WE ARE CONTINUALLY TALKING about Christ’s merciful love. At every service in Byzantine churches we say that Christ is “gracious and the Lover of mankind.” We frequently refer to Him as the One who gives us the “Great Mercy” of union with God. When Pope Francis proclaimed 2016 as the “Year of Mercy” he was simply giving new expression to a concept which believers have known since the beginning.
Yet, in Matthew’s Gospel we see a Christ who seems the opposite of mercy, calling out His foes as guilty of committing the sin which “never has forgiveness.” This passage, read at the Divine Liturgy in our Church on the eighth Saturday after Pentecost, has been troublesome to commentators over the centuries. Yet there are signposts in this passage and in a corresponding passage in Mark which help us understand Christ’s meaning here.
Christ Provokes Division
The passage in Matthew begins with these words of the Lord: “He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters abroad” (Matthew 12:30). As Jesus went from town to town He was attracting more and more attention. People had begun flocking to Jesus who was teaching, healing the sick and expelling demons. He became the focus of controversy and people were soon taking sides. Some felt that Jesus was a prophet, a holy man, while others saw Him as a charlatan. According to Mark’s Gospel this division touched even His own family.
“When His own people heard about this [His activity], they went out to lay hold of Him, for they said, ‘He is out of His mind’” (Mark 3:21). They assumed that they knew who He was, the son of Joseph, the village carpenter. At worst, they may have felt that He was disgracing them; at best they may have wanted to protect Him from coming to any harm.
A delegation came from Jerusalem to see what the fuss was about. Mark reports their conclusion: “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebub,’ and, ‘By the ruler of the demons He casts out demons…’” (Mark 3:21-22). The term Beelzebub was an ancient derogatory term for the devil, formed by changing one letter in the name of a Philistine god to read “Lord of the flies.” The scribes were thus ascribing Jesus’ power as coming from the devil.
In response Christ identifies their sin as unforgivable: “‘Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation’” — (And here Mark explains) “because they said, ‘He has an unclean spirit’” (Mark 3:28-30).
According to Mark, then, the sin which never has forgiveness is when we see a work of God as the devil’s.
Rejecting the Work of the Holy Spirit
In both Mark and Matthew the Lord defines this unforgivable sin as blaspheming the Holy Spirit. The example given in Mark is that the scribes accused Jesus of having “an unclean spirit.” In effect, the scribes were calling the Holy Spirit a demon, an unclean spirit. They were not simply rejecting Jesus, but also the Spirit who was at work in Him.
Jesus Himself had ascribed His mission and work to the Holy Spirit. In the synagogue at Nazareth where he had prayed following His forty days in the wilderness Jesus had quoted the Prophet Isaiah, reading Isaiah 61:1-2 – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
He then attributed to Himself the same Spirit who inspired Isaiah: “Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4:17-21).
The Spirit Known in Israel
The Spirit of the Lord was universally acknowledged by the Jews throughout their history. The Torah itself tells how “The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” at creation” (Genesis 1:2). In Psalm 103, the “creation psalm” which begins our service of vespers on most days, we read “You send forth Your Spirit and they are created; You renew the face of the earth” (Psalms 103:30). In addition, the Spirit of God was seen as the One who inspires and directs the actions of the righteous. In Psalm 142:10 we read “Teach me to do Your will for You are my God; may Your good Spirit lead me over level ground.”
It was the Spirit of God who was recognized as leading Israel in their journey as God’s People, particularly through the prophets, whom they generally ignored. In Nehemiah’s account of Israelite history we read: “You did not forsake them in the wilderness… You also gave Your good Spirit to instruct them” (Nehemiah 9:19-20). Nevertheless, the people did not heed the guidance of the Spirit. “For many years You had patience with them and testified against them by Your Spirit in Your prophets. Yet they would not listen; therefore You gave them into the hand of the peoples of the lands” (Nehemiah 9:30).
All the great leaders of Israel – patriarchs, judges, kings – were said to be filled with the Spirit of God. The prophets were particularly identified as directed by God’s Spirit. Men like Balaam, Elijah, Elisha, Joel, Haggai, Isaiah and Zechariah all saw themselves as “filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord” (Micah 3:8). Some of them looked ahead to the time of Israel’s restoration when Another would come to redeem Israel. “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him…” (Isiah 11:1-2).
And so Jews were aware of how the Spirit of God worked among them in the last days through many of the signs that Jesus was performing. To dismiss Him out of hand was to reject the possibility that God was working in Him. Condemning Jesus’ works as being of the devil was to dismiss the Holy Spirit of God Himself.
Mystery of the Son of Man
In Matthew’s Gospel we read these words of the Lord: “Therefore I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven men. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:31-32).
Some Fathers reflected on why speaking against the Son of Man would be forgiven, but not speaking against the Holy Spirit. Some of them offered this interpretation: while the Jews had ample experience of God’s Spirit working through prophets, they had no idea that His Word would ever be incarnate as a man. Had they accepted Jesus as a prophet, they might have been led to see Him as the Messiah and even as the Son of God as the apostles were. Their view of Him would have been changed, were they open to God so leading them. Then anything they might have said against Jesus would have been revised in the light of their deeper experience of Him. But as long as they rejected His Spirit outright as being from the devil, they would never grow to accept Him and, thus, never been able to undo their sin by repentance.