"The One Who Forgives Sin"

March 15, 1998 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Mark 2:1-12

"Your sins are forgiven." That’s what Jesus said after they lowered the paralyzed man before him. What a peculiar statement to make!

"Ouch! Ow! It hurts!" That all our daughter, Caitlin, could say last Wednesday night as she grabbed her knee. Apparently she had moved her leg in the wrong way, causing the knee to freeze up. We had to carry her to bed like a cripple, and get her to the doctor’s the next day. Though I wasn’t there, I don’t believe the physician treated her with a dose of forgiveness. If he had, I might’ve questioned his competency. Why would a doctor speak of forgiveness? What does forgiveness have to do with a knee injury? Furthermore, who is this fellow to use that kind of therapy? Is he some kind of "new age" quack?

Of course, that’s not the treatment Caitlin received, but those questions I was asking about her doctor (had he acted differently) help us enter this story of Jesus. Like many of the episodes involving our Lord remembered in the gospels, this story is told on purpose. Just exactly who was and is this Jesus? Why did he say the things he did? Furthermore, by what authority did he speak or act? Those are not minor questions. This story, as told by the gospel writer Mark, remembered also by Matthew and Luke, nudges us toward asking them.

Please understand that the Bible is not "impartial" history. That is, those who wrote it were not objective journalists describing an event from the sidelines. They had an agenda in telling things as they did, though that agenda is not hidden. The story is told in such a way that we are called to be more than couch potatoes as we listen to it. The intent is that we might get up off our rear ends and follow this Christ guy. In order to do so, however, we each need to decide for ourselves who Jesus was and is. Of course, one story doesn’t answer all the questions we have about him. Furthermore, as we grow in the faith we come up with new questions, and the answers we discover take on whole new dimensions.

This morning’s story is full of all sorts of tangible elements that help us visualize it in our mind’s eye. Can’t you imagine a room crowded with people who have come to hear Jesus? This is no auditorium, just someone’s home in Capernaum - perhaps Simon Peter’s. Forget about electricity or even glass. The room was lit by lamps and openings in the walls, which probably weren’t as large as what we think of as windows. In other words, lighting was a bit dim, which was okay - for people were there not so much to see the speaker as to hear his words.

There were some, though, who wanted to get closer. Can’t you just see them outside the house? They’ve brought a friend with them. He can’t move - not his knees, nor his legs; his arms or his hands. Well, all it says is that he was paralyzed. His friends want to get him to see Jesus. After all, this Jesus has been out and about healing people, and they care about their friend. They want more for him than a life of dependency. They believe Jesus can make him better. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have brought him. Their persistence underscores this fact.

One look inside the door reveals no path to Jesus. The place is packed to the gills. "Please move" ... "Excuse me" ... "Have pity on our friend here and make some room." No luck. Sometimes crowds can be kind. Other times they’re not. "Park it, buddy, everyone wants to hear Jesus" ... "Shhhh!" ... "Can’t you see there’s a line?" Unwilling to take "No" for an answer, the friends of this sick man lift him up onto the roof. Can you imagine that? They eye up the building, trying to figure out where Jesus might be sitting below, and start to take apart the roof. Of all the gall. This is somebody’s home. Don’t they have any respect for property? As Luke tells the story, the roof has tiles which they remove. Mark, however, describes them as digging into the roof - which might be more accurate, given how the average person’s house was constructed back then.

Down below, people can hear the commotion above, but they’re trying to pay attention to Jesus. Eventually, though, a hole is breeched, letting in a ray of sunlight at first. As the hole is widened, the sunlight grows, blinding the eyes of those now accustomed to the dim interior of the room. "What is going on here?" ... "Who do they think they are?" ... "Someone call the police." All sorts of under-the-breath mumblings and grumblings filled the crowd. Then the faithful friends of the paralyzed man lower him down through the hole. "Will you help us now?" ... "Please let him see Jesus" ... "That’s all we ask." Hands from below reluctantly grab the man and lay him before the Lord.

