There is none to plead thy cause, that thou mayest be bound up: thou hast no healing medicines. All thy lovers have forgotten thee; they seek thee not; for I have wounded thee with the wound of an enemy, with the chastisement of a cruel one, for the multitude of thine iniquity; because thy sins were increased.
(Jeremiah xxx. 13, 14)
Our opening verses come to us from the 30th Chapter of the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. What the prophet is describing is the sorry and desperate condition of sinful man. The man whom he describes is not meant to be any man in particular, but one who suffers the punishment of sin on behalf of sinful Israel. He is treated as a leper, a Samaritan, an alien, and an outcast. Other men avoid him because they find nothing in him worthy of sympathy or identification. They shun him like the plague because they conclude they he must have done something that places him beyond the reach of any lasting forgiveness and mercy. At any rate, they judge that sin is a disease that God alone can cure, one that everybody has contracted, and whose effects can be, at best, mitigated by ritual and ceremonial purification.
As Romano Guardini points out, forgiveness to them is a covering up, a looking away, a gracious ignoring, cessation of anger and punishment. (The Lord, p. 131) And yet, God does promise in this morning’s Old Testament lesson to heal and cure the sinner of his wickedness. For I will restore health unto thee, and I will heal thee of thy wounds, saith the LORD; because they called thee an Outcast, saying, This is Zion, whom no man seeketh after. (Ibid, 17) The man who feels himself to be an outcast and alien, who remembers his sin, is the very man whom God promises to visit and restore…at some future date.
In our Gospel lesson for this morning we find a similar situation, but something new has transpired since the days of Jeremiah. One Jesus of Nazareth has come upon the scene of human existence carrying with him the fulfillment of God’s promise. We read of a man brought to [Jesus], sick of the palsy, [and] lying on a bed. (St. Matthew ix. 2) Any man in Jesus’ time who was sick of the palsy, afflicted with paralysis or any other outward and visible sickness, would have thought that the physical disease was punishment for his sins. Yet in this morning’s lection we find that the man has friends who sympathize and identify with his inner turmoil, that horrible spiritual sense that accompanies his disease. The man could not move and was wholly aware that his physical handicap was frustrating his spiritual growth. But in this case the friends of the sick man share his pain and suffering. Unlike those in the Old Testament lesson, who were bereft of compassion, here we find a communal faith that reaches out to Jesus for healing. And though St. Matthew doesn’t mention it, both St. Luke and St. Mark tell us that when Jesus performed this miracle, He was in a house thronged by so many people that the sick man’s friends, determined to bring him to Jesus, let him down through the roof. (St.Mark ii. 2-4; St. Luke v. 18,19) Archbishop Trench writes that, In them we see a faith that overcame hindrances, and was not to be turned aside by external and physical impediments. (Miracles, p. 157) Both the sick man and his friends see something in Jesus that promises to heal and relieve the miseries of this world. So Jesus, who knows what is in [men’s] hearts (St. John ii. 25), brings God’s compassion to the man sick of the palsy. Notice that Jesus takes the initiative and makes the first move. Son, be of good cheer, (Ibid) He insists at first. St. John Chrysostom says, O wondrous humility. Despised and weak, all his members enfeebled; yet [Jesus]calls him ‘Son’ whom the priests would not deign to touch. (Catena Aurea, 180) The paralyzed man is treated as one of God’s own children. And lest the man might wrongly conclude that Jesus came to heal his body alone, Jesus says, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee. (Ibid) Jesus responds always to that faith which persistently seeks to obtain what He has to offer. First and foremost what faith desires is the forgiveness of sins. Jesus sees into the palsied man’s heart. There He finds sadness and sorrow for sin. Perhaps the man had cursed God for his handicap; maybe he felt too sharply the blow of God’s wrath against his resentment and bitterness. Maybe he was teetering on the verge of despair. What Jesus sees is one inwardly and spiritually wounded, bruised, troubled, confused, and weak. Archbishop Trench tells us that, In the sufferer’s own conviction there existed so close a connection between his sin and his sickness, that the outward healing would have been scarcely intelligible to him, would hardly have brought home to him the sense of a benefit, till the message of peace had been spoken to his spirit. (Idem, 158) So Jesus must first heal the man’s soul.
