Now when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power [authority] to men.
One of the thematic threads weaving through Matthew’s narrative so far has been that of authority. After Jesus finished preaching the sermon on the mount, the people concluded that Jesus “taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” Jesus spoke from His own authority, not like the scribes did. Scribes always deferred to tradition, to a previous rabbi, and ultimately to Moses. Jesus taught in a new way, saying, “You have heard it has been said, but I say unto you.” There’s no deferral going on at all. Because Jesus had an authority from God.
Then, in Matthew 8-9, we have this wonderful segment where we wonder how Jesus will use this great authority, and what exactly the nature of this authority is. In short…
(1) Yes, He is willing to use this authority to cleanse the unclean; and then we see Him heal all manner of diseases and sicknesses.
(2) His authority is conveyed by His Word, as the centurion discerned. Jesus rules over certain enemies as a centurion gives command to those under him.
(3) Jesus uses this authority as the Christ, as Israel’s champion, to rule over our enemies. What enemies? By the end of the two chapters, we see that Jesus rules over sin, death (the raising of the little girl), and the power of the devil.
(4) We are beginning to get hints (particularly in His calming of the storm) that Jesus has an authority that only God has. “What can this be who can still the storm?” they wonder. The suggested answer is, God. Hence the reason they worshiped Him.
(5) In our Gospel for this week, Jesus demonstrates He has (a) divine knowledge of hidden cosmic truth, that all sins are forgiven in lieu of His death, and (b) He has authority to give absolution that only God can give, because look, He can cause the lame to walk.
This is all wonderful. Jesus is God in flesh and is present among us to do great things. But in this week’s Gospel, something new is introduced.
If Jesus, a mere man, has this divine authority to forgive sins, demonstrating it at the above mentioned two levels, through divine knowledge (omniscience) and divine power (omnipotence), there is a suggestion that man as such has that same authority. Were Jesus merely God, appearing as a human (as the Gnostics believed), such a conclusion could not occur. Jesus has nothing to do with humanity, not really being of our flesh and of our bones. But Jesus is “one of us,” therefore the possibility exists that not only Jesus, but other people could have His same authority.
And indeed, what do the people conclude? Why do they glorify God? Because God had given the authority to forgive sins to “men.” Not just one man, Jesus, but to “men.” What does this mean? We won’t find out exactly what that means until Matthew 10, when Jesus sends out the twelve disciples and “gave them power [authority] over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease.”
Whatever authority Jesus, the man, had been given on account of His divinity, to heal, to cast out demons, to rule over sin, death, and the devil (though the power to rule over sin by absolution wasn’t specifically given in Matthew 10, but will in Matthew 16 and 18), He “gave” to His twelve disciples. Yes! Such authority is “give-able,” as the people rightly recognized.
In Matthew 10 we get further instructions on how to use this gift. “Freely you have received, freely give.” Jesus replicates this thought later in Matthew 16 and 18 when He grants them authority (the keys) to forgive sins and gives them the parable of the unmerciful servant: forgive seventy times seven times!
This is truly a cause for rejoicing, for “glorifying God” as the people did in our Gospel for this week, is it not? Of course, this is the whole purpose for which Jesus came, indeed why His name was Jesus and Immanuel! “God with us…will save His people from their sins.” Or put in the language of our Gospel, Jesus claims an authority only God has, because He is God with us, and He demonstrates it by healing the lame, and He uses that authority – generously! – to forgive sins, so that nothing will keep us out of fellowship with our Lord any longer.
Not only this, but He passes on this authority to “men.” If Jesus demonstrated omniscience by knowing cosmic truths about the lame man’s forgiven status, in lieu of Christ’s death, and if Jesus demonstrated omnipotence by healing the lame man, thereby revealing He is God and therefore able to forgive sins, then the authority passed on to “men” sort of works out His omnipresence. This is how the Church and its ministry of absolution fills the whole world, for as the Psalm says and St. Paul applies to the ministry, “There is no speech nor language Where their voice is not heard. Their line has gone out through all the earth, And their words to the end of the world.”
Again, this is a reason to glorify God. And what happens shortly after the absolution in the divine liturgy? Introit followed by “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.” And then what follows shortly after that? We join the angels who sing, “Glory be to God on high.”
How are we not the same as the people in the Gospel, glorifying God who has given authority to “men” to forgive sins, namely, the man who forgives our sins in the divine liturgy? Here we see once again that the liturgy is nothing more than our participation in the Gospel. It’s like a fifth Gospel, or better yet, it’s how the two-dimensional Gospels – potentially only a story about stuff that happened two thousand years ago – becomes three-dimensional, filled with our own flesh and blood, as we in our time take part in the ancient account, or perhaps better put, the ancient account paints the backdrop for the current reality of Jesus’ work in our time and in our place, with us in it. We join “all the company of heaven,” including the people in the text, the lame man, the blind men, the young girl, and all the throng.
The liturgy is our role in the Gospel. It’s our portal into the very account itself.