Friday, April 23, 2010

The Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit

This is a sermon written for my New Testament intro course.

The Text: Matthew 12:22-32

“Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age, or in the age to come.” I know any of you who were paying attention when the gospel was read will have had some sort of reaction to these verses. You might have started a bit at the words “will not be forgiven,” and at the words “blasphemy against the Spirit” you were probably a little puzzled as to what exactly Jesus meant. This combination of a vague crime and a strict punishment certainly gives the imagination a lot of room; and where we are so free to imagine the crime we are also all the more dangerously liable to suppose that we ourselves are guilty of its commission and so worthy of its punishment. Terrible fear and doubt has been engendered by these verses in the Christian hearts of all ages, such terrible fear that I might even wish the authors of sacred scripture, when they sat down to record the sayings of Jesus, had left this one out. For they certainly did not record everything he did: these authors were selective in what they preserved, and preserved what they selected to help us grow in faith and understanding, and yet Matthew, along with Mark and Luke, thought it important to include in his gospel this troubling saying, this harshest verdict of the law of God.

Listen to these verses again, listen carefully: “People will be forgiven every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against Spirit will not be forgiven.” I want first to note one thing: there is incredible hope in this passage. Perhaps it does not seem so at first glance. But how great an occasion for faith and trust in Jesus Christ, how powerful and comforting a testimony it is to the grace and mercy of our God that Jesus here singles out only one from the many thousands of sins we could envision for an irrevocable and inescapable condemnation. If you have murdered, Jesus is saying, if you have stolen, there is forgiveness for you. If you have hurt those you love out of jealousy or greed, there is forgiveness for you. If you have allowed a father or a sister or a friend to slip into the clutches of death while enmity still reigned between you, there is forgiveness for that as well, from God your heavenly Father already in this age, and, if we may hope in Christ, from that loved one themselves in the age to come. Remember always the abundance of this forgiveness.

So from this Teacher of mercy we hear that of all sin and blasphemy only blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And what, then, is this ‘blasphemy’? I think for us the way this word is often thrown around these days does something to dull its meaning. Don’t we hear, for example, a fierce and empassioned partisan of some musician or actor pronounce it (albeit jokingly) “blasphemy” to criticize their work? Or, more to the point, will we not hear that insufferable race of political commentators assert that in certain circles it is ‘practically blasphemy’ to express support for the health care bill, or, on the other side, ‘practically blasphemy’ to have qualms about supporting it? Now what does blasphemy appear to be if we are led by the way it is used in our popular culture and our everyday language? It seems to have something to do with holding opinions, doesn’t it? It seems as though blasphemy is merely a stronger word for an opinion of yours that is contrary to someone else’s strongly held conviction.

Is that at all that blasphemy means here in the Bible? If that’s what we mean by blasphemy, how can there be blasphemy against someone? That is what Jesus says here, blasphemy against the Spirit. Can I hold an opinion against you? You might disagree with an opinion of mine, but ask yourself how I could be said to hold it against you. But in the Bible, in this verse, blasphemy is something we commit against someone. And it is really a term about respect, about honoring what is worthy of honor. The Greek word blasphemia has a variety of senses, but one of them is slander—something you can commit against someone. This especially applies to the slander of someone of high standing, of great eminence or dignity. And so, since there is no personage on earth or in heaven whose worth and authority and eminence can be equaled or even compared with God’s, the term came more strictly to mean slander against God.

Blasphemy, then, against the Spirit is an affront to the Spirit’s dignity, a disregard for the honor that is due him, a flagrant disrespect of his person. It is to treat him disparagingly, to insult him, to place him in contempt. But of what comfort is this definition to us poor sinners? When there is not one of our sins which does not in some respect insult God or misrepresent him, how can it be that but one sin is blasphemy against the Spirit, who himself is also God? But Jesus goes on a little more, as we heard, so as to be clear on exactly what he means: “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age, or in the age to come.”

