. Since the 3rd century, church luminaries have written at great length what Jesus meant about this unforgivable “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” From the earliest times up to the present, there is no agreement in the church – from east to west – on what Jesus meant.
John Wesley, the 18th century Church of England pastor and theologian, thought that “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” would be the conclusion that Jesus Christ exercised his miracles by the power of the devil.[i] Wesley asks, rhetorically, “Have you ever been guilty of this, calling good evil and evil good?” He answers his own question: “No, of course you have not.” So, he said, there’s nothing to be afraid of here.
Tom Wright, the contemporary English New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop, says that if we were to call Jesus’ undeniably good work “evil,” we end up in a moral cul-de-sac without any turning room. “Once you declare that the spring of fresh water is in fact polluted, you will never drink from it.” You are stuck, you will dry up. Bishop Wright adds that “the one sure thing about [Jesus’] saying is that if someone is anxious about having committed the [unpardonable] sin against the Holy Spirit, their anxiety is a clear sign that they have not.”[ii]
[i] John Wesley (1703-1791), Church of England clergyman, theologian, evangelist, and brother to Charles Wesley.
[ii] Luke for Everyone, by Tom Wright (SPCK, 2001), pp. 149-150. Nicholas Thomas “Tom” Wright is an English New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop (Durham, 2003-2010), and a prolific author.
Jesus visits his dear friends Martha and Mary in their home. Martha is upset that Mary sits listening rather than helping her with the work as host. Some hear this as about work versus prayer or balancing action and contemplation. Paul Borgman points to parallel structure. This story is right after the lawyer who tries to test Jesus by asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and “wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus ‘Then who is my neighbor?’”[i] The lawyer and Martha are both anxious and trying to justify themselves.[ii] I am doing what is right, am I not? I know and follow the law. I am upholding our virtue of hospitality. “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”
Jesus replies to the lawyer with a story of a man robbed and left for dead. A priest and a Levite both pass him by, but a despised Samaritan stops to cares for him. Which one was a neighbor? The one who shows mercy. Jesus says: “Go, and do likewise.”[iii]Jesus replies to Martha. “You are worried and distracted by many things. … Mary has chosen the better part.” What does it mean to inherit eternal life? Listen to God’s Word like Mary, and do it like the Samaritan.[iv]
How are you relating to Jesus? Like the lawyer and Martha, where are you anxious? How are trying to justify yourself? What good is getting in the way?
The life to which Jesus calls us is essentially simple. In what does that simple life consist? The simple life – the life of the kingdom – consists in the abundant awareness that everything we receive is a gift that we did not earn or purchase; in the recognition that life itself is the first of all gifts; in the trust that our basic needs will be met; in the generosity that allows us to be the means by which God meets the needs of others; and in the capacity to surrender our inevitable craving for what we do not need.
Worrying is one behavior that leads to increased complexity of life, the labyrinthine complexity of misdirected anxiety. But this particular admonition not to worry is made more specific by a very clear statement: You cannot serve God and wealth. The incapacity to surrender our craving for what we do not need results in service to the wrong Master. And the tiny links in the chain with which that Master binds his unsuspecting devotees are worries. Restless hope of acquisition on the one hand, and undue fear for the security of what we have acquired on the other, results in a zig-zag of interior energy moving in the wrong direction: away from God.
As men who live under vows of poverty, celibacy, and obedience, we have committed ourselves to “striving first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness” in a radical way. On an external level, this particular version of the Christian vocation entails much letting go and doing without: of spouse, children, a household of our own, and a significant measure of individual autonomy, to name only the most significant sacrifices. But as we know very well, these things comprise only the outermost concentric circle in a life of progressive dispossession for the sake of the kingdom. We discover whole hordes of interior possessions, guarded tooth and nail by dragons who feed on our thoughts. In short, we are tempted to worry all over again – perhaps even to justify our worry spiritually.
Acts 2: 42 – 47
1 Peter 2: 19 – 25
John 10: 1 – 10
Finally the phone call came, and I went down to the post office to pick up my parcel. On this particular day the woman ahead of me in the line was picking up her package of bees. I’d seen them as I came into the post office. They were sitting, by themselves, on the loading dock. The postal workers won’t let them inside the building. They don’t like having to deliver bees, but the postal regulations require them to do so. My package on the other hand was sitting in the corner, near the counter. I knew it was mine because I could hear the goslings inside, honking away.
As incredible as it seems my four goslings had hatched on a Monday. They had been sexed, packed and shipped from Oklahoma before the end of that day, and there I was, picking them up in West Newbury on Wednesday. They came in a box about the size of a clementine orange box with a bit of straw and a heat pad. I put them in the car and drove them home, talking to them the whole way. When I got them home, I carefully opened the box and picked them up one at a time as I gave them something to drink. Having done that I was able to install them in their goose coop.
The name for this season in the Church year, “Advent,” derives from the Latin, adventus, which means arrival: the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah, the Christ, whom we as Christians know as Jesus. Meanwhile, as we anticipate this arrival, we wait. If we were to open the Gospel accounts according to Matthew and Luke, we discover a great many people waiting for the Messiah, the Christ. Mary is waiting. Joseph is waiting. Zechariah and Elizabeth are waiting. Symeon and Anna are waiting. Most everyone, it seems, is waiting. They’re waiting for an arrival. There are also shepherds who are waiting. There are some sages from the east – wisemen – who are waiting. The threatened government of Herod the Tetrarch is waiting, rather anxiously. The only persons who are not waiting are in Bethlehem, the keepers of an inn. And there’s no room in the inn. They’re all full up. It is nigh unto impossible to wait if you are full up, because waiting takes space; to be able to wait requires an emptiness. And that’s a problem. I think it’s problematic for many of us who live in North America.