Jesus sees all this - the extent to which these men have gone for their friend. Would that we had friends like that. It says that Jesus saw their faith. What sort of faith did he see? Was it the faith that this teacher could heal their friend? Or was it faithfulness to their friend that they were demonstrating in what they had just done? Perhaps it was both.

Anyway, Jesus said to the crippled man who now lay in front of him, "Son, your sins are forgiven." What a peculiar statement to make, at least from our perspective in this century. If the physician had treated my daughter in that way the other day, I would’ve done my share of grumbling. "What is he doing?" ... "Is he confusing medicine and religion?" ... "Is he trying to play God?" The reactions of the professional holy guys in the crowd on that day in Capernaum were not that much different. They whispered back and forth: "Why would Jesus say such a thing?" ... "He must think he is God!" ... "Only God can forgive sins."

Now, there are a lot of things we don’t know in this story. For instance, we know very little about this paralyzed man, other than that he was somehow paralyzed. We don’t even know to what extent he was immobilized, or how it happened. Was it the result of a fall or a stroke? That information isn’t there. The only other thing we know is that he had some very faithful friends. It’s important, both in listening to a story such as this, or in hearing the stories of people around us, that we not jump to conclusions.

One temptation for us out of this episode is to treat every illness as if it were the result of sin in need of forgiveness. In a general sense that may be true. Disease is a part of our human condition which, as the Bible tells us, goes back a long way. We may be tempted, from this story, to force forgiveness onto every situation. That can be a terrible thing to do to someone who suffers, to tell them (without knowing the details) that they must be hurting because of some sin in their life. When we do that we are playing God, and that is blasphemy.

Please note that Jesus treated each person differently. The chapter before this story in Mark’s gospel tells of several healings. In one Jesus tells an evil spirit to shut up and come out of a man, and it does. In another, he quietly holds a woman’s hand and her fever clears up. In yet another Jesus reaches out and touches a leper and heals him. No mention of forgiveness, no talk of sin in these cases. Each one is different. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, which is important for us to remember.

If anything, though, our temptation may more readily lie on the other extreme - to believe that sin has nothing to do with the troubles of life, that forgiveness has no place in the healing process. A man is involved in an auto accident which was his fault. The mother and child in the other car are fine. He is the one with the greatest injury. Tears fill his eyes when he speaks of putting others at risk. Will forgiveness be a part of his healing? You better believe it. He will struggle to forgive himself. Even after he has recovered, he will not be whole until the forgiving word is spoken somehow, in some way - and that word resonates within him.

Forgiveness is a tremendously important part of living a complete life. Now, it’s not so much a matter of making persons feel ashamed - which is how many of us approach the need for confession and forgiveness. Granted, we don’t feel guilty enough about the rotten things we do, and the ways we avoid accountability through lies or half truths. Unrecognized guilt is like a poison in our system that eats away at who we are. The focus of Jesus was not, however, upon tearing others down, but upon lifting them up - whether they were a lost sheep, or a lost coin.

Much more needs to be said of forgiveness than my brief words this morning. It wasn’t so strange for Jesus to speak of forgiveness to this paralyzed man. People in that day were more aware of the connection between sin and illness. That part didn’t bother them, as it may us. What ticked off the scribes, the "professional holy guys," was the authority with which Jesus spoke. Who did he think he was? God? That, my friends, is the question at the heart of this story. Of course, Jesus didn’t directly answer that question at that point in his ministry. It’s a question that each of us needs to answer for ourselves. Who is Jesus? What does this person who forgives sin have to do with my life? In what ways am I, are we paralyzed, like this man laying before Jesus, unable to move? Is our paralysis physical or spiritual? Do I/we need to hear the forgiving word of God? Will I/we hear him speak it?

"Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’?" With those words Jesus challenged his listeners to answer the question for themselves of who he was. With those words he healed the crippled man. With those challenging, healing words Jesus still speaks to us today. Are we willing to get up off our rear ends, then, and follow him?

That crippled man? It says his days of paralysis were over. He got up and went home, and all who saw were amazed, and they praised God. Yes!

1998Peter L. Haynes

return to "Messages" page

return to Long Green Valley Church page