Matthew 9.1-8 - Jesus heals
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
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
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
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
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
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
The question, then, for each of us, is
whether we will choose to live by faith.