October 26, 2014
What is easier to say ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee’
‘Arise take up thy bed and walk’?
(St. Matthew ix. 4)
In last week’s reflections on the life of St. Luke the Evangelist we studied the nature of healing. What we found was that the healing that Jesus Christ brings into the world is the means of sanctification that leads to our salvation. We found also that without the desire for that healing, we cannot hope to begin the journey back to God. But desiring healing is no easy business. Too often those who count themselves Christians are people who think that they are healthy and so need not a physician. Today we must learn to pray for that healing that we receive only through the forgiveness of all our sins.
Simon Tugwell reminds us that the one and only comment on prayer that Christ gave to His Church is that if we do not forgive, we shall not be forgiven. (Matt. vi. 14… in Prayer: Living with God, p. 80) So, a sure sign that we have not received the forgiveness of sins from Jesus Christ is our failure to forgive others. When we do not forgive others, we can rest assured that the forgiveness of sins does not rule and govern us from the throne of our hearts. We take it for granted that Our Heavenly Father will forgive us repeatedly, will wink at our sins, and disregard what we consider to be minor foibles. We treat forgiveness of sins like some kind of entitlement benefit that we deserve for being card-carrying Christians. But what this reveals is that we do not treat sin, confession, forgiveness, or Christ’s command to Go and sin no more with much seriousness. Rather than seeing ourselves as those who are always most in need of forgiveness and so must work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. ii. 12), we are filled with pride over whatever goodness we think we possess and we are threatened by the goodness of those who, rightly, and even charitably, do not find our spiritual levity and superficiality either attractive or enticing.
So what stops us from receiving and extending the forgiveness of sins is our own pride. We are too arrogant or hubristic to confess our vices and to realize that the forgiveness of sins alone leads to new life. All hope for potential inner healing has been quenched by an immature addiction to fear and anxiety. We fear the opinion of others if we claim and confess utter powerlessness over the sin in our lives. And so we spend our days trying to show the world that we are sane, sound, and successful. But the truth of the matter is that inwardly and spiritually we are broken, wounded, suffering and sinful. Pride commands us to put on a good face, and so we move on appearing to be one thing, while in all reality we are quite another. Pride tells us that we can hold it all together, fend for ourselves, do perfectly well without anyone’s help. When we encounter goodness in others that we do not possess, our pride is threatened, our security teeters, our self-reliance wavers, and we envy that goodness we are afraid to pursue. So pride turns into envy. Dorothy Sayers, in her commentary on her translation of Dante’s Purgatorio, says this:
The sin of envy always contains… an element of fear. The proud man is
self-sufficient, rejecting with contempt the notion that anybody can be
his equal or superior. The envious man is afraid of losing something
by the admission of superiority in others, and therefore looks with
grudging hatred upon other men’s gifts and good fortune, taking every opportunity to run them down or deprive them of their happiness.
(D.C.: Purg. p. 170)
The envious man is afraid that the superiority of other men’s gifts might threaten and devalue his own. And so his thoughts, words, and even works aim to destroy his privileged neighbor and deprive him of any goodness. Falsely thinking that the goodness he lacks can never be found, he is determined that no other man should ever find it either.
Of course, pride that turns into envy kills the forgiveness of our sins and our forgiveness of others. This is a temptation for us all. Accepting the preeminent place of God’s forgiveness is no easy thing, especially because our world defines truth and error, right and wrong, and good and evil by changing and shifting standards of feeling and emotion. Most of us, when left to our own devices and desires, measure out forgiveness in so far as it promotes and protects our underdeveloped and fragile egos. Sometimes we think that we have forgiven others and we feel proud of ourselves, not realizing that from the position of our supposed moral superiority we disdain them and we rejoice that their weakness depends upon our generosity. At other times we find forgiveness costs too much, and so we withhold it, all the while envying him whose life seems to move along quite effortlessly without it. We feel sorrow and anger at such prosperity and success. If our withholding forgiveness has hurt another, we rejoice in our power to begrudge another man his share in goodness, and so we rejoice over his sadness and hurt. He deserves it, so we think. But in all three cases pride and envy combine to hurt ourselves and others because we have never truly discovered the forgiveness of sins.
