And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic—“Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.
Matthew 9:2-8 (NRSV)
I don’t know if Guys Bringing Their Paralyzed Friend to Jesus constitutes a genre of story, but if it does, this is one of those stories.
Matthew has already set a background for these scenarios with his note that Jesus is going around healing and casting out demons, and as a frame of reference, he cites Isaiah 53 which depicts the suffering of faithful Israel for the sake of restoring the nation to God. As part of this process, Isaiah pulls together healing and forgiveness of sins.
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Isaiah 53:4-6 (NRSV)
Against this backdrop, the paralytic is a representative figure for Israel in Jesus’ day – broken under infirmities both spiritual and physical. But he, or at least his friends, has faith that Jesus can deliver him, so there he is.
Given this background, it is not that strange that Jesus would announce to this man that his sins are forgiven, especially as Matthew is keen to make the point that Israel being forgiven of her sins, being healed, being restored, etc. is all part of an eschatological package that Jesus is bringing in. Jesus’ pronouncement of the forgiveness of sins to the paralytic man is a microcosm of what God through him is doing for Israel as a whole.
In a turn of events not unlike the previous exorcism episode, this makes the observers – the Jewish scribes – angry. They accuse Jesus of blasphemy, apparently in whispers among themselves. Matthew does not spell out the reason they think this. Both Mark and Luke specify that their issue is that only God can forgive sins, and given the rather large amount of Old Testament testimony to this fact, it’s safe to say this is their problem with the whole thing. Presumably, they have had little success coming up with complaints about Jesus’ healings and exorcisms, but forgiving sins is a bridge too far.
It’s interesting that Jesus does not take the tack most of our modern theologians would. If the story stopped here, commentaries on this passage would probably suggest that, since Jesus is God, he can forgive sins and the scribes have no real complaint. But this is not how Jesus responds.
Jesus responds by identifying himself with the Son of Man and uses a healing miracle to validate his claim that the Son of Man has been given the authority to forgive sins.
In Daniel 7, in the midst of powerful kingdoms and their blasphemous leaders, the Ancient of Days sets up thrones and subdues these kingdoms and destroys the last, most terrible one. Then, one like the Son of Man appears before Him. He bestows on this figure an everlasting dominion and kingdom. Daniel asks one of the servants of the Ancient of Days for an interpretation, and what follows is one of the more explicit interpretations of apocalyptic visions that the Bible has to offer, with the Son of Man figure being identified as the “holy ones of the Most High” several times.
So, according to this vision, the kingdoms of the earth that rule over Israel and the known world will be put down by God, and faithful Israel will be given authority on earth by God to rule.
Jesus identifies himself, as he already has and will again multiple times, with that Son of Man figure in Daniel 7. He is faithful Israel and, as such, God will put down his enemies and give him an everlasting dominion and kingdom. This is a theme that is so common in Matthew that the gospel even closes with it (Matthew 28:18) and, for Paul, the resurrection is the great miracle that proves that Jesus has been given all authority (Eph. 1:20-23, 1 Cor. 15:20-28).
It is on this basis that Jesus answers the charge of blasphemy – that the thing Daniel prophesied is happening now, Jesus is that Son of Man figure, and he has received his authority from God.
This is confirmed further by the end of the story. The crowds glorify God who had given such authority to men. People are praising God because a human being has the authority, now, to forgive sins. Why is this good news? Because that event is a key, eschatological milestone in Israel’s hopes for her deliverance and restoration. If a faithful Israelite has been delegated God’s own authority on the earth, the rest of Daniel 7 cannot be far behind.
The actual miracle of healing the paralysis serves the classic function of miracles in the gospels – they establish that Jesus is the hoped-for Savior of Israel and confirm the truth of his claims. Jesus specifically spells this out for the scribes. “I am going to supernaturally heal this guy with God’s power so that you can know that I am the Son of Man and I have God’s authority to forgive sins on the earth.” And then he does, so he does. It is interesting that here and elsewhere, the healing takes the form of a command. Jesus -commands- the man to stand up, take his bed, and go home, and the paralytic man obeys. It is a demonstration of authority that transcends natural boundaries, a resonance all the way back to Genesis 1 when God commands light to shine, and it does, or commands the waters to part, and they do. Jesus is demonstrating that God has truly vested His authority in Jesus and there are no limits to it.
And why is this good news? Well, partially because Jesus is awesome and, if someone is going to have that kind of authority, it’s good news for everyone that this someone is Jesus. It is good news for the whole world that Jesus is the true King. If there is hope for the world to be set right, it can be found in the fact that it is Jesus who rules and not the typical sort of person who rises to power over empires. It is the good news that Israel was always supposed to be for the world, and it is good news for Jew and Gentile, all tribes, every nation. In fact, it’s even good news for unbelievers insofar as everyone benefits from a just society.
But we don’t want to lose the particular moment captured in Matthew’s story. This is good news for the original audience because it means the moment of overthrow, deliverance, forgiveness, and restoration has come near after so many years. The kingdom of God that seemed like a pipe dream during the Babylonian Exile is, centuries later, right around the corner, and the appropriate response from Israel is trust, perseverance, and joy.
- Historically, when Christians have been in power, how has that gone? Why did it end up the way it did? What would it look like for a Christian to be in power and have that be a blessing to all people?
- In the scheme of the big historical picture, God forgiving Israel’s sins meant ending the sin-earned curses she suffered and restoring her to the status she was meant to have as a faithful people. How does this inform what forgiveness looks like between us and God, today? How does it inform the way we forgive one another?