Hold on to that contrast between the Son of Man and the Holy Spirit, we’ll come to that. But to speak a word against someone, what does that mean? It does not strike me as a phrase we use particularly often. “At the meeting she spoke against the ballot measure.” This is how we usually employ the phrase, am I right, in political contexts, in matters of debate. But what about speaking against a person? “Last week in Bible study, Pastor spoke against John Spong.” This is closer to the Biblical usage, but I’m still talking about positions, opinions, sides, am I not? This is the problem we had earlier with the word blasphemy: the way we usually use the word is not quite the same as the way the Bible uses it. It is very close, and I don’t want to give you the impression that you need some secret knowledge to understand your Bible: 99 times out of 100 you can read your Bible carefully in English and understand what it is saying. But there is that one percent—and in a verse like this it is terribly important that we know what Jesus means and what he doesn’t mean.

In Greek, to speak against someone is much more personal that it usually is in English—it is a phrase you use when you take someone to court, or if you are otherwise feuding or in controversy with them, and it comes out in words. It is not something mainly about their opinions, but their person. This is not the sense in which a congressman speaks against a legislative measure; there is animosity in speaking against someone. It is not their opinion, but their person, and it is not about them, but to them that you say these things. That is the sense the Greek language has of speaking against someone, a sense of accusing them, of a verbal attack on their person, of invective, of this direct form of insult and disrespect. And it is this phrase that Jesus uses to characterize that fearful and terrible thing for which we will not be forgiven.

So what then is this blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? How is it that we could speak against the Holy Spirit in this personal and aggressive way? So we have a definition of this sin, of speaking against the Holy Spirit, but the definition is not much less vague than what we started with: “pastor, all you’ve done is to give us more room to imagine and fear.” If you want an evidence of the devil’s subtlest tricks, how he uses our weaknesses against us, how he uses our strengths against us, look to your imagination. Here is a hard teaching from the Lord, but as we contemplate it, as we take time carefully to think upon it, up come thoughts and images that suggest our condemnation, up come the wildest fantasies of how me may have sinned this unforgiveable sin. And this is rightly terrifying. It is rightly terrifying to consider the prospect of an eternal separation from God, in whom is all light and all life and all love, to consider the pain of an eternal punishment for this one temporal transgression. And so we who do yearn—and if you are here this morning there is at least some part of you that yearns—for the face of God, who strive to be called blest because we hunger and thirst for righteousness, we who want to walk as children of the light, we are rightly and justly solicitous to learn what is this sin which in an instant would destroy all those desires sought to gain.

Do not let that easily tempted imagination get the better of you, do not let Satan have his way with your anxiety. There is good news in this commandment, remember, for every transgression under heaven but one. There is forgiveness for all those tangible sins in your life, forgiveness from God and forgiveness for one another. But there is good news for us also in the hardness of the commandment: listen and see if you can hear it. Listen with the ear of your heart for the whispers that the Spirit is sending you, for that Spirit we are here so fretfully and piously endeavoring to never offend is the very same Spirit that blows where it listeth, the Spirit that searches our hearts and carries up to heaven our most intimate and unutterable sighs. It knows us better than we know ourselves, and we feel its power and comfort in us in those moments when we do not feel so dried of our baptismal waters, when in the bread and the juice we feel our Lord most nearly present, when the Word pierces our soul like an arrow. Who of us in such a moment of rapturous power would even think to speak against the very Spirit that endued that memory or that morsel or that message with such power? When in the flesh and sinews of our worship, in the hymns and the prayers, the sermon and the sacraments, we can feel an inexpressible vivacity, there is the Holy Spirit of God—and having met him, we do not condemn him or insult him or dishonor him; I do not know that we are capable of summoning any other feeling than love and wonder. Or in the sinews of our lives, which seem so often weak or straining, when the Spirit of the living God breaks through our mornings or our evenings, our commute or our last thoughts before we sleep, and suddenly Jesus is there and saying “peace be with you”—when that unexpected joy is in you you will not be moved to do the Spirit wrong, to attack him with your words, to speak against him. And yet this is what it would be to speak against the Holy Spirit, for he is not constrained to be ever before us, to always be visible to us, but the Spirit blows where he listeth, and when he does so choose to present himself to us his goodness is overpowering and his joy is irresistible.

