catastrophe, confession and absolution, evil thoughts, fatherless and the widow, forgiveness, God will arise, healing of a paralytic, paralysis, Psalm 12, scribes, teachers of the law, tragedy, true god
For this week’s bulletin, click here: oct 14, 2012
3 At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!”4 Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? 5 Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? 6 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” Then he said to the paralytic, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” 7 And the man got up and went home. 8 When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.
— St. Matthew 9,1-8
Scripture often portrays God helping the people who need help the most. Not catering to the rich, the strong, and the powerful of this world, but defending the poor and needy of the earth, protecting the weak and defenseless, caring for the fatherless and the widow – those sorts of people. For instance, Psalm 12 says this: ““Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise,” says the Lord. “I will protect them from those who malign them.” And the words of the Lord are flawless, like silver refined in a furnace of clay, purified seven times.” Luther took Psalm 12 and turned it into a hymn, “O Lord, Look Down from Heaven, Behold.” It’s #205 in our hymnal.
In our Gospel for today, we see a similar situation. Jesus is compelled to speak up and prove that His Word that forgives sinners is true. God cannot allow His Word to be spoken against, not when the consolation of sinners, people’s peace of conscience, and ultimately salvation are at stake. What the teachers of the law say in our Gospel cannot go unchallenged. Today Jesus shows us Proven Authority to Forgive Sins. He uses it to comfort sinners; He proves it to be absolutely true; He gives it for use among men.
When we first hear this account, we might wonder why Jesus chooses to forgive this man’s sins before He heals him. Sure, forgiving sins is more important to Jesus, but why does He do it in this order? Part of the answer lies in Jesus’ understanding of human nature. Maybe this paralyzed man in our Gospel was born with his paralysis, or maybe it came to him later in life. Either way, he very well may have thought, “What did I do to deserve this? What have I done to make God so terribly angry with me, that He would attack me in this way? Why has the Lord’s hand come down so hard on me? Why has He now turned against me and become my enemy?” It’s a curious things, and we’d readily admit it in calmer or less stressful times, that it sounds crazy that God would single us out for punishment in that way, but when tragedy strikes us a crushing blow – when misfortune or bad luck or a crisis hits us like a thunderclap (and now we know what that sounds like, after that lightning hit the high school here in town) – when God sends something terrible like that into our lives, sometimes we’re convinced He’s out to get us.
We feel that way because our sinful flesh is keenly aware of its guilt. We know what we deserve from God, and it’s not anything good – so when something bad happens to us, or even looks like it might happen or begins to happen, right away we can think, “Why is God doing this to me?”
Jesus doesn’t want this paralytic to feel that way. He knew that this paralytic did trust in Him – why else would he bug his friends and egg them on until they brought him to Jesus? Mark and Luke tell us that this is the paralyzed man whose friends lower him on a stretcher through a hole they dug through the roof of the house Jesus is in. That shows how badly this man wanted to get near Jesus. And for all his faith, this paralytic needed reassuring. He feared that his condition was the result of God’s anger with him, so his heart struggled with itself. He wanted to trust, but he was afraid.
Jesus ends this struggle beautifully. He says, “Take heart, child – have courage – your sins are forgiven! I, the Lord who kills and brings to life, who saves and destroys, I say so – and nobody can argue with Me or change My Word! Your sins are forgiven. God is not angry with you any longer – you are His dearly loved child.”
“Take heart” – what a wonderful message to hear! You mean God isn’t angry with me? You mean I don’t have to wonder what I did to make God so terribly angry with me, or how I ran afoul of Him? You mean that there’s an end to my misery, and God doesn’t really want to destroy me? Yes, and much more! He loves you and smiles on you – He forgives your sins and promises you that this is just for a little while, and then you will be consoled and comforted – so take heart! And “child”! What a wonderful way for Jesus to address a sinner! It’s familiar and happy, full of affection. It signals a whole new era. Things are turning around!
And Jesus and the paralytic could have left it there, and both of them would have been happy: Jesus, because a sinner was no longer struggling unnecessarily under a load of guilt; and the paralytic, because he knew that God had put away His anger towards him and showed His kind and friendly face again. The paralytic knew this better than he knew his own self, because Jesus’ word made it so.
Absolution and lifting of his guilt was what this paralyzed man needed most of all, so that’s what Jesus dealt with. As you read this account, you get the impression that if it were not for the meddling, judgmental teachers of the law, Jesus wouldn’t have healed this paralytic – and the man would have been fine with that. Now He knew better the cause of his condition. It wasn’t due to his own sin, but on the contrary God loved and cared for him – and that was all he needed.
