The 19th Sunday after Trinity – October 22, 2017
From the Gospel: “behold, certain of the scribes said within themselves, This man blasphemeth.” (Matthew 9:3)
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
The issue raised in today’s Gospel is one which has divided Christendom since the Reformation.
The story is simple enough.
Jesus has returned to his own city, which here means Capernaum, (the city where he was then living, not Nazareth or Bethlehem.)
Upon his return, some people brought him a man “sick of the palsy,” which is to say, a paralytic.
Of course, being paralyzed, he could not bring himself; his friends had to bring him to Jesus.
(There is an obvious sermon here I am not going to preach, but you can work it out for yourselves.)
Presumably they bore him on a liter through the streets of the town, which was a great deal of trouble for them, and doubtless painful for him.
It is clear the friends had faith in Jesus ability to heal since they went to the trouble of bringing him.
It is also clear the man must have had faith to allow himself to be brought.
One other thing worth noting is their humility.
They did not summon Jesus to come and heal their friend, which would have been much simpler for them and more comfortable for him, instead they went to him.
It is interesting they made no specific request, perhaps they simply assumed Jesus would know what they wanted.
His response most probably surprised them.
He could have said “You are healed” or something of the kind, instead he says, “Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee.”
This could reflect the fact sin disorders to soul, which since body, mind and spirit are intimately connected, can and sometimes does lead to illness.
Having one’s sins forgiven in many cases leads to or assists in physical cures.
Every healing service should include a confession of sins, unless it comes right on the heels of Communion, in which confession has already been made.
Or, it could reflect the reality God often gives us better than what we ask.
This reminds me of the wonderful prayer, “For Those We Love,” “ALMIGHTY God, we entrust all who are dear to us to thy never-failing care and love, for this life and the life to come; knowing that thou art doing for them better things than we can desire or pray for.”
If you take a moment and think about it, given the eternal consequences of unforgiven sin versus the temporal problem of illness, isn’t having one’s sins forgiven infinitely better than mere physical healing?
(Of course, since we are at present temporal beings, when one is sick, sometimes this is hard to remember.)
This is the first instance in the Synoptic Gospels of Jesus speaking of his forgiving sins.
While this was going on, there were some scribes nearby, and they thought “this man blasphemeth.”
One of Jesus’ special abilities was to know men’s thoughts.
John tells us, “he knew what was in man.” John 2:25
This makes me think of the Collect for Purity, “ALMIGHTY God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.”
As an aside, holding back a sin when you confess does not deceive God; it may deceive you, which is very dangerous; it certainly will keep that sin from being forgiven, which can be deadly.
It is worth considering the scribes’ thoughts about Jesus claiming to forgive sins.
While it is true humans can forgive sins, we can only forgive sins committed against ourselves, never those committed against others, and most certainly not those committed against God.
The easiest way to think about this is think of a sin as a debt (as some translations of the Lord’s prayer have it.)
If a man asks me to forgive a debt of $100 he owes me, I most certainly may, if I wish, do so.
On the other hand, if he asks me to forgive a debt of $100 he owes to my brother, I can’t possibly do that; I must tell him to take the matter up with my brother.
So it is with sins.
If Jesus were but a man, he could and indeed would be required to forgive the man a sin he had committed against himself, but he couldn’t possibly forgive a sin committed against God.
That is, unless he was also God.
Jesus, being both God and man, can and does forgive sins committed against God.
The Scribes quite correctly looked upon Jesus claim to forgive sins, including those against God as a claim of being God, and since they did not know the Messianic Secret that Jesus is God, they thought his claim horribly blasphemous.
Returning to our Gospel, “Jesus knowing their thoughts said, Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts? For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith he to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house.” (Matthew 9:4-6)
And, of course, “he arose, and departed to his house.” (Matthew 9:7)
That certainly quieted the scribes, at least for a little while.
He used the miracle of curing the man’s paralysis to demonstrate he had truly forgiven the man’s sins.
It was, if you will, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”
Our Gospel Lesson ends with the reaction of those who witnessed this event.
“When the multitudes saw it, they marvelled, and glorified God, which had given such power unto men.” (Matthew 9:8)
Indeed. It is interesting they glorified God “which had given such power unto men,” not “a man.”
One other interesting bit is the call of Matthew comes immediately after this event.
It seems reasonable to speculate Matthew was aware of this miracle and of Jesus’ power to forgive sins, which may well have made him open to receiving Jesus’ call to “follow me.”
This is a wonderful story, but in the final analysis, what does it have to say to us today?
Most obviously, it is an important demonstration of our Lord’s divinity.
Of course, simply doing a miracle is not a proof of divinity; Moses and the Prophets and later the Apostles did miracles aplenty, but they were merely humans, very special humans, to be sure, but mere humans none the less.
This specific miracle is different, because it links the miracle to Jesus’ ability to forgive sins as only God can.
Given the fact we know Jesus to be both God and man, this comes as no surprise to us, no matter how much it shocked the scribes.
Foreseeing this, Jesus commissioned the Apostles to continue this work.
On the night of the first Easter, when Jesus appeared in their midst, Jesus said to the Apostles, “Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained.”
The word, “Apostle” comes from the Greek word “apostello” which means to send.
Jesus sent the Apostles into the world with the same “power on earth to forgive sins.”
Of course, the need for the assurance of forgiveness did not end with the death of the first apostles, how could it?
This need is why we cherish the Apostolic Succession; each bishop receives from his Consecrators the same power they received from theirs.
Of course, bishops cannot be present everywhere, so they have delegated a portion of that authority to local priests (there are some sins which can only be absolved by a bishop.)
Some may object, why do I need a priest or a bishop to forgive my sins? God can forgive me without recourse to a clergyman.
Indeed, He can, (He is after all, God,) and doubtless does, the only problem is we are never quite sure that He has.
The enemy is very skillful in manipulating that little bit of doubt.
“Do you really think a holy God would forgive such a horrible thing as that, or a such terrible person as you?”
When we have honestly confessed our sins in repentance and faith and received absolution, we can look the devil in the eye and say, “He already has, and I have the word of a man authorized to speak for Him to prove it! So, you go and mind your own business, Satan.”
And that, my friends, is what they call “blessed assurance.”