The Unforgivable Sin

(Homily for 10th Sunday, Year B)

This Sunday we return to our readings from "ordinary time." The green vestments we priests and deacons are wearing indicate that after a rather lenghty break (17 Sundays) for Lent, Easter, Pentectost, Trinity and Corpus Cristi, we once again resume ordinary time. We seem to pick up in an odd place: hearing about Jesus being accused of having a devil, responding with a mysterious saying about an "unforgivable sin" and then distancing himself from his mother and relatives.

It seems strange they accused Jesus of being possessed by a devil. But to that accusation Jesus gives an answer at once simple and profound. "How can Satan be divided against Satan? A house divided against itself cannot stand."

Jesus cannot be devil-possessed and at the same time cast out devils. Still, there is something more here. Satan really is the master of division, disunity. Our word devil or diabolical, like the Spanish "diablo" comes from the Greek, diabollein which means to throw across or tear apart. Satan is the destoyer of unity.

C.S. Lewis descibes that tearing apart or disunity in his powerful book The Great Divorce. He pictures hell as a place where its residents keep moving out of their single unit dwellings so they can get further away from each other. The principle of Satan--of hell itself--is division, disunity, throwing apart.

Jesus on the other hand came to bring a deep, substantial unity. One of the signs of being his followers is that we are constantly working for more profound unity. This past week Archbishop Murphy gave a talk to new pastors. He outlined our job description, based on canon law. It had 17 points. I am not going to present them now (in fact, I don't know if I want to tell you all the points in my job description), but what struck me was how many of them had to do with working for unity. The pastor has the primary responsibility for bringing all the members of the parish together as one family. But not only that. He also must be sure we are closely joined to our bishop and the Holy Father--the diocese and the universal Church. Jesus wants his Church to be one. At the Last Supper he prayed, "May the all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me." (John 17:21 RSV translation.) Our unity will attract others to Jesus and his Church.

Unity with Jesus is based on receiving his forgiveness and forgiving each other. Regarding that forgiveness, we hear something a little jarring in today's Gospel. "Every sin will be forgiven, except the sin against the Holy Spirit. It can never be forgiven. It is an eternal sin." This sound like an exception to what we always hear about Jesus forgiving everything. I have to admit that in my years as a priest I have run into people, perhaps over scrupulous, who felt they had commited the unforgivable sin. They were sure that they would be forever condemned.

Before telling you what the unforgivable sin is, first let me tell you what it is not. It is not adultery or stealing or even dishonoring ones mother and father. It is not abortion nor is it some act of despair or blaspheming God. All those sins can be forgiven. The unforgivable sin--the sin against the Holy Spirit--is spelled out in today's Gospel. It was the sin of those who said Jesus has an unclean spirit. Now, obviously not just uttering those words, but what they mean. It's like saying I do not believe Jesus has the power to forgive. His blood means nothing to me. His death on the cross makes no difference. When a person says that--and means it--he cannot be forgiven, because has rejected the whole basis for forgiveness.

It's like the guy who falls off a ship. They throw him a float, but he is so embarrassed or so proud that he pushes it away. And he drowns because he rejects the one thing which could save him. The only way we can be rescued is by clinging to Jesus, embracing Him, his cross.

My dad's favorite religious song was "The Old Rugged Cross." He grew up as a Lutheran and that hymn always stayed in his mind. Two days before my dad died, he asked that it be sung at his funeral. Its verse says: "I will cling to the old rugged cross--and I will exchange it one day for a crown." By clinging to Jesus, to his cross, we will have the crown of salvation.

Today's Gospel is one of paradoxes, of surprises one on top of the other. First Jesus is accused of being demon-possessed, then he talks about the unforgivable sin. Now we find out that the very people who should have come to Him, His mother and close relatives, they seem to question, even reject Him.

Before trying to understand the spiritual meaning of this passage, we need to first recognize the human dimension. This is important because some people use this section to diminish the Blessed Virgin Mary. But we should not be surprised by a mother's concern for her only son, especially since He had become such a controversial figure. Mary was possibly trying to mediate between him and her other relatives.

Jesus himself is pretty calm about it all. He once again gives a response that seems simple, but has deeper level of meaning. "My mother and my brothers are those who do the will of my Father in heaven." It might seem like a slight on Mary, but it is not. Just the opposite. After all, we know from another part of the Gospel, Mary was the one who said, "I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word." What Jesus is saying is that as important family relationships are, the most important relationship is being part of the family of God. For the majority of us the most precious thing we have in this life is our family. But it is nothing compared to belonging to the family of Jesus. That happens by hearing the Word of God and keeping it. Of course Mary did that in a supreme way. Biblical scholars refer to her as the "disciple par excellence."

Being a disciple means recognizing our total dependence on God. Please allow me to quote Archbishop Murphy again. He is really the greatest example of discipleship we have before us here in Seattle at this moment. He gave a talk this week on Stewardship and he referred to what many of you heard at the Confirmation ceremony. He said he never realized the full depths of stewardship until the first Sunday of Advent last year. He was told he had acute leukemia and kidney failure and could only expect to live three days. He says that in that moment he recognized the deep meaning of stewardship--that we are totally dependent upon God: Every second of our lives, every single thing we possess, every skill we have. It all comes from God--and we will have to give an account back to him. That is stewardship. That is being a disciple.

I have to admit I am still a long way from that ideal of discipleship. I still tend to say "my." My time, my computer, my money, my friends, even my body. The Archbishop when he was so close to death got a glimpse into how false this "my" philosophy is. The Blessed Virgin Mary of course fully lived the truth--let it be done to me according to your Word. What I have, who I am is Yours. Use me according to your will.

Those who do the will of God, like Mary, are part of Jesus' family. This Sunday we are recognizing three disciples who have worked hard for our parish: Helen Osterle, Colin Sexton and Father Pete Peterson. We are grateful for the way they have touched so many people and we pray for them as they move on to other endeavors.

Whenever there is change like this, it not just a time for honoring. It is a time for asking what ways God is calling each of us to be disciples, to use our time, talent and treasure for the glory of God and the good of our brothers and sisters. I am not going to ask for any specific commitment at this moment. Summer is more a time for a certain rest and peacefulness to regain our spirits. It is a time to read and pray and talk to each other.

We have one nice blessing this summer. A seminarian of the Archdiocese, Armando Perez, will be living with me in the rectory and serving in the parish, especially to our young people. I will introduce him after communion, but I believe you will find it a real encouragement that young men like him are studying for the priesthood here in Seattle.

Before I end, I would like to note one other sign of encouragment: the total amount now pledged from Holy Family to the Annual Appeal is $71,274.60! 679 famlies have pledged; we are only 21 pledges from our goal of 700. I really thank you for that--and I also hear you saying you believe in Holy Family parish and that you love these very building. You want them kept up and improved. Certainly our parish council and finance council is communicating that. I want to say as your pastor that I love these buildings too. Not just for the 75 years of history they represent, but for the life and ministry that happens in them.

We'll be celebrating both our history and our future with a parish picnic on July 20. We hope it will be an occasion for Helen, Colin, Fr. Pete and many others associated with our parish to join in that celebration. Holy Family is a place where many have heard the call to discipleship--to hear the Word of God and keep it--and thus become members of that great family of Jesus.


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