We see both the danger of these sins and the alternative virtue in this morning’s Gospel lesson. And, behold, they brought to him a man sick of the palsy, lying on a bed: and Jesus seeing their faith said unto the sick of the palsy; Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee. (St. Matthew ix. 2) Jesus not only brings the forgiveness of sins to fallen humanity but is determined to offer it as God’s response to that faith that humbly longs for true healing. Forgiveness is God’s first response of love to His faithful people. He comes to heal first the sickness of the soul and then, only perhaps, the ailments of the body. As Archbishop Trench remarks, ‘Son, be of good cheer’, are words addressed to one evidently burdened with a more intolerable weight than that of his bodily infirmities. Some utterance on his part of a penitent and contrite heart called out these gracious words which follow, ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee.’ (Miracles, p. 157) The man does not ask for the healing of his body, but his soul cries out for the relief of an even greater inner burden. He is not proud but humble, and so does not envy or begrudge Jesus the goodness He possesses but seeks it out with a passion that words cannot utter. So Jesus declares that his sins are forgiven. This is what wholly unnerves the Scribes. And, behold, certain of the scribes said within themselves, This man blasphemeth. (Ibid, 3) If a mere mortal had claimed such authority, he might be rightly condemned of usurping and stealing that power that belongs to God alone. But what they did not see was that God was in Jesus reconciling the world to Himself. (2 Cor. v. 19) And yet we sense something more at work in the hearts of the Scribes. Were they bothered most because Jesus claimed the power of God? Or was it that their own priestly prerogatives regarding ritual atonement for sin were being threatened by a power they did not possess? Jesus knew that they were moved by pride and envy. And so He says, Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts? For whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins, (then saith He to the sick of the palsy,) Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. And he arose, and departed to his house. (Ibid, 4-7) Jesus admits that in one way it is easier to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee, than to say, Take up thy bed and walk. But because the Scribes have never known the true effect of the forgiveness of sins that Christ brings, He proceeds to heal the man’s body and to show that His words have power to bring about a lasting spiritual cure. Take up thy bed and go unto thine house. (Ibid, 7)
Today we learn that the healing medicine that Christ brings to us is twofold. First, If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins…. (1 St. John i. 9) Repentance is needed since our sinful flesh is always too ready to side with the cruel enemy of our souls. This things of this world press hard upon us, either to terrify us out of our duty, or humour us into our ruin. (Jenks, 221) Thus the Great Physician instructs us to canvass our hearts each day in order to find those thoughts and desires that run contrary to God’s will for us. With St. Paul this morning we must not walk, in the vanity of [our] mind[s], having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through…ignorance…because of the blindness of [our] hearts. (Eph. iv. 17, 18) The healing that Christ brings to us is a response to the confession of our sins. We confess our sins in the light of Christ’s presence as our minds are illuminated by His wisdom and our hearts softened into sorrow and contrition by His love. So regular confession is the first step towards Christ’s forgiveness of our sins.
Second, when we practice penance habitually, Christ will cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 St. John i. 9) In this process we learn that as often as we repent, the Lord forgives. For the merciful goodness of the LORD endureth for ever and ever upon them that fear Him. (Ps. ciii. 17) So what should overawe and stupefy us as we are renewed in the spirit of [our]mind[s], as we put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness (Eph. iv. 23, 24), is that God’s forgiveness is nothing short of a superabundant excess of His love and mercy for us. We shall realize that as Christ forgives us, as Simon Tugwell writes, We cannot let the truth of God’s being penetrate our own sin, so that we may be forgiven, if at the same time we are trying to exclude one essential aspect of that truth [in failing to forgive any other man]. (Ibid, 91) God’s forgiveness of our sins in Jesus Christ is the miracle of Love that desires continuously to conquer all sin. If the forgiveness we receive takes root downward and bears fruit upward, through us it will be showered indiscriminately on all others. For only then will it have become the Love of our lives. What is easier to say, “Thy sins be forgiven thee” or “Arise take up thy bed and walk”? (St. Matthew ix. 4)