Sermon preached for the tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
Mark 3: 7-12, 22-30
Jesus left with his disciples and went to the lake. A large crowd followed him because they had heard what he was doing. They were from Galilee, Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the area surrounding Tyre and Sidon. Jesus told his disciples to get a small boat ready for him so the crowd wouldn’t crush him. He had healed so many people that everyone who was sick pushed forward so that they could touch him. Whenever the evil spirits saw him, they fell down at his feet and shouted, “You are God’s Son!” But he strictly ordered them not to reveal who he was. …
The legal experts came down from Jerusalem. Over and over they charged, “He’s possessed by Beelzebul. He throws out demons with the authority of the ruler of demons.”
When Jesus called them together he spoke to them in a parable: “How can Satan throw Satan out? A kingdom involved in civil war will collapse. And a house torn apart by divisions will collapse. If Satan rebels against himself and is divided, then he can’t endure. He’s done for. No one gets into the house of a strong person and steals anything without first tying up the strong person. Only then can the house be burglarized.
Whoo boy. Here we go.
Our scripture this morning opens on Jesus in the midst of what has already become a familiar scene, even just three chapters into Mark’s gospel: Jesus surrounded by huge crowds of people who have come for his healing. But at the end of this scene we get a bit of an odd detail: that it’s only the unclean spirits among the crowd who actually see what’s going on here. They’re the only ones who get that Jesus is the Son of God. Not the priests. Not the Pharisees. Not even the paralytics and lepers and blind men who’ve been healed. They don’t see what’s really going on here. But the unclean spirits do.
The scene shifts—we get a brief interlude where Jesus chooses and commissions the twelve apostles—and then he goes back home, and the crowd gathers again. But this time, it involves some new guests.
Someone—perhaps the Pharisees, perhaps a neighbor, perhaps even his own family—have called in the top brass. They have asked the scribes from the temple—the temple—in Jerusalem, the highest of the higher-ups, to weigh in on what’s going on here in the Galilee. This is like calling in a team from the Vatican. If Jesus is the real deal, surely they’ll know it. And if he’s not… well, they’ll know that too.
And this is what the experts say: “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.”
The actual demons got it. They bowed down before the Jesus. It’s the people—the people who couldn’t see. Who were so blinded by arrogance and jealousy and prejudice that they couldn’t imagine this back-country healer being anyone special to God.
And so the verdict comes down, swift and sure. He has Beelzebul. He’s demonic. Inhuman. Subhuman.
And from this moment on, it’s a straight shot to Jesus’ crucifixion.
I don’t think that’s an overstatement.
And its not just because they have passed judgment on him. Its because of the language they use to do it.
Language matters. It shapes how we think, how we interact, what we notice. The words we use literally change which parts of our brains light up. So when the scribes call Jesus demonic, they are inviting that great crowd around him to think of him as something less than them. Less than human. Less than holy.
It is a timeless strategy, using language to dehumanize an enemy. It crosses cultures and eras. The rationale goes something like this. If a person is not really human, then none of the ethics we use to relate to fellow human beings matter. If a person is not really human—if they are demons or animals or monsters—then there is nothing wrong with killing or enslaving or exploiting them.
In order to make it acceptable to take their land, settlers painted Native Americans as savages. White colonists who purchased human beings for labor were happy to put them in cargo holds and refer to them as cattle. Puritan preachers who burned women alive first called them witches and demons—in fact, with a devastating lack of a sense of irony, accused some of having Beelzebul—the very same accusation leveled at Christ himself. Nazi propaganda called the Jews “rats,” turning genocide into pest control. Hutus involved in slaughtering Tutsis in Rwanda referred to them as “cockroaches.” Members of the LGBTQ community have routinely been called demonic. Today, rhetoric that turns immigrant families into animals is gaining steam.
This is a thing we do. We look at our neighbor, whom God created in God’s image, and we call them a beast or a demon or savage or pest, because it makes it easier. It makes it easier to feel nothing when we put them in cargo holds or in cages or on crosses.
Calling Jesus inhuman is the first step to crucifying him. Calling people inhuman is the first step to destroying them.
Philosopher Sam Keen writes, “In the beginning we create the enemy. Before the weapon comes the image. We think others to death and then invent the battle-axe or the ballistic missiles with which to actually kill them.”It starts with language. It starts with ideas.
It starts with looking at a man who has come to preach God’s word and heal God’s children and saying “he’s demonic.” It ends with that man nailed alive to a cross.
And it doesn’t matter that Jesus can refute them. It doesn’t matter how obvious it is that of course Jesus isn’t demonic, because why would a demon cast out other demons? It doesn’t matter that Jesus is clever and compassionate and generous and sharp-witted and all those other things that make him fully human, as well as fully God. The idea has been planted. It’ll take a few years. But eventually the crowd will turn.