But, sisters and brothers, does not the Psalmist cry “take not thy Holy Spirit from me?” Do we not most of us consider ourselves immeasurably blest at all to feel those motions of the Spirit? Those sinews of worship in which the Spirit moves can just as often seem the sinews of a corpse, and the movements of a hymn as lifeless. And those sinews of our daily lives, are they not all too often the most lifeless labors of all? And when in all those things we feel a sickness with our life that passes hour by hour so often without meaning or accomplishment, then are we tempted and do often succumb to a kind of blasphemy, to a kind of accusation against God. But we do not speak against the Holy Spirit there but against the Son of Man; no light matter, yet one for which the merciful Father of our Lord has nevertheless an inexhaustible treasury of forgiveness. For remember how Jesus appeared to the world in his earthly ministry, in every one of his born days even up to those hours of his passion, even up to the hour of his burial. When Joseph of Arimathea had his men roll down the stone into place to seal the tomb, they were burying a man like any other, indeed they were burying the man of whom Isaiah had said in him “there is no beauty that we should desire him.” This was the Lord of all, but who saw it? This eternal Son of the everliving Father in heaven, who saw him? He was a mere son of man, a human being like us all, and when we behold this everyday man with our everyday eyes it is all too easy to forget what we saw in him when the Spirit was shining from him and upon him. And when we see this God at work in what seems like tedium to us, we imagine him to be a tedious God; when we accept his providence over the details, we tend to take issue with how he handles them; when we do not get from every turn a new and blinding revelation, then we accuse him and we speak against this Son of Man, this God who is everyday. In him there is no beauty that we should desire him, but he too is God; he too is worthy of all honor and yet we subject him to all blasphemy—though such blasphemy, alleluia, as God has promised to forgive. Yet to blaspheme this humble Son of Man in those very moments when the Spirit so shines forth from him that in this Son of Man we see the Son of God?—I cannot imagine it. And yet because I cannot imagine it I can grasp its ultimate seriousness; because we cannot comprehend this sin, we may understand why such an enormity could not be pardoned.

Did these Pharisees who prompted Jesus’ words blaspheme against the Spirit? They had not actually seen the miracle that Jesus did, they were not there when the demon was cast out, when the strong man was bound by someone stronger—Matthew says they had heard about it. And isn’t that where we so often are. In all my life as a Christian I have never seen the Spirit go forth in power to heal someone physically, but I have heard of such things. And I confess that I have often responded with the skepticism or even the hostility of the Pharisees and not the love and trust that I owe my Christian brother. But when I am mindful of when I have known the Spirit’s power, if less dramatically than that, I am less liable to speak against the Son of Man, and to remember that behind his everyday appearance is a glory that is brilliantly new every morning. But to see the Spirit accomplish its great act—ask someone who has seen it, and they will not tell you that they doubted in that moment. So it seems to me here, in this story, that the Pharisees blasphemed the Son of Man, but did not blaspheme the Holy Spirit.

