Here in the western world at the beginning of the twenty first century, there really isn’t any religious view that is considered to be completely out of bounds. You can be any version of Christianity – even if your “Christianity” means denying the text of Scripture itself. You can be any non-Christian religion, as immigration bring in more Muslims, Hindus and others. It is very cool and progressive to say that you are agnostic. Being an atheist is perfectly ok. You can claim any kind of spirituality. Your god can be a he, a she or an it. Your god can be creation itself.
There is, however, still one place where you really can’t go. You can’t say that you are god. If you claim that one, people are going to call you on it. They will politely tolerate almost anything else, but if you claim to be god, that’s just too much – even for our world. If you claim to be god; if you speak in ways that clearly claim divine prerogatives, people are going to say that you are really weird or completely delusional.
You can’t get away with it today, and you certainly couldn’t get away with it in first century Judaism. This was a religion that was so committed to avoiding offenses against the majesty of God that it even avoided saying God’s name for fear of breaking the second commandment. The reason that you hear about the “kingdom of heaven” in Matthew’s Gospel is because Jews used this as a circumlocution to refer to the “kingdom of God.” The world “Jehovah” is actually a Christian misunderstanding of the fact that Hebrew vowel signs added later are an indication to the reader that they are to say “Adonai” instead of the actual name of God – Yahweh.
This fact provides the background for our Gospel lesson today. Matthew tells us that Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee and returned to Capernaum, which served as his base of operations during his ministry in Galilee. We learn that some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. We hear, “And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.’”
It’s obvious why they brought the paralytic to Jesus. In chapter eight Jesus had been carrying out his ministry of healing and casting out demons. He had even restored a dead little girl to life. They wanted Jesus to heal the man, and we learn that Jesus could see they all had faith that he could.
What Jesus actually did must have surprised them. He said, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” They came for healing. Instead, Jesus forgave the man’s sins.
If they were surprised, the scribes who were present were appalled and scandalized. Matthew tells us: “And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.’” It was apparent to them that Jesus had spoken forgiveness to the man in a way that infringed on what only God can do. Jesus claimed to be doing something that only God can do, and for the scribes, there was only one to thing to call this. It was blasphemy.
In a way, you almost have to feel sorry for Jesus’ opponents. Imagine what it was like to oppose someone who seemed to know what you were thinking. Of course, Jesus didn’t just seem to know – he knew exactly. Matthew reports, “But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’--he then said to the paralytic—‘Rise, pick up your bed and go home.’ And he rose and went home.”
Just as Jesus knew about the faith of the paralytic and the men who brought him, he also knew about the unbelief and hatred that was within the scribes. So Jesus asked what has to be one of my favorite questions that he directs to his opponents. On the one hand it is much easier to say “Your sins are forgiven” than “Rise and walk” because no one can verify whether sins have actually been forgiven before God, while it is clear whether a paralytic can suddenly start walking.
Yet on a deeper level, it is far more difficult to say “Your sins are forgiven,” and actually do it, than it is to say “Rise and walk,” and bring about healing. The reason for this is that sin is the source and cause of all illness. Certainly there are some specific sins that lead to illness. If you break the sixth commandment and have sex outside of marriage, you can get a sexually transmitted disease. If you abuse alcohol in persistent drunkenness you can damage your liver.
But that’s not what I mean. Instead, I am talking about death. God warned Adam that if he disobeyed and ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would die. Sin brought death. It brought every imperfection that leads to death. Created to be very good, people and creation itself are no longer that. Instead because of sin they are in the process of degradation that leads to death. Every illness – every imperfection – finds its source in sin. Though they may not all cause death, they all point to that final outcome of sin. They all point to death.
Now note that our Lord didn’t deny the basis for the scribes’ thought. He had in fact forgiven the man’s sin in a way that only God can do. There was no objective way of confirming this had taken place. That is why we hear in our text: “‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’--he then said to the paralytic—‘Rise, pick up your bed and go home.’ And he rose and went home.”
Jesus’ entire ministry was directed towards sin. That’s just as true for his healing ministry as it is for his death on the cross. In the previous chapter Matthew provides a summary statement about Jesus ministry as he says: “When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick.” And then he goes on to add, “This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases.’”
The Isaiah text Matthew quotes is from chapter 53. It is one that is cited all the time in the New Testament because it describes the saving work of the Christ by which he has given us forgiveness. For example we read there, “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” We learn that it was through this substitutionary work that Jesus Christ has taken away the sin that separated you from God. This is the same thing Jesus declared when he said, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
However, Matthew now tells us that Jesus’ healing ministry was also part of this work. Jesus came not only to give you forgiveness before God. He came to free you from every way that sin impacts life – including the physical. That is what we see in Jesus’ healing ministry. They are actions that show Jesus is already beginning to reverse the physical impact of sin. And then it is in the resurrection on Easter that Jesus began the final renewal that does away with illness and death forever. In Jesus’ resurrected body the resurrection of the Last Day has started. Your resurrection has already begun in Jesus. And when he returns on the Last Day, your share in that resurrection will mean that sin, illness and death will never trouble you again.
Matthew tells us at the end of our text, “When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.” Jesus Christ, the God-man had this authority. And now as the crucified and risen Lord he has given this authority to his church, to speak in his place and stead. That’s what happened at the beginning of the service.
You heard me say, “I forgive you all your sins.” I didn’t say this in order to make the general point that you are forgiven because of Jesus. I didn’t say this because you did something to me personally, and now I was forgiving you. I said this because those words were doing what they said. They were forgiving sins before God.
As the scribes perceived, that is something only God can do. It is something that only God can say. And since I am not delusional, I would never dare to speak them by my own person or authority. Instead the words of absolution say, “As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by his authority.” It is Jesus who gave Holy Absolution to his church. It is Jesus who instituted his Office of the Ministry. It is the Spirit of Jesus who placed the pastor in the Office here in this place. And it is Jesus’ authority as the crucified and risen Lord that gives those words power. They do what they say because of Jesus, and so you are forgiven indeed.
You are forgiven by those words. And we are probably content to stop right there. After all, we want to receive forgiveness. But our Lord says that if we receive forgiveness, we must also give forgiveness to others. Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Then immediately after the Lord’s Prayer, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus adds, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
The forgiveness you receive from Christ is a great gift. But to receive this gift is also to commit yourself to forgive others. To receive this gift is to be committed by God to forgive others. For Jesus says that if you won’t forgive others, then you do not get to keep this forgiveness. The only way to have it, is by sharing it.
This is true in the daily course of our life. There are a hundred little things for which we forgive one another. In this way, forgiveness is like the air we breathe. Our life as Christians is sustained by the forgiveness we receive from Christ through the work of the Spirit. Our life together as Christians is sustained by this same forgiveness as we share it with one another.
But there are also those big things – those painful things. There are those momentous words and actions that stand out – those words and actions against us that have fractured relationships and created rifts that remain to this day. Are there any of those still present in your life?
If there are, then our text’s focus on Jesus’ word of forgiveness for you must lead you to ponder how Jesus’ forgiveness is to be shared with that person. And then Jesus’ word of absolution must lead you to speak the six most powerful words in world: I forgive you for Jesus’ sake.