Pastor Bruce Jones
In the last verse of this story -- after seeing a paralytic lowered through a (recently dug) hole in a roof, healed by Jesus, and walking under his ownpower – we hear the people exclaim, “We have never seen anything like this!”
And who would have said this; the whole episode was quite a sight to behold. Yet, their very words convince me that they didn’t really “get” what was going on. All the things that capture our imagination in this story (the excitement of the crowd, the paralytic being lowered, the scurrilous demeanor of the religious authorities, etc., etc.) are window dressing for the words that Jesus utters: “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Those words were scandalous. Jews were generally in agreement, in the first century, that only God was able to forgive sins. Even the longed-for Messiah wasn’t thought to be able to forgive sins.
Only God could do that. And thus, Jesus begins to disclose his true nature in this radical act of forgiveness.
Today, forgiveness has slid into the background of our busy lives. There is much more talk about other human needs: food, housing, love, respect, employment, self-worth, etc. As a church, we often think long and hard about how we can – in the process of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ -- deliver on these things. How can we house the homeless? How can we build up the self-esteem of the victims of abuse and neglect? How can we help people while not undermining their dignity? These are important questions andthey are worthy of our consideration.
But another need is – I think – much more pervasive need. At the same time, it is very acute, yet less likely to show up on the radar screen of the modern church. It’s right here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. It’s the universal need for forgiveness.
Before Jesus healed the paralytic, before he ordered him to pick up his mat and head home, he simply said to him, “Yoursins are forgiven.”
Let us understand that this is at the very heart of Jesus’ mission and ministry.
Closely linked are some other ideas . . .Repentance and reconciliation. Repentance (literally “turning around”) is the way that we open ourselves to receive forgiveness. Remember the parable of the prodigal son: he repented of his sin by turning around and heading back to his father. Along the way, he came up with a “plan” for repentance: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.”
His father would have none of it; he wouldn’t even let him finish stating the plan. His father let him know that he was fully forgiven. There is a lesson here: Repentance is about turning into God’s forgiveness. But that forgiveness is always there. By proposing to be a better (father, son, daughter, mother, friend, etc.) we are not repenting, we are just trying to make amends. Forgiveness isn’t a cease-fire in a long sequence of mistrust and hostility; itis falling into the arms of a loving God. By repenting, we don’t cause forgiveness to issue forth from God; it’s always been there.
Remember, when Jesus was stripped of his clothes and nailed to a cross, he cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Forgiveness is God’s mercy andGod’s mercy is eternal. We can’t – somehow – trigger it or produce it ourselves.
Reconciliation is the goal of forgiveness. In the case of the prodigal, because the compact nature of the narrative, we are tempted to think that reconciliation was instant. But how long did it take that son to make his way home? The story states he was a long, long way off. How many months and years transpired? How many miles did he travel?
Likewise, for us, it is unreasonable to expect that when we give or receive forgiveness, that there will be instantaneous reconciliation. I grieve for the many women who, after being moved to forgive an abusive spouse, are hectored to move back into that house of oppression. Sometimes they do not come out alive.
Reconciliation can be a long, long journey on the human plane. We would be wise not to let our expectations run ahead of the healing influence of the Holy Spirit.
And while that is wise discretion, even the best of us will – from time to time – find ourselves saying, “I just can’t forgive myself.” We may know that God forgives us; we may know that grace is a free gift; we may know that Jesus went to the cross to wipe our slate clean; we may know all about God and forgiveness . . . . But we can’t seem to connect it to our heart. We remain paralyzed by regret.
And this is exactly where this parable speaks to us today. The paralytic in this story had friends who made a heroic effort to bring him into the presence of Jesus. This is – in short – what we should be doing for each other in the church. There are times when all of our theological knowledge and Bible lessons fall short of bringing us into the presence of God. Our sense of guilt and alienation can overpower even the best of us. God’s solution for this is what is historically known as the “Fellowship of the Saints.” And what THAT means is deep and intimate spiritual connection. We carry each other, from time to time, when the journey is too hard, and the path becomes confusing. And when we are carried into the light of that amazing love, forgiveness abounds. Amazing grace.