Lectionary 10B, June 10, 2018
Genesis 3:8-15, Psalm 130, 2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1, Mark 3:20-35
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This week’s Gospel reading has Jesus tangling with the scribes from the Jerusalem temple. In the chapter prior to this, Jesus had healed people who were sick and cast out demons, causing quite a stir. He’d also preached and taught and called the twelve disciples, so there was a great crowd everywhere he went. And there was a ton of controversy about him, because he forgave sinners and was openly friendly with social outcasts, the tax collectors and the sinners. He ate meals with the people that nice religious people were supposed to despise. And he’d tangled with the Pharisees because he used a messianic title to refer to himself and they didn’t believe he was the Messiah. So now here he is. It’s still the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, but he has already created quite a stir. And people are flocking to him because they know something good is happening, even if they’re not quite sure what. They see people being healed, they see demons cast out, they see good news being preached, and they are excited. They don’t know exactly what’s going on—some people think this Jesus fellow is simply nuts—but they know something big is happening. Something worth keeping an eye on as they figure things out.
And this is when the scribes from Jerusalem show up. Now, we don’t have a position exactly like the scribes today. The word “scribe” means “someone who writes for a living,” which in the days before people had typewriters and computers and printing presses meant that they were the people who kept the records. But don’t think of them as if they were mere functionaries or secretaries. They were the ones who kept the records … which meant, effectively, that the records meant what they said they did. They were the ones who recorded everything from history to poetry to business deals, and they were the ones who interpreted it. In a lot of ways, they were like today’s lawyers and judges. This was a very important and prestigious position. No scribe was independently important, but as a class they were a force to be reckoned with.
The other thing about them is that their position and class depended on the patronage of the chief priests and the secular hierarchy. Poor people can’t afford to pay a scribe to take notes for them, or to interpret the law for them. Even middle class people only used a scribe’s services rarely. The Temple and the chief priests were their primary employers, and the rich and powerful were their main other source of income. And let’s review who the rich and powerful were, at this point in time. The Romans ruled, either directly or through puppets like Herod. Israel was a conquered territory ruled by foreign invaders who responded to any hint of rabble-rousing with immediate cruelty to the whole population. The rich and powerful were either Romans or people who sucked up to them. And the Romans did not like anything stirring up the ordinary person on the street.
As for the Temple, well, the chief priests were intimately aware that their existence depended on Rome’s good will. Rome allowed the Temple to exist in the hopes that it would placate the Jewish people. If the chief priests and temple authorities allowed the beginnings of an uprising, their heads would be first on the chopping block. Or rather, first on the cross, because that was how the Romans executed conquered people. Not to mention, the chief priests were supposed to be the ones with the monopoly on God’s power and wisdom, not untutored yokels from the sticks. So, basically, when these scribes show up to see Jesus, they have a ton of reasons not to like him. He’s a threat to their power and authority, and they are afraid at what might happen if he incites the crowds around him to violence and the Romans respond.
So when those scribes arrive, they don’t even bother to see what he’s doing or hear his message. They have already decided he is a threat, and therefore he cannot be from God. God’s Spirit cannot be present in someone they do not approve of, someone who threatens to upset their applecart. Therefore, all of his supernatural powers—healing, casting out demons—must come from a demonic source. It doesn’t make any sense AT ALL, because why would a demon want to cast out demons? Why would a demon heal people? Those are the LAST two things a demon would want. Demons do evil, not good. That’s their very nature. But the scribes don’t care. Jesus is a threat, so he must be discredited at all costs.
Think about that, for a second. Think about the arrogance and hard-heartedness it would take, to see someone healing the sick and casting out demons, saving people from the very real evils in their lives in the most concrete way imaginable, and declaring that the healing force is demonic and evil. They are literally seeing God’s power at work in front of their very eyes, and it’s not just that they don’t believe it. No, it’s worse than that. They see God’s power, and it’s doing something they don’t approve, so they believe it’s the devil.
And Jesus tells them that they have committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the one unforgivable sin. Now, Christians in various times and places have sometimes interpreted it in various ways, mostly by taking whatever sin they find most immoral and calling it a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But this passage is actually fairly specific about what blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. It’s when you see the Holy Spirit at work and call it evil. Everything else can be forgiven. Unbelief, spreading lies about God, killing people, stealing, lying, cheating, and any other sin you care to name, it can all be forgiven. But not looking at the power of God bringing healing to the world and calling it evil.
Unfortunately, the scribes of old are not the only ones to feel this temptation. You see, the Holy Spirit is disruptive. The Holy Spirit is a troublemaker, it is disorderly, upsetting, disruptive. The Holy Spirit is wind, ruffling our feathers and blowing the dust off us and inspiring us to move out of old, comfortable, worn-out tracks. The Holy Spirit is flame, setting us on fire and purifying us. The Holy Spirit is water, washing us clean and drowning our old sinful self and making us re-born children of God. The Holy Spirit sets prisoners free and makes people see things they have been blind to. The Holy Spirit forgives sins and crosses boundaries. The Holy Spirit brings good news to people who are poor and oppressed, and healing to a world broken by sin and death.
None of that is comfortable. In fact, most of it is really uncomfortable. Given a chance, most human beings do not like change. We prefer things we understand, even if they’re not all that great, to things we don’t understand, even when it is so much better than anything we could have imagined. We are prone to nostalgia, viewing the past through rose-tinted glasses and forgetting all the bad parts of it, as an excuse to keep things the same. We don’t want to be set on fire, and we don’t want to be reborn, and while we like being forgiven we don’t like others to be forgiven, and by and large we don’t want to see things that might make us think new thoughts, either. And the more wealth and power and status and influence we have, the less change we want, because after all, we don’t want to risk losing things. And the more likely we are to count the Spirit’s disruptive action as a threat.
The Holy Spirit is at work in the world, and though it is not always comfortable, it is always good: healing people and communities, inspiring, and working to make the world more like God’s kingdom. It isn’t always easy to understand, but it is always present. Whether we understand it or not, whether we want to be disrupted or not, may we always see it for what it is.