We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
THE SIN THAT CANNOT BE FORGIVEN?
We are invited to consider in these verses the things that unite us and those that divide us. It’s interesting that Mark sets this question in two contexts – on the one hand that of Jesus’ family and relations (verses 20-21, and 31-35), and on the other the ongoing and often acrimonious dispute with the scribes (verses 22-30).
Christ proposes above all unity and that unity begins with our coming to him. The verses directly preceding this account see Jesus choose and name the Twelve and form a close knit group among them, centred on him. Now the evangelist speaks about Jesus’ family, and it doesn’t begin well – they say that he is out of his mind! Perhaps we are asked to consider here that even those who are close to us may not fully understand us when we show our attachment to Christ or to the things and practices of faith. The family in Jesus’ time was a very broadly spread reality and recognised bonds that, to us, might be considered tenuous. But even with that, it can be painful to be misunderstood and labeled in such a way.
Faith can put us at odds with the society around us, especially more so today when secularism can, explicitly and implicitly, want to sideline the public expression of ideas founded on faith-informed lives. There can even be a tendency today to see many changes in law as a victory over Church or faith practice. To such as these the practice of faith, the passing on of faith, and the worship and prayer life associated with faith can appear old fashioned, antiquated, something to be pilloried. And it has always been the case that Christianity has been abused as, in some way, going against reason, when it does quite the contrary and is entirely reasonable! There comes a moment in every believer’s life when that decision must be made and put into action – I believe, and therefore my life will reflect what I believe. This, after all, is the stuff of the Paschal mystery, and the whole content of the proclamation made by the apostles after the Pentecost event, which we see brimming over in the enthusiasm and zeal of the Acts of the Apostles.
So, is it time for me to live what I believe and be taken for someone ‘out of their mind’? Doing this I might just find that there are others like me!
Now we have to jump forward to the second mention of family, in verses 31-35. This is probably one of the most pivotal sayings of Jesus in the Gospels. Mark delivers the saying in a fairly blunt and undeveloped way – Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother.
At face value it seems to appear here that Jesus is rejecting those who have arrived at the place and are looking for him – including his own mother! This is not now the very extended family but those who are the closest to him. What makes us members of Jesus’ close family? What transforms our relationship with him so as to allow it to deepen? Jesus is not just speaking here about personal tags – he draws our attention to the attitude and behaviour that marks one out as a member of his family. He speaks here about bonds of communion, things that unite us with others and with him, beliefs which make us one out of many. We have already come to the heart of what it is to follow Christ – it consists in imitation of him, out of love.
Key here is doing the will of God. This is the characteristic which embraces everything that Christ says and does – he speaks and acts to demonstrate that in everything he knows the will of God, his Father, and he carries it out. This absolute binding to God’s will eventually, as we know, leads to the Cross – there really is no other destination for Christ, but he must always choose it freely, as the Father’s Son, the one who is closest to the Father’s heart. And we already know that Christ relates to the Father as Son, and this is confirmed at his baptism in the Jordan. As such, this is the only way in which we can relate to the Father – as Christ does.
Our lives are intimately tied to this question – what is God’s will for me, how do I identify it, and how do I live it out? But our lives, if we take our following of Christ seriously and our desire to imitate him seriously, are lived out of this communion which we can enjoy with him and with those who are like-minded to us – out of their minds like us! Christ works in the midst of the oneness which we enjoy, and Mark, again and again, places the greatest emphasis on this, as Christ gathers about him, in groups who listen to him and try to accept and understand what he offers them, those whom he makes into one. Where such groups, such families of brothers and sisters exist, Christ has the possibility of revealing himself. And where Christ is and is welcomed such communities have the possibility of existing.
We cannot pass over the fact that Christ himself, far from rejecting his mother and brothers (that is to say, his disciples), holds them up to us as examples of those who have heard him and accepted God’s will and put it into practice. And in the first place this concerns his mother. She does not receive the same attention in Mark’s Gospel that she does in the other gospels but she is present, in the group, moving around with him. This is the only occasion when she is mentioned – she is not even said to be present at the cross. But Mark says everything here that he needs to say – the mother of Jesus is the example of perfect discipleship – she does God’s will, just as her son also does.
In the middle of this discussion around those who constitute the most intimate with Christ, is the discussion around those who distance themselves completely from Christ. Christ speaks plainly about division here, and it militates against everything that he stands for and works for. But at the heart of this is the choice made by the person who wishes to separate from Christ. Christ is clear – this sort of division is destructive, because it involves siding with the liar, the one who cannot bear truthful witness. And Christ himself, as we know, both preaches the truth, and is himself Truth.
To deny Christ – is there any way back? The verses here which confront the question of a sin which appears to be beyond forgiveness can cause us anxiety. The question which we automatically ask ourselves is, Is there a sin which God cannot forgive? And what is this sin against the Holy Spirit?
The first question seems to deny the God whom we know as mercy. In fact, there is no sin which cannot be completely overcome by God’s merciful and loving forgiveness. To teach such would be to deny the very point of the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh – there would be no point in the Son perfectly carrying out the Father’s will by going to the Cross if it did not vanquish all sin, and the effects of sin, in every way. That said, we sometimes overlook the other side of this coin – I have the possibility of rejecting, even definitively, God’s loving mercy. For St John, in his Gospel and in the letters, the rejection of Jesus Christ is the rejection of eternal life, and there is something of that here in Mark. Extraordinarily, within a few verses, the Trinity is presented to us – the eternal Son of God speaking about both the Holy Spirit and God, his Father. The disciple who makes the choice of discipleship does so by professing this belief, which forms the foundation of our cooperation with redemption and salvation, the forgiveness of our sins. To reject this mystery – to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, who is the bond of love and unity between the Father and the Son – is to sin in a way which rejects at the same time Christ’s redeeming action, God’s salvific intervention, the Spirit’s life-giving outpouring. And in doing so there is a complete rejection of the unity and communion which is God, the unity of the Three Persons in One. This is to choose the way of division, and destruction, which is Satan’s choice.
Ultimately, God stands ready to forgive and forgives when we dispose ourselves freely in that forgiveness, recognising our great need of it. But equally, when we, knowingly, exercise that great freedom in a way which chooses the contrary, we choose against God and his mercy.
This week’s lectio, then, confronts us with realities which, in a sense, sum us up as Christ’s disciples and as men and women who take seriously a life lived in conformity with Christ – how to choose union with God and communion with one another.
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-