The Gospel text set before us today is a difficult one. It doesn’t come up very often in the liturgy because the Tenth Sunday is often missed out due to the particular timing of Lent in any given year.
Let us look at two problems that arise within it. First comes the attitude of Jesus’ family and secondly the so-called sin against the Holy Spirit.
Jesus family come to take him away because, as it says in the text, they thought that he was ‘out of his mind.’ The particular reason for this incident is because there were so many people come to listen to Jesus that he and his disciples could not even eat.
So it seems that what we have here is a concern that Jesus is drawing too much attention to himself. The family don’t like this, and in this they would be very much like families today or at any other time in history. Families don’t generally appreciate it when one of their members makes an exhibition of themselves.
Fundamentally what we see here is that some of the members of the family of Jesus did not understand him or accept his message, and it is for this reason that they decide he is ‘out of his mind’ and come to ‘take charge of him.’
This gives the opportunity to the teachers of the law to say that he is possessed. But Jesus trounces them in argument saying, ‘how can Satan drive out Satan.’
Later on in the text it mentions the mother and brothers of Jesus as being outside and them calling to him presumably wanting him to come home with them. This gives Jesus the opportunity to say, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ and then pointing to his listeners and saying, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.’
I won’t spend too much time on these so-called brothers of Jesus. The Catholic understanding in accordance with the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity has been that here we are dealing with an extended family and that these are in fact the cousins of Jesus.
More complex is the attitude of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Does she think that he is mad? Has she come to take him home? Well, the text does not actually say this.
You must remember that these Gospel texts were cut and pasted together from many different oral accounts of the events they describe. Oftentimes fragments of text have been taken from one place and put in another where the Evangelist thought that they best fitted.
In this text today there are two appearances of Jesus family. The first group clearly think he is mad and want to take him away. But when it comes to this second appearance they don’t appear to be making any judgement, they are simply outside calling to him. Their presence gives Jesus the opportunity to stress the important bond that acceptance of the Gospel brings about between believers.
Catholics have generally believed that Mary supported Jesus’ ministry. We have the evidence from the Marriage Feast of Cana that she knew of his abilities and was not afraid to prompt him into action where she thought it necessary. She was also there at the foot of the Cross and again present on the Day of Pentecost.
Given these things I do not believe that we can conclude that Mary thought that Jesus was ‘out of his mind.’ She may well have wanted him to come home; it is surely likely that she did not like him arguing fiercely with the teachers of the law. She was a woman at home in the Jewish religion of her day; she knew too that Jesus had come to circumvent the established order; but like any mother she probably did not like to see him in direct conflict with the established authorities.
So I would say that while some members of the family might have thought he was out of his mind we cannot conclude that Mary did so. We see that the text does not explicitly state this and there is plenty of other evidence that she was supportive of Jesus’ ministry.
Let us move on to this sin against the Holy Spirit that Jesus here says cannot be forgiven. First of all the text is quite clear that what we are talking about is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. So not just any sin but the particular sin of blasphemy, in other words an explicit rejection of God.
Catholic theology has always taught that God can forgive any sin. There is absolutely no limit to the forgiveness that God can give. Of course, in the end there does need to be repentance or at least sorrow for sin. And even given this requirement there are other factors that can come in to play such as ignorance. This would mean that a person would not be able to show sorrow for a sin that they did not believe was sinful. God would hardly hold their ignorance against them unless that ignorance was in some way deeply culpable.
Catholic writers, including Pope John Paul II, have stated that what we are dealing with here in this so-called blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the refusal to accept the salvation which God offers to man through the Holy Spirit.
If when approaching death we explicitly reject the salvation that Christ offers us then this would be unforgivable; given of course that this was a completely free act made in full knowledge of the meaning of what Christ offers and also in thorough knowledge of the consequences.
In a way it is actually necessary for man to be able to completely reject the salvation offered to him by God otherwise there could be no true free will. God will not force his forgiveness on those who completely reject it given that they accept and fully understand what it is that they are doing.
We are clearly talking about an extremely rare, but yet theoretically possible, set of circumstances. Surely anyone who knows the salvation that God offers them would definitely accept it. If their judgement is obscured or other circumstances blind them to what is involved then these are surely overcome by God who sees the depths of every human heart and who is all forgiving.
Looking overall at the text today we see a condensation of quite a number of things: the popularity of Jesus; the opposition of the authorities; the fact that some people even those closest to him thought he was mad; the close bond between believers that acceptance of the Gospel brings; and finally the ultimate respect that God gives to man’s free will.
A few short verses but packed full of meaning and interest, and certainly a great deal of food for thought.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket