But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk’?
Lots going on in this little passage. We get evidence of Jesus’ divine omniscience when He knows their thoughts, proof of His divinity Matthew seems to be underscoring by repeating this detail three times. The “scribes said (1) within themselves, …Jesus, (2) knowing their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you (3) think evil in your hearts?’ ” Of course, one of the big points of the Gospel is that Jesus cannot be blaspheming if He indeed is “God with us” speaking God’s Word.
Interesting, but notice also the biblical psychology going on. “Within themselves” parallels “thoughts” and “in your hearts.” Where in lieu of 19th Romanticism like to make a contrast between the head and heart – and the obnoxious legacy of that is in the contrast between “heart religion” and “head religion” – in fact the two are indistinguishable in the ancient mind.
Now, what is the evil the scribes were thinking in their hearts? The scribes, like most everyone, had not had the veil taken from their minds; they weren’t caught up with “fullness of time” yet. By the standards of the Old Testament revelation, it would have been blasphemy to go around declaring people’s sins forgiven. What was “evil” about that?
Perhaps we need to be a bit more philosophical about what evil is, and not see it according to the Manichaean, Disney-brushed caricatures we tend to think of it as, where evil is seen with demonic grins and cackling laughter. The scribes weren’t necessarily being malicious, but were actually trying to be faithful. What, then, was the evil?
As we’ve frequently been contemplating, evil came on the scene in divine history when God introduced it as everything His created world was not. Everything He created was good, and Adam was given to live in that goodness, to name it, to know it. But one small corner of that creation had one thing that was not good, something Adam was not to know, and that the additional “and evil” associated with the tree of the knowledge of good “and evil.”
So by that setup, evil is whatever is not of God’s creation. It’s not true. It’s a realm of nothingness. It’s an arena where human desire is allowed to take over and project phantasies which obscure and taint the material creation – the fruit of the tree suddenly looks “desirable.”
As we meditated on yesterday, Jesus’ atonement for the sins of the world is part of cosmic reality. It is as true as the sunrise: everyone’s sins are forgiven. That lame man’s forgiveness is a cosmic truth Jesus was relaying to him no different than, “The sun will rise up on you this morning.” Being part of the cosmic order, it is good, for all things God created are good. Evil would be to claim the cosmic truth about forgiveness to be not true, or not part of the created order. Or, it would be to claim as blasphemous one who testified to this cosmic truth, which is exactly what the scribes were doing with Jesus.
Satan is constantly trying to say what isn’t true is true, and what is true as not true. “It’s true that you can make the world a better place” he says on one hand, while also saying, “It’s not true that your sins are forgiven you.” Similarly he inspired Peter to keep Jesus from going to the cross – again, it’s clearly not that Peter was some malicious Disney-esque character, but that he was seeking to make “what is” to be “what is not,” that is, the atonement of Christ.
Now, on to the confusing part of the passage. Is it easier to say, “Your sins are forgive you,” or to say, “Arise and walk”? I think we over-think the text if we make the argument, “Forgiveness was something only God could do, therefore that was the harder thing to say.” No, saying “Your sins are forgiven you” are just words; anyone can say them. That’s why they were blasphemy. Those words can be said “in vain.” They can be throwaway, empty, meaningless words.
Furthermore, while the meaning of “easy” means “not requiring great effort or work” – and clearly Jesus had to do incredible effort and work to make forgiveness available – it’s not that work referred to as easy, but the speaking of the word testifying to the results of that work which is easy. Which is indeed true: Jesus has made the forgiveness of others easy to declare.
Jesus asks the question after asking why they thought evil in their hearts. He seems to be saying, “Why are you acting as if this man’s forgiveness is not part of the cosmic order to which I am testifying, a new cosmic order which makes forgiveness abundant, readily available, and yes, easy to declare?”
As to that last point, lets underscore it. Jesus has taught that we ought to forgive the sins of others, as we have been forgiven. He teaches we should forgive as often as we need to, seventy times seven times. Yes, that makes forgiveness easy. And it should be, if Christ has indeed died for the sins of the world, and has promised, “every sin will be forgiven man” (but the sin against the Holy Spirit).
“Arise and walk” by contrast, could immediately make the one who says them look like a fool, exposing him as a liar. So those words are not easy to say.
But that leaves something hanging in the air. While Jesus is testifying to a mystery hidden from the foundation of the world – that is, the mystery of Christ’s cosmic atonement for the sins of the world – this mystery was not yet revealed fully, especially to the scribes. Therefore in their minds, forgiveness remained extremely difficult to say; it could result in being stoned for blasphemy, after all! So, they (and us) need something more, some evidence that Jesus indeed has this cosmic perspective. And that’s exactly what He gives in the passage that follows, evidence that He is God.
From the scribes perspective, Jesus’ question is an interesting conundrum. Which is easier, to say something that could expose you as a fool, or to say something that could get you stoned? Likely they would have chosen being exposed as fools. Jesus, in fact, chose the latter, and did, in fact, get capital punishment for blasphemy. Meanwhile He humbled Himself in human flesh to make the former easy as well. Altogether it yields a beautiful truth: our salvation, both our forgiveness and our “rising from our beds” has been made easy with Christ.