The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity: Jesus Forgives the Paralytic

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Matthew 9: 1-8
So He got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own city.  Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, “This Man blasphemes!” 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’?  But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”—then He said to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”  And he arose and departed to his house.  Now when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men.

Matthew 9 comes in the heart and center of a two chapter tour de force in the Gospel of Matthew. Given the nature of Hebrew chiasm – where the climactic high point of the text isn’t toward the end, as it is in modern literature and drama, but in the middle – then there may be something pivotal about this text.

What’s the background?

Jesus had just gotten done preaching the sermon on the mount. The sermon on the mount was Jesus debut teaching not only in Matthew’s Gospel but in the whole New Testament. It begins on a mountain, invoking Moses, but also invoking the thunder, lightning, and fear of Moses’ time up on Sinai. Jesus was like a Moses insofar as He taught from the mountain; would there be fear and trembling in His path as well?

When Jesus completed the sermon, the text remarks how “the people were astonished at His teaching, for He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.”

Yes, Jesus certainly had authority. He taught things beyond what Moses taught. He taught unlike anyone before He taught in an active way that made His sermon a dynamic event. That is, at the same time He preaches the blessedness of poverty of spirit, meekness, mourning, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness, He causes us by that same preaching to realize our spiritual poverty, to be meek, to mourn, and to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Brilliant!

Just as subtle is how He interwove “your father” in the whole sermon, twelve times, as if He’s re-adopting the tribes of Israel, sharing His own sonship with them.

The people recognized something special going on. They recognized authority. This was something divine.

And now Jesus was coming down the hill. How would He use that authority? Would He be willing to heal the cursed? Well, that’s at least what the leper asked Him, and Jesus said, “Yes.” And so began two chapters of incredible grace and mercy. Not thunder and lightning in His wake, but conquering. He conquered over sin, death, and the power of the devil, and that we see throughout the two chapters. He cast out demons. He stilled the waves. He healed the blind. He raised the dead. Sin, death, and the devil.

But at the heart and center of these two chapters is our Gospel for this week. Here and here alone do we see Jesus show His authority over sin. And if it’s a chiasm, it would be because sin drives everything else, the curse, the death, the blindness and disease, the devils. Forgiving that sin, then, would be the pivotal event.

Some people (“they”) brought to Jesus the paralytic. Everything to this point suggests Jesus would heal the paralytic of his lameness. Instead, the text tells us, “When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, ‘Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.’ ”

Two things jar us from this passage, one intentional and one unintentional. The intentional thing is that Jesus doesn’t heal the man, but forgives his sins. Matthew is introducing the real problem we have, which is sin. Matthew is the one who introduced Jesus’ name with the words, “for He will save His people from their sins.” Matthew also, after this Gospel, inserts his own story in the text, informing us that Jesus came not for the righteous, but for sinners

The unintentional thing that jars us is how Jesus forgave the man’s sins on the basis of “their” faith. This jars a modernized Christianity which sees the faith as an individual thing, and the church as a community of believers rather than a community of faith. There is a difference. In the “community of believers” understanding, the people manage their faith; in the “community of faith” understanding, the faith manages the people.

The Gospel here presents us a community of faith. The man is forgiven based on the faith of others. Can the faith of parents cause a baby to be forgiven in baptism? This passage suggests, “Yes.”

To prove Jesus has authority to forgive sins, He also heals the man. Yes, He has the authority. He has the divinity. He can forgive because clearly He has creative powers, as only God can have.

In response to the evidence before them, that God had given such power to men, the people glorify God. The language here is important. They glorified God not that He had given power to a man, Jesus, but to “men” in general. Something had happened. Something had revolutionized their understanding. What previously was blasphemy was now the possession of one man, and through Him other men. The power to forgive sins became the possession of man.

Of course, Matthew builds on this theme in upcoming passages, when in Matthew 10 Jesus calls the twelve men with Him to do what He had done, and in Matthew 16 and 18 when He introduces the power of the Keys, the authority to forgive sins where men are present on earth.

Everything we’ve laid down adds up to a significant and beautiful truth. The pivotal event in the Gospel of Matthew – in the midst of Jesus’ demonstrating His authority over sin, death, and the devil – we see that His power is the possession not just of Him, but certain men He may potentially authorize (which He does), and that power is the power of absolution.

When Jesus comes down from the mountain, will it be with thunder and lightning? Or will it be with mercy and forgiveness? Now we know. And more than that, we know the pivotal way this mercy and forgiveness carries on today. It’s when men use the power He gave them to forgive sins, to do so. For that we glorify God as well.

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