In the days of the World War I Flying Aces, when French was still the global language, the words “M’Aidez! which means “HELP ME!” became the radio call for disaster (May-Day!).
This week brings the end of April. April 30 is the eve of Beltaine in the northern and European Celtic wheel of the year; “Walpurgis nacht” in the Norse tradition, when the witches gather to dance on top of Bald Mountain. Like many pagan festivals, its sacred purpose was appropriated by Christianity long ago. Beltaine (May Day; Cinco de Mayo in Spanish cultures) marked the transition from Winter to Summer. The frosts were done; it was time to move the herds up into the high mountain ranges. It was a fire festival – marking the time when the sun is strongest, and the crops have their best chance to grow, flower, and produce food for the coming year. Beltaine is a high-magic, cross-quarter day, half-way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. It was a time for the high priest or king to mate with the high priestess or queen, and for the common folk to spend the night in the field, blessing themselves for childwealth, and the land for cropwealth.
The veils between the worlds are thin at this time of year. Along with our perceptions of good and evil, the distinction between life and death becomes blurred. So it is with Matthew’s version of Mark’s “Beelzebul controversy.” The “Beelzebul cluster” was pulled together from Q and Mark by the writer of Matthew. Basically, it’s an exploration of some of the accusations from Jesus’ opponents about where Jesus’ power for healing and exorcism came from. Some of it probably goes back to the historical Jesus; some of it probably came from skeptics reacting to the stories circulating after Jesus’ death. The question is, does this section of Matthew have any relevance to 21st Century, post-modern realities? And what about the “Easter season” that now runs for the next six weeks? Even though this is Year A, the “Year of Matthew,” the Elves are focusing on Luke and John – which they do every year. The Revised Common Lectionary does not return to the Gospel of the Year until after Pentecost.
Matthew first lays out Jesus’ debate with his critics: “A government divided against itself is devastated . . . Even if I drive out demons in Beelzebul’s name, in whose name do your own people drive them out? . . . But if by God’s spirit I drive them out, then for you God’s imperial rule has arrived. . . .” Scholars generally end the section at verse 32. But Matthew seems to offer his own interpretation about this if verses 33-37 are considered: “After all, the tree is known by its fruit. You spawn of Satan, how can your speech be good when you are corrupt? . . . Your own words will vindicate you, and your own words will condemn you.”
In the middle of the diatribe is a warning that is highly likely to be from the writer of Matthew, not the historical Jesus. Matthew has Jesus say, “The one who isn’t with me is against me . . . That is why I tell you: Every offense and blasphemy will be forgiven human kind, but the blasphemy of the spirit won’t be forgiven.” What this may have meant to a 1st century community is not clear. The Jesus Seminar scholars suggest that in this paragraph, Matthew is speaking in an apocalyptic, post-Easter context. A similar saying in the Gospel of Thomas hints at trinity – which Jesus definitely never did. Possibly, the saying refers to the practice of speaking in tongues. Anyone who prophesies in tongues is perceived to be speaking under the influence of the spirit, and that kind of speech cannot be disparaged or dismissed. We might call it “channeling” today.
The NRSV translation of 12:31 may be more clear than the Scholars Version: “people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” Charges of “blasphemy” get tossed around frequently in the culture wars of the 21st century. Here is the justification for desecrating holy books in various ways, thereby triggering murderous rampages in far-flung regions of the Planet. Here is the justification for killing doctors who perform legal, constitutionally-protected abortions. Here is the justification for the Westboro Baptist Church disruptions of military funerals, memorial services, lectures, and artistic performances. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) as “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America. Typified by its slogan, God Hates Fags, WBC is known for its harsh anti-gay beliefs and the crude signs its members carry at their frequent protests.” WBC cites the King James Version of Matthew 12:31-37 for their upcoming action at the University of Kansas (Lawrence) Woodruff Auditorium, planned for May 6, 2011:
“WBC to picket at KU’s Woodruff Auditorium for the Society of Open-minded Atheists and Agnostics debate on Does God Exist? What utter blasphemy! You silly college ‘scholars’ are clueless, of your father the Devil and follow in the footsteps of the old heretic Robert ‘Royal Bob’ Ingersoll! He taught over a hundred years ago that doctrine of blasphemy that there is no God and/or the God of the Old Testament is a ‘dirty bully.’ There is nothing to debate. You know God exists and it is the same God in both the old and new testaments. It was written on your hearts by God that he exists and what his laws are. Read Romans 2 and Hebrews 8. You REBEL against that. The fool says in his heart there is no God. Psalm 14:1 The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. WBC is there to warn you of your grievous sin and to flee the wrath to come. Your words are hard speeches against God and weary Him. He has been patient and longsuffering against you and your words, but not for much longer.