It is a devastating moment, all the more so because it is so early in Jesus’ career. The writing is on the wall, but it doesn’t stop Jesus. It doesn’t stop him from healing, from teaching, from forgiving. It doesn’t stop him from going to Jerusalem to face those same scribes three years later. It doesn’t even slow him down. He knows who he is: God’s holy messiah, appointed to preach good news. They can say what they want. It doesn’t make it true.
And in fact, Jesus is going to spend his whole ministry fighting the exact attitude the scribes hold. He’s going to spend his whole ministry showing compassion and respect for all the people his society considered “less than human”—women and children and the sick and disabled and disfigured. He’s going to spend the rest of his life showing them—and showing us—that we are all children of God, members of his own family, made in the precious image of our creator.
Because here’s the really twisted thing about dehumanizing others: in doing that, we lose a bit of our own humanity. The very rhetoric that makes it easier to destroy our fellow human beings will eventually eat away at us, too.
Jesus has one more thing to say before we wrap up this week’s episode of the Gospel of Mark. And it’s a doozy.
“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”— for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
Full confession: when I originally planned today’s sermon, I was actually going to cut the scripture reading off before the blasphemy bit. I didn’t want to deal with it. I still don’t, actually, but Jesus said it, so I can’t ignore it.
Even though it sets off all my alarm bells. I believe in the forgiveness of sins, just like we say in the apostle’s creed. I believe in the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. I believe in irresistible grace, as Calvin put it. I live week-to-week for the moment our liturgist declares our forgiveness. I don’t believe God’s forgiveness comes with provisos, limitations, or exceptions.
And yet Jesus says, “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
Before I go any further, I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent here, because I think I need to. Somewhere along the line in Christian tradition, somebody decided that this “unforgiveable sin” was suicide. Scripture doesn’t say that. You can see that for yourselves. Someone just made that up, and it has done so much harm. So in case anyone has ever told you that suicide is unforgiveable, or that someone you love is not forgiven simply because they were in so much pain, I want you to hear me clearly: that is a giant load of horse hooey. Suicide is not a sin. It is a tragedy, and painful, and deserves every bit of our compassion and respect. And I would invite you, again and always, to reach out to me and to any of our elders here if that is a topic that is hitting too close to home right now.
Scripture does not say that suicide is an unforgiveable sin. Scripture doesn’t say that what back home we’d call “cussin’” is an unforgiveable sin, either. In fact, the words “unforgiveable sin” aren’t even in here.
Jesus isn’t talking about whether a sin, in some abstract way, can or can’t be forgiven. Jesus is talking about whether a person—a human person—can have forgiveness or not. In the Greek, the language of forgiveness is the language of imprisonment. To be forgiven is to be freed, and to be unforgiven is to be trapped. So what Jesus is talking about is whether or not a person can find their freedom, or if they’re stuck. In scripture, sin is what holds us captive. God is who sets us free.
And what is the sin that Jesus is talking about? What is this blasphemy against the Holy Spirit?
Mark tells us, as plainly as we’re likely to get. It’s when the scribes look at Jesus, looked at a man who reached out his hands in compassion and love to heal, who took his holiness and spent every last drop of it on his brothers and sisters, and call him an unclean spirit. It’s when they look at something blindingly, beautifully holy and call it unholy.
And I think I get it. Because if you can look Jesus in the face—if you can look that kind of love and compassion and sacrifice in the face—and call it unholy, then I don’t know that you can ever really be free. If you can look at God and see a demon, then I could plop you right down into heaven and you wouldn’t know where you were. If you can reach out and touch the Holy Spirit, and call it an unclean spirit—well then, I think we’re at an impasse. How can you get free from a prison you don’t think you’re in? How can you love a God you refuse to recognize?
Now, I do believe that God can open our eyes. I believe God can free us from our narrow-mindedness and prejudice and sheer pig-headedness. But I appreciate the seriousness with which Jesus takes this transgression. If you can look at God, and call God a demon, it’s going to be hard for anything else to fall into line—any peace, any joy, any hope, any faith.
And so too, if you can look at the image of God in your neighbor, and call them a brute, or demon, or savage, or thing, then it becomes infinitely harder to treat them with compassion, and dignity, and respect, and love. If you can look at God’s children and not see a single spark of the divine in them, then you are in a prison of your own making, and I have to imagine it is so very lonely there.
Human beings are human beings. I wish I didn’t have to say that, but millennia of history prove I do. But as Christians, we make an even bolder claim: human beings carry the image of God. Human beings make up the body of Christ. Human beings are vessels of the Holy Spirit.
Every. Last. One.
I know it can seem harmless. Just words. But words have power, as Christians should know better than anyone. And part of our call as Christians is to pay attention to the language we use, and to the language other people tempt us to use.
Remember in the beginning, when God spoke the world into being? Well, so can we.
We know what happens when humans look at other humans and call them rats, cockroaches, witches, savages. And it’s nothing good.
But what would happen if we looked at each other and called each other holy?
Keen, Sam. Faces Of The Enemy: Reflections Of The Hostile Imagination.San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986.