Yet I do not think Jesus would have uttered these words if he did not think that there were those who have spoken against his Holy Spirit—and he knows the hearts of us all. But hear this word of comfort: if you have ever felt the Spirit move in you as power and love and joy there is neither force nor compulsion strong enough to change that disposition of your heart to one of blasphemy. If you strive at all for the kingdom, if there is any desire in your heart to be conformed to the image of Christ, and to imitate his life, then know that you have not been put beyond hope by committing this blasphemy. God does not abandon those whom he has drawn to himself. Remember what a treasury of forgiveness these verses promise us for all our offenses, and know that whosoever earnestly seeks forgiveness in his other sins, will not ever be the one to make himself in this sin unforgiveable. Amen.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Night in Which He Was Betrayed

It is partly by my lot and station and partly by the season and week we now are in that I today came across not one, but two different speculative reconstructions of the trial and execution of our Lord. The first, E.P. Sanders' conviction that Jesus was condemned by the Jewish authorities not for the blasphemy of claiming to be the Son of God or to hold other messianic titles, but for his turning over the money-changers' tables in the temple, I encountered while poking around in his book Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah; he apparently discusses it more in-depth in some of his other works. The argument is not terribly far-fetched (Sanders appeals to the difference in Jewish law between blasphemy and false prophecy, and the sense of these messianic titles in pre-Christian usage) but it does come down to suspicion of the gospels on a point where they do not greatly disagree. Suspicion may well be warranted for the historian on a point where the gospels narrate events in markedly different ways, but this is not such a point.

The second account, and by far the more fanciful one, I encountered in a brief essay by Gary Greenberg, arguing that the tradition of Judas' betrayal of Jesus does not correspond to the historical reality. I will not rehearse his argument, since the essay is easily accessible by the link above, but only point out the sort of evidence he is using.

1. An argument from silence in Paul.
2. An argument from "Q Material" which assumes first, that Q exists, of course, second, that in this particular passage Matthew represents the older tradition (the fidelity of Matthew's version to the Q original is argued on the basis of Luke's attempting to re-interpret the Judas tradition, that is to say, Greenberg has very bumblingly begged the question here), and, finally, that the passage in question is to be read in a crudely literal sense and not symbolically.
3. An argument from a non-canonical gospel which Greenberg has given an incredibly early date (pre-Mark!), acknowledging 'controversy' but providing to evidence, save a citation of that universally esteemed scholar, John Crossan.
4. An argument from the semantics of paradidomi.

This claim merits further attention. Paradidomi is the verb your New Testament will translate 'betray' in the passion contexts, but Greenberg claims that it in fact never means 'betray,' but only the more neutral 'hand over' appealing to the work of William Klassen, Judas: Betrayer or Friend of Jesus, which is available on Google Books. It is first of all unclear to me how much different the meanings of 'hand over' and 'betray' would be in the situation as the gospels describe it (for Greenberg's putative reconstruction of history it does make some difference); what we have here is purely the combat of psychologizations. Second, I have it on the authority of a New Testament scholar that many New Testament scholars are unfortunately often not as careful as they should be when appealing to evidence in Classical Greek, especially that the Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon, certainly the authoritative record of the Greek language, is not always treated as critically as it ought to be in matters of classical usage. Klassen's argument is a case in point, as he addresses the three citations given in LSJ and a couple uses in papyri; this is not a thorough word study, and there is no excuse not to do a thorough word study in a language as well-attested as Classical Greek if you wish to contest a generally-held meaning.