It’s only when sins are forgiven that you can have peace. Without the forgiveness of sins, no matter what else you have going for you, you have no peace for your soul or peace with God. Why do you think so many entertainers and celebrities end up addicted to various things? They work their rear ends off, sweat, struggle, and strain, scratch and claw to the top of their profession, whatever it is – and then when they’re rich and respected and everybody knows them, when they’re at the absolute pinnacle of their sport or industry and can’t get any higher, they look around and go, “Is this it? I worked so hard for this? There must be something else-” and then they get sucked into addictions because those sins they get addicted to promise something else. Their sin never ends up being the something else they crave, and sin never is for you either. Nothing replaces Christ and the forgiveness and peace He gives – not more money, more earthly possession, popularity, relaxation, or whatever it is you crave – so don’t go looking elsewhere for what only Jesus can give!
But the scribes can’t leave well enough alone. They are the correct ones; they are the guardians and arbiters of what is right and not right. Right away these overly theologically correct scribes think in their hearts, “This Man blasphemes” – He’s insulting God by falsely claiming to do what only God can do. If Jesus had been saying this based on anything other than who He was, God’s Word incarnate, they would have been right – but they didn’t know who He really is.
Their attitude is similar to that of a woman I encountered during my vicar year. Once during the Sunday service, I said the absolution – “I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” – and someone told me this later, I didn’t hear it, but she said to herself, “You can’t say that.” That woman made the very same mistake that the scribes did. She did not understand that sins are forgiven not because the pastor has some secret super power no other Christian has, or because the pastor is such a good and holy man, but because God’s Word says so, and Jesus has given that authority to men, as our text correctly points out. That’s the only reason: because God’s Word says you are forgiven, and when God’s Word says something, that’s what happens. God’s Word creates the world, it stills the storm, it turns water into wine, and yes, it even forgives sins. Whether it’s the Word incarnate, Jesus Christ, or the Word spoken by a humble parish pastor, doesn’t matter. God’s Word is always powerful to forgive sins.
To prove that His Word is true and can actually forgive sins, notice what Jesus does next: He answers the scribes’ thoughts. Even though they didn’t speak out loud, He replies to them just as if they’d spoken out loud. Now that must have been an “uh-oh” moment for those teachers of the law. If there ever was proof given them that Jesus was true God, it was this. They are not dealing with any ordinary man here. This Man is God, and yet they don’t pull back from opposing Him, which is kind of incredible.
Now God rises up to protect His people and defend the truth of His Word. He won’t stop short now, not when they’re prepared to cast doubt on His ability to forgive sins. That is the one thing Jesus will not abide: denying forgiveness to those who repent. He has to speak—and when He does, it’s a doozy. He asks, “Which is easier to say: ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or ‘Get up and walk’?” His question puts the scribes on the spot. Of course it’s easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” because no one can see sins. But Jesus doesn’t want anybody – not His friends, not His enemies, not anybody – to doubt that what He says is true, that sins are forgiven when He declares them to be – so He poses this question.
Then while they’re wondering how they’ll answer yet another one of Jesus’ unanswerable questions, He declares, “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” Jesus doesn’t finish the sentence like we’d expect. Instead, He turns to the paralytic and says, “Get up, take your mat, and go home” – and he does. That paralyzed man walks out of that house carrying the stretcher he used to lie on all day. If you’ve ever wondered if the absolution that the pastor pronounces at the beginning of the service is any good, or if God’s Word really does forgive sins, or if humans even have any business saying that sins are forgiven, picture a man who had been paralyzed walking out of a crowded house carrying a stretcher. That should tell you everything you need to know.
Jesus wants so strongly for us to believe that what His Word says is true when He forgives our sins that He calls what the scribes were thinking “evil.” That’s a strong word, but it’s not out of place, because if you say that God’s Word doesn’t forgive sins when it does, you’re calling God a liar – and He cannot lie.
Incidentally, this text also explains why we don’t try and heal paralyzed people, or others with health problems, as part of our worship services – Jesus has not given me that authority. If I did announce that I wanted to try that, someone might very well wonder, “What if they don’t stand up? What if it doesn’t work?” And you’d be right to ask that. Jesus has not given that authority to men. But He has given the authority to forgive sins, and that’s the work that He wants me and all pastors and all Christians to be occupied with. That’s the business He wants me to be about, because that’s His will and He has given that authority to all Christians, and especially to called and ordained pastors, for the good of His people. That’s why we have baptism, and absolution, and the Lord’s Supper, and the Word itself: to give us the forgiveness of sins. So be ready to exercise that Lord-given authority with others. Be ready to absolve others if they’re repentant and ask for it. Put all your trust in the word of absolution that the pastor speaks, because it’s really Jesus’ Word and will. Let us not doubt, but rather firmly believe that this is true, because Jesus has proven that it is. Your forgiveness depends on it. Amen.