It happens throughout history. A hero or leader arises and captures the attention and the enthusiasm of the people. His stature and popularity grow as his following grows, but then…he just goes too far. I hope this has never happened to one of your heroes, but chances are that it has.
We have seen that Jesus’ work in Galilee grew because of the public response to his teaching and to his healing of people’s illnesses. Today we notice for the first time that even the religious élite came to hear him. As they did so another person in great need of healing came to Jesus, and that is when Jesus crossed the line.
Jesus Makes an Audacious Move and is Caught by the Religious Authorities
Luke 5 tells us what happened:
One day Jesus was teaching, and Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there. They had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal the sick. Some men came carrying a paralyzed man on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
Mark 2 tells us that Jesus had just returned home to Capernaum and there were so many people that they filled the house and crowded outside the door. Mark also says that, instead of removing tile, the men ‘made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on.’ This is probably correct because roofs in Jesus’ area were often made of earth over a framework of twigs, while Luke’s gentile audience would be more familiar with tile roofs.
But notice that, though the men brought their friend for healing, and I am sure the man was eager to be healed, Jesus did not heal him! Instead, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven.’
And this was Jesus’ big problem.
The Religious Leaders React to Jesus’ Blasphemy
The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
Jesus knew what they were thinking.
As the Pharisees came to see what all the hubbub surrounding Jesus was about, we have no idea that had any negative feelings toward Jesus. As very religious people, they would naturally be interested in a phenomenon such as Jesus’ work.
But when Jesus crossed the line, the religious leaders were instantly offended. They believed only God could forgive sins, and they knew the process he used–temple ritual. If the paralyzed man wanted forgiveness, he should have followed the appropriate temple ritual. Of course they were upset by Jesus’ forgiveness.
And Jesus knew what they were thinking. This does not suggest some sort of omniscience or mind-reading on Jesus’ part; he knew full well how they would respond, and it was probably quite clear in their facial expressions and body language as well.
In fact, to serve his purpose Jesus probably provoked them intentionally.
Their basis for objection was that only God can forgive sins. This reflects a legalistic understanding of sins as being violations of God’s laws rather than our offenses in hurting each other. Though God does forgive our ‘sins’ in a general way, the practical forgiveness of those who commit harmful acts against us is our responsibility. ‘Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.’
Jesus Makes His Point about the Emerging Kingdom of God
Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked,
“Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”
Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”
Jesus’ question is at the center of this entire pronouncement story. ‘Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?’ Jesus has already demonstrated the breaking of the kingdom of God into history in his teaching and in his remarkable healings. But as important as teaching and healing might be, there is a much more significant element to the kingdom event—forgiveness, acceptance, and reconciliation. And Jesus had the authority to grant it.
For Jesus to say one’s sins are forgiven is really another aspect of healing itself. Forgiveness heals the alienation from God we often feel because of our flaws and shortcomings. As Jesus brought healing to the body, he also brings healing to our relationships—our relationship to God and our relationships to each other.
While forgiveness of ‘sin’ can be experienced but not observed, healing can be both experienced and also witnessed by others, so Jesus’ evident authority and power to heal confirm his authority and power to forgive sins.
The good news is that we all have the authority to forgive sins, not in the ritualistic way often practiced by priests as ‘agents of God’, but in that we forgive each other their offenses against us. This restores relationships, creates peace and happiness, and is part of our call to expand God’s kingdom of peace, justice, and reconciliation on earth. ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’
Jesus Continues to Draw Followers
Jesus asks, ‘Which is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven?” or “You are healed?”’ But it doesn’t matter; Jesus does both. He challenges the authority of the Pharisees; they do neither.
Jesus’ escalating work in Galilee of teaching, healing, and preaching about the kingdom is exciting to watch. His followers grow in numbers, but he sometimes calls specific individuals to follow him. We will see him do this again next time, and you won’t believe what kind of person he calls!
Articles in this series
Jesus Begins His Work:
The Beginning of the Good News about Jesus the Anointed One
Do Jesus’ Words and Actions Demonstrate Empathy — or Judgment?
Does Jesus Disagree with John the Baptist’s Message of the Coming Judgment of God?
Why Didn’t Jesus Recruit Better Help for His Galilean Work?
Did Jesus Really Heal People?
Do Demons Exist?
Jesus Adds a Shocking Twist to Healing
Jesus Calls a Fifth Follower—and What a Loser!
Jesus Refuses to Ask His Disciple to Fast
Entering the Kingdom Requires Abandoning Old Religious Systems
Jesus Gets into Trouble for Disrespecting the Law
What Do We Learn from ‘Jesus Begins His Work’?