Matthew 9.1-8 - Jesus heals a paralytic.
Imagine, if you will, what being paralysed would feel like. It’s a chilling thought, isn’t it? And our hearts go out to anyone who has less than complete control of their limbs, for whatever reason.
Now imagine, if you will, what it would be like to be a paralytic in Jesus’ time. There is no National Health Service. There is no medication that will help. You are entirely reliant on the goodwill of your family and friends just to survive. And worse still, everyone around you assumes that your paralysis was caused not by accident or by a medical condition, but by your sin. So that everyone who sees you lying on the street, begging for scraps of food, looks at you and thinks ‘Sinner!’.
To be sick at the time of Jesus was to be thought of as either a really bad sinner, or the child of a really bad sinner. It was a superstition rooted in a Hebrew Bible warning that the sins of the Father would be visited upon the sins of the son, up to the fourth generation (See Exodus 20.5). It’s important to realise that this wasn’t the entire Hebrew Bible’s opinion. The prophet Ezekiel, for example, softened that teaching from Exodus, by stating, from God, that only sinners would suffer for their sins, not their children (see Ezekiel 18.20). And contemporary theologians point out that it is the consequences of sin which get passed on to children…such as the consequences of our present sin over Climate Change, which will be paid for by our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
But the effect of such theological debate for the poor paralytic on the street was the same – everyone looked at him and thought ‘sinner!’.
So the paralytic faces a number of problems, on top of his basic problem of paralysis. Everyone thinks that he must have done something really terrible. And he is physically unable to get to Jesus, the miracle-worker he has heard about, for the possibility of a healing miracle.
For the second of his problems (his inability to get to Jesus) the paralytic has a solution. He has friends. He has people around him, perhaps brothers and sisters, who know that he is not the awful sinner that everyone else supposes him to be. Furthermore, these friends have faith in Jesus – faith which is strong enough for them to exert the effort required to get their paralytic friend in front of the miracle-maker.
You see, that’s what faith can do. Faith can inspire us to go the extra mile for others. Faith can spur us into acts of generosity. Faith can drive us to put others’ needs before our own.
For his first problem, however (that is, the issue of whether he is a sinner or not) it is Jesus who has the solution. By tradition, there were only two people who can forgive sins. The first is the person who has been sinned against. And the second person is God.
Now of course, the paralytic was indeed a sinner – because all human beings are. We can’t help it. It’s a natural consequence of being human beings with free will that, as St Paul taught, ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’. But if we can’t seek forgiveness for our sin from someone who we have wronged, who else can we turn to? The only answer is God.
The religious teachers standing around that day knew this. They knew that only God could forgive this man’s sin – or any man’s sin, for that matter.
Which is why when Jesus says to the paralytic ‘your sins are forgiven’, they are utterly gobsmacked. ‘Who is this man who thinks he can forgive sins? Only God can do that! If this man thinks he is God then he is a blasphemer!’
But Jesus knows their thoughts. No doubt he can read it on their faces, let alone read their minds. So he sets them a little puzzle to think about. ‘Which is the easier thing to say – “your sins are forgiven”, or “arise and walk”?’.
Of course, in purely earthly terms, Jesus is absolutely right. It’s easier to say ‘your sins are forgiven’ because that’s a purely spiritual statement. No physical evidence can prove whether the thing that was spoken has happened. But, to say ‘arise and walk’ is a harder thing to say. It takes far more courage – because if the person concerned doesn’t immediately get up and walk, the speaker quickly looks like an idiot.
Jesus has chosen the easier thing to say first. Why? We can only speculate. But I suspect that it’s because he judged that fear of his sin was this man’s greatest spiritual need. But now, Jesus turns this small spiritual intervention into an empiric victory over the Scribes around him. ‘So,’ he effectively says to them, ‘if forgiving sins is the easier thing to say, I’ll now say the more difficult thing…and you watch what happens! Arise and walk!’. When the man stands up, the Scribes are even more stunned. For clearly Jesus has power – and clearly he has enormous faith. Could this really be the Messiah?
Ultimately, then, this is story about faith. The paralytic has faith that Jesus can heal him. He has faith in his friends to get him to Jesus. The friends have faith in Jesus too, otherwise they would not bother to help their paralysed friend. Jesus has faith, that his own command to ‘arise and walk’ will be effective. Each person at the heart of this story exercises their faith – and great things happen.
The Scribes? Not so much. Their belief in a set of abstract theological concepts prevents them from seeing with the eyes of faith. They are blind to what is happening before their very eyes, because their closed-minded concepts of what God is like, and how God acts, prevents them from seeing God at work!
And isn’t this true for us today as well? Those who see with the eyes of faith are able to glimpse the possibilities of taking action in the world. Whether that’s about deciding, by faith, to continue loving our neighbour, and caring for those in need. Or whether it’s about deciding, by faith, that each of us can make a contribution to reducing the harm that all humanity is doing to the planet. Or whether it’s deciding, by faith, that it is better to participate in a service like this one tonight, than to stay home.
Those who cannot live by such faith, like the Scribes of old, are doomed to lives of cynicism and continual darkness. They will not step out in faith to help the poor or the sick, and so the poor and the sick will continue to suffer. They will not have faith that any efforts against Climate Change are worth it…and so, potentially, the sins of the current generation will continue to pile up against the lives of their children and grandchildren.
The question, then, for each of us, is whether we will choose to live by faith.