There is so much going on in this brief passage (Matthew 9:1-8) that we can easily be distracted by the top-notes and miss some of the deeper complexities (does that identify me as an Episcopalian?) First, there is this: “Some people appeared, bringing a person who was paralyzed. Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralyzed person…Let me say that again; Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralyzed person “Courage, my child, your sins are forgiven.”
Jesus does not focus on the faith of the paralyzed person, but on the faith of the people who brought the person. That’s interesting!
Second, there is this: “Some of the religious scholars said to themselves—notice that they do not speak directly to Jesus—they say to themselves within his earshot: “This is blasphemy!” They don’t speak directly to Jesus, because he is claiming an authority that is outside the accepted 1st c Palestinian social norms. He is claiming authority not granted by birth or title or economic class, and so Jesus’ statement is likely to be as upsetting sociologically as it is theologically. The way that these social norms worked meant that Jesus had to meet the challenge to successfully claim authority. And you can hear him using these norms to challenge them when he proposes to “prove…that the Chosen One has authority to forgive sins…”
But notice: Jesus does not put down or scold the religious scholars, but claims the stance of a social equal speaking to social equals. That’s interesting!
And finally there is the healing effect of forgiveness: Jesus turns to the paralyzed person and says: “Stand up! Take up your mat, and go home.” What has been forgiven? Or perhaps the question is better asked, “What is it that has been restored to wholeness? And for whom?”
Jesus does not act to heal. Jesus does not ask the paralyzed person to perform some action of contrition. Jesus does not expect anything further from either the people who brought the person, the religious authorities or the crowd surrounding the scene. Everything that is necessary is already done, and so he simply says: “Stand up and go.”
Jesus has seen the healing love already in the heart of those who brought the paralyzed person. Jesus has repositioned God’s rightful authority in the eyes of the religious powers who have co-opted that supremacy. Jesus has shown the crowd—shown, not told—Jesus has shown us that any separation from God’s love is only that which we create in our hearts, minds and actions.
This reading reminds me of a very close friend of mine who is slowly dying of AIDS. But he is not paralyzed. Some days, when he comes to church, he uses a wheelchair and some days a walker. When I have the privilege of taking his arm to steady him as he walks toward the altar for communion, I think, not “There but for the grace of God…” but instead, “Here, because of the grace of God…because of the grace of God, what happens to him, happens to us.” He will not be cured of his disease, but he and I and our parish and all of us hearing his story are forever linked and whole in the love of Christ, through whom God has forgiven all our sins, individual and corporate. God has already restored, reclaimed and redeemed us. What would it look like if we acted as though we believed that? “Stand up, take up your mat and go.”
Current Master of Divinity Student
Seattle University, School of Theology and Ministry