But what follows is truly remarkable. No sooner does Jesus speak God’s forgiveness into the man’s heart, than the miracle is interrupted. The Scribes have a real problem with what Jesus has said and done. What they hear, they call blasphemy. Their point is that God alone can forgive and that any man who claims to offer God’s forgiveness is dangerously identifying himself with God. So who is this man Jesus think that He is, presuming to offer God’s forgiveness to another, and not conditionally, but absolutely? Forgiveness, it would seem, is a theoretical concept to the minds of the Scribes. If it is obtained at all, it is bound up in the customary sacrificial ritual and offerings of the Jewish priests in the temple. When the Jewish clergy officiate in its ministration, it can only really ever be God’s covering up or looking away from sin. (Idem) In other words, forgiveness, as the Scribes would have it, cloaks a sin that is not eliminated fully. For them, forgiveness is a distant ideal that never fully overcomes evil’s possession of man. Cynically they think, Who can forgive sins but God only? (St. Mark ii. 7)
But herein lies the problem. The Scribes thought that they were good enough. Since they were good enough, they did not need to become better. So spiritual sterility and impotence had set in. For all practical purposes, they no longer needed God. They were content and satisfied. So they deluded themselves into thinking that their relationship to God was as perfect as it gets. They thought then that they were made to be of assistance to God –to judge where evil was and to what extent forgiveness was to be extended to notorious sinners.
Yet such can never be the case with those who measure their lives with God. For the man who faces God’s judgment alone there can only ever be the discovery of sin, the need for God’s forgiveness, and the power to become better. And I don’t mean to suggest that forgiveness comes naturally or easily. Forgiveness is indeed a hard thing to embrace since it does not originate with Fallen Man. Along with the Scribes, Fallen Man says that he might forgive but he will never forget. This is another way of saying that he doesn’t really forgive since the evil of his enemy still has a hold on him. The memory of it is fresh and alive enough so that is still stokes the fire of ill will and malevolence in his unsettled breast. At best he feels resentment and at worse he feels contempt.
God, however, tells us that we shall not be forgiven unless and until what we receive from Him is shared equally with all. But we cannot receive His forgiveness until we discover our need for it. So we must acknowledge our sins against God. What we are called to feel truly is the offence done to God in our sinning and the just punishment that it deserves. Only then can we be surprised pleasantly with the forgiveness of sins that Jesus Christ brings to us. What He brings will be embraced as what we poor sinful men can never deserve, earn, or merit. What He brings will be perceived as the free gift of a loving God who earnestly desires always to reconcile us to Himself in the ongoing process of our sanctification and perfection.
But for the perfection process to proceed, the forgiveness of sins that Jesus Christ brings into the world can find no limits or barriers. Nothing in our hearts must stand in the way of the full operation of God’s forgiveness made flesh. It is the Divine Love that intends to run its course in our lives so that we might be made new. This can happen only if the forgiveness of sins eliminates our sin and also the hold that other men’s sins have upon us. As Romano Guardini suggests, God intends to render sinners sinless. Between the state of sinfulness and sinlessness there lies a death, a destruction in which the sinner is submerged, in order to be lifted from it into a new existence. (The Lord, p. 131) In Jesus Christ the forgiveness of sins blends love for the sinner with hope for his perfection. God forgives us an infinite number of times because it might just take that amount for us to repent and believe, to be healed and to be saved, to be made slightly better instead of abominably worse. The forgiveness of sins is extended to us in order that it might be cherished and perfected, knowing that if it does not move and define us, it will die on the vine of a life that is doomed.
We must add that the forgiveness of sins is a spiritual state that can be expressed always in prayer, though seldom in person. Most men take the forgiveness of their sins, like the Scribes, as an insult to their pristine perfection. And thus they are made all the worse by a pride that refuses to accept what they so desperately need. We, for our part, must forgive all men their trespasses against us from the ground of our hearts and souls. Mutual and reciprocal forgiveness in others can only ever be a fringe benefit and never a condition for our mercy. To die to self is to come alive to God’s transformative love, as forgiveness gives birth to hope that abounds. William Blake sums it up nicely:
Jesus said. Wouldest thou love one who had never died
For thee or ever die for one who had not died for thee?
And if God dieth not for man & giveth not himself
Eternally for Man, Man could not exist. For Man is Love:
As God is Love: every kindness to another is a little Death
In the Divine Image nor can Man exist but by Brotherhood. (Jer 96:23-28)