Yesterday we began a quest to work out what Jesus meant when he said “they don’t put new wine in old wineskins” (Matt 9:17). If you’re joining us now, you’d be advised to read that one first. In fact, since last week we’re on a quest to find the big picture Matthew is stitching together for us in chapters 8 & 9.
Today’s story is about a healing miracle. There are plenty of those stories in the gospels. But in this one, we see there’s much more going on than just a healing. It starts off like any other miracle story. A person comes to Jesus who needs to be healed. They show faith – that is, they trust that Jesus is able to help them. And Jesus responds. Yet in this story, Jesus’ response is a little jarring.
9:2 Some men brought to him a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”
OK, so we all sin. We all need forgiveness. But this guy’s lying on the ground paralysed! First things first, right? Yet the first thing Jesus does is to forgive his sins. Why?
Is it because Jesus thinks sin – spiritual sickness – is far more serious than physical sickness? It is – but in every other healing miracle Jesus seems to deal with the physical first, and then the spiritual.
Is it because this man’s sickness was a result of his sin? Maybe. Sometimes there’s a connection between sin and illness. Other times it’s simply because we live in a sin-sick world.
Or is it because Jesus is using this opportunity to make a point? Doing something deliberately provocative in the hearing of the authorities? Take a look at what happens next.9:3 At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!”
How is this blasphemy? Saying someone’s sins are forgiven – how’s that a problem?
Imagine, for a minute, that a friend of yours came up and thumped you. And then he came to me and said sorry. And I said: “that’s OK, you’re forgiven.” You’d be thinking: sorry? Who gave you the right to forgive what was done to me? And you’d have a point.
It’s the same with God. Sin, first and foremost, is an offence against God. That means only God can forgive what’s done to him. So when Jesus says “your sins are forgiven” – what gives him the right? He’s blaspheming, say the teachers of the law. He’s claiming to speak for God. He’s claiming to be able to do something only God can do.
So how does Jesus respond?9:4a Knowing their thoughts…
That’s an impressive trick, unless you’re, like, God or something.9:4-5 Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?”
Which is easier to say? ‘Your sins are forgiven’, right? Because there’s no way of verifying whether they are or not. Until judgement day. It’s like futurists lining up to predict that in a hundred years we’ll all be driving our own personal hovercars or having iPhone implants or something. It’s basically meaningless. Because in a hundred years they’ll be dead, I’ll be dead, and no one will care whether they got it right or not. It’s much harder to predict tomorrow’s weather or next weekend’s football results, because we’ll all be around to mock you if you get it wrong.
So Jesus backs up his claim to do something that’s essentially un-verifiable with something that’s immediately verifiable. He says this:9:6 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.”
And everyone watches, to see what will happen. Jesus has put his money where his mouth is, and we’re about to find out whether he’s just all talk.9:7-8 Then the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man.
And so Jesus wins this little battle with the Jewish leaders. They threw down the challenge by accusing him of blasphemy. Jesus responds by doubling the stakes, and calmly playing his hand. He wins the crowd over to his side, and the teachers of the law end up looking like grumpy killjoys.
What is it with the Jewish authorities? Always whining and moaning, rather than getting on board with what Jesus is doing. Jesus heals someone, the crowd goes wild, it’s a feature story on A Current Affair, but the leaders are all ‘oh you can’t do that, it’s the Sabbath’. Jesus casts out demons and ‘that’s terrible, he must be doing it by the power of Beelzebul’. And here, Jesus brings a message of forgiveness and they’re ready to lynch him for blasphemy. What’s going on?
Maybe they’ve got their noses out of joint. Just a bit. Maybe they’re feeling a tiny bit threatened. After all, forgiveness – that’s what the sacrificial system’s all about. That’s why people turn up to the temple. That’s why they come to us. ‘Cause we’re the gatekeepers. We’re the ones who speak for God. Not this wandering hippie with his travelling roadshow!
And they’re right to be threatened. ‘Cause Jesus has turned up with a new way to God. Not through animal sacrifices and priests and rituals. But through a relationship with him. The one who shortly would become the once-for-all sacrifice. Who is the new temple, the new place where God dwells on earth. Symbolised by the tearing of the temple curtain at his death. Jesus is now the place to find God. To find forgiveness.
But the religious leaders – they couldn’t cope with it. This new thing God was doing. It stretched their tiny minds to breaking point.
To think about
Have you ever felt threatened by something new that God seemed to be doing? How did you respond?
How did Jesus’ bypassing the Temple system, and the priesthood, change things? How has it changed things for us?