There are more important problems with Klassen's criticism of LSJ. First of all, he has misunderstood what the lexicon is actually saying about paradidomi. Klassen claims that LSJ gives the meaning "to give a city or a person into another's hands, esp. as a hostage or an enemy with the collational notion of 'treachery, betray.'" (Klassen 47) What LSJ says is "to give a city or a person into another's hands...esp. as a hostage or to an enemy, deliver up, surrender...with collat. notion of treachery, betray..." (LSJ 1308) The words in italics indicate English words with which LSJ suggests you translate paradidomi, and the ellipses indicate examples cited from Greek literature for the given sense. It is unclear why Klassen chose to paraphrase the Lexicon entry instead of quoting it, but his paraphrase gives the impression that LSJ considers this second sense always to have the "collational notion of 'treachery, betray.'" There are a few problems with this. First, when reading an entry in a lexicon, the first meaning given is the general one, and subsequent meanings, separated by semicola, are shades of that general meaning. So when LSJ states "with collat. notion of treachery, betray," it is not stating that paradidomi in this sense always may be translated as 'betray,' but that, when it carries this "collat. notion of treachery" a proper English translation may be 'betray' instead of something more neutral. Second, there is the matter of what "collat." stands for. Klassen takes it as standing for 'collational,' as we have seen, "of or pertaining to collation," according the OED, which appears, from the citations given there, to be a word closely confined to how one presents text-critical information on the printed page; there is no hint of the lexicographical sense Klassen appears to see. On the other hand, the LSJ itself tells us that "collat.= collateral" (LSJ xliii), presumably in the sense (OED 2a) "accompanying, attendant, concomitant." (It is not my intent merely to make Klassen look like a fool; we all make mistakes. A mistake such as this, however, does seem to indicate some careless scholarship) Thus the LSJ is saying that when paradidomi, normally translated "give into another's hands," has a collateral or accompanying notion of treachery, it may be translated "betray" in order to bring out this collateral sense or overtone. A scholar familiar with the tool would not be confused here.

Second of all, he claims that all three of the citations in LSJ make no sense if we translate paradidomi as 'betray.' I confess I have not looked closely at the context of the three passages cited by the Lexicon, but the first two seem to clearly have overtones of treachery or betrayal: guards being intimidated and persuaded to hand over their fortresses (Cyropaedia 5.4.51), Antiope handing over the fortified area to Hercules because of her love for Theseus (Pausanias 1.2.1). On the third (Cyropaedia 5.1.28), I do agree with Klassen that it does not quite seem to fit, at least to my brief glance ("handing over weapons"). People may disagree on these nuances, I suppose. Klassen, however, does nothing to persuade us to trust his sense of the Greek over that of Liddell et al. when he cites the Loeb translations of the passages in question to corroborate his position (Klassen 47, notes on 59). It is an argument of absolutely no weight in questions of semantic nuance to appeal to a translation, which will necessarily pick up on some nuances and not others; translations are useful as illustrations, not as evidence. Even if Klassen's is a popular book (I am not sure of its intended audience) such an argument is unacceptable. It really does give the impression that the author merely flipped open his Loeb and looked over to the facing-page English instead of thinking through the Greek, but that certainly could not be the case.

Third, Klassen's general attitude is accusatory and there seems no reason for this. "Any lexicon," he says, "that suggests otherwise [than that paradidomi can never mean "betray"] is guilty of theologizing" (remember all this bears on the character of Judas) "than assisting us to find the meaning of Greek words through usage." (Klassen 48). I would wager it is this aggression that has prevented Klassen from treating the evidence with the proper care. Such a situation is ironic, since the evidence from LSJ, properly understood, does help his case a bit. LSJ commits only to paradidomi having overtones of betrayal or treachery, not to those concepts being central or important to it. Perhaps even the acknowledgment of an overtone is enough to render them part of the vast anti-Judas conspiracy.

As to all these speculations about 'what actually happened' in those last days that our Lord bore for us the old Adam, I find them tiresome, and threatening only insofar as they have shone great power to seduce my weaker brethren from firm faith in the God of Abraham. There are not many other fields where facts verified by many early sources would be interrogated so antagonistically. Some scholars practice such interrogation responsibly, and I only wish they would exercise themselves in soil more suited for the gospel seed, while others seem eager to propose the most fanciful reevaluations of the events. Surely such fascinations confess the power of Jesus' name. He indeed draws all people to himself, but some upon approaching the light have chosen to close their eyes and employ the imaginations, whether for fear of the heat or to feed their fantasizing vanity, I do not know. It is that light which shines from the God who is a consuming fire and not the light which he created that I will more trust to guide my footsteps. Those who testify to the former light are evangelists, those who point to the latter are historians, speculative and sound alike. To evoke the Philosopher: history I love, but I love the Church more.