“Matthew 12:31-37 Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come. Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit. O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned.
“Have your debate, say the words, condemn yourselves, and when your soul is required of you, find yourself in Hell for all eternity right next to ‘Royal Bob’ Ingersoll.”
I am not going to lend credence to WBC’s hate-mongering with an exegesis of Romans 2 and Hebrews 8, other than to lift a couple of paragraphs from my commentary on Proper 26, Year B :
“The author of the letter titled “Hebrews” continues his argument that Jesus the Christ became the “High Priest of the Order of Melchizedek.” Inquiring minds might wonder why the writer became so enamored of this metaphor, based on two obscure, esoteric, mysterious references in Genesis 14 and Psalm 110:4. His conclusion is that only through Jesus – the High Priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek – do mortals have “direct access” to God ( Harold W. Attridge, Harper Collins Study Bible (Hebrews Introduction). It is hardly “direct access.” According to this letter, the Christ is the mediator between humanity and God.
“Further, the author of Hebrews argues, because of his sacrificial death and resurrection, “Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry [than Moses], and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no need to look for a second one” (Hebrews 8:6-8). Apparently “loving your neighbor as yourself” does not count as Covenant for this writer. He then quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34 to show that “God finds fault with [priests who offer gifts according to the law].” For a counter to this proof-texting, see blog.03.29.09.”
But let’s stick with Matthew. Inexplicably, according to all the translations, including the KJV, it is fine to blaspheme Jesus (the “son of Adam/Man”), but not “the Holy Ghost.” Believers such as the members of WBC – like the Pharisees trying to trap Jesus – trap themselves. If Jesus is Lord (God), then – reading the passages literally, in tried and true fundamentalist style – it is OK to blaspheme God: “Whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of Man [aka Jesus], it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him” (KJV). If fundamentalists like WBC are trinitarians, it’s worse. How can they separate out the “Holy Ghost” from Jesus and God? As Ralph Waldo Emerson (a well-known Unitarian) said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
Matthew’s Jesus is clear about the consequences in verses 36-37, “On judgment day people will have to account for every thoughtless word they utter. Your own words will vindicate you, and your own words will condemn you.” Expressions of profound hatred (book burnings; “God hates fags”) are no different from the murders and other atrocities they incite. To hide behind the U.S. Constitution’s first amendment supposed guarantee of “free speech” is cowardly. If such people truly had any integrity, they would be willing to go to jail for their beliefs.
But all that aside, for 21st century realities, what Matthew’s Jesus says cannot be forgiven is what secular justice would call crimes against humanity, and what spiritual justice might insist are crimes against divinity. Is there such a thing as “spiritual justice”? Matthew’s Jesus certainly thinks so. “The one who speaks a word against the holy spirit won’t be forgiven, either in this life or in the one to come.” Jesus died a horrible death. Believers might have no problem seeing that death as definitely a “crime against divinity.” In a secular world, where nothing is holy, the holocaust in Europe in the mid-20th century, or the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s, or in Sudan in the early years of the 21st century, and the use of weapons of mass destruction are considered “crimes against humanity.” But what about mountain-top removal, the deliberate decimation of species such as whales, sharks, grizzly bears, wolves, wild horses, elephants, tigers; or the clearing of rain forests for the purpose of raising cattle for the worldwide “protein market”? Can these be described as “crimes against divinity”? Is there a distinction? Is not the whole realm of creation divine?
Before the Roman Church subsumed the Celtic version in the British Isles (7th Century, C.E.), Beltaine may have been the time when Easter was celebrated. This year, Easter was about as late as it can get, and the first Sunday after Easter is indeed Beltaine (May Day). In our post-modern time, when the entire human population of Earth is dependent upon itself, Beltaine is not just about love and sex and the fertility of the land and people, but about the continued wealth and security of that land. Humanity is in serious need of salvation – not from petty sin, but from crimes we continue to commit against ourselves and the earth.