Our opening verses come to us from the 30th Chapter of the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is describing the spiritual man 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 that he must have done something that places him beyond the reach of any lasting forgiveness and mercy. They cannot see that he suffers because of their sins and that his spiritual state is really well advanced beyond their own immersion in a sin that they cannot recognize.
As Romano Guardini points out, forgiveness to them is a covering up, a looking away, a gracious ignoring….(The Lord, p. 131) 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, to restore, and to redeem in the future.
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 physical impediment, would have been judged as one who was being punished for his sins. Yet in this morning’s lection we find that the man has friends who sympathize and identify with his sickness and with that spiritual sadness 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 will always respond to those whose faith is determined to triumph over the weakness of the flesh. 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 welcomed 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 procure the better benefit. First and foremost, what faith seeks out is God’s spiritual power. 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 most 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) The sick of the palsy suffers as a fallen man in a fallen world. First his soul must be healed by Jesus
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. Who does 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 offered at all, it is conditional upon the customary sacrificial ritual and offerings of the Jewish priests in the temple. And even then, when the Jewish clergy dispense it, it can only 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 but does not eliminate it fully. For them, forgiveness is a looking away or a covering up but not what confronts and overcomes evil. Cynically they think, Who can forgive sins but God only? (St. Mark ii. 7)
Herein lies the problem. The Scribes live in a world where God looks away or covers up so that man might become good enough. For all practical purposes there is neither a working out of sin nor a working in of righteousness. Thus, the Scribes convinced themselves that their relationship to God was as perfect as it gets. They thought that they were made to be of assistance to God –to judge where evil was and to what extent forgiveness was a looking away and a covering up of evil.
Yet, when man constrains God’s goodness in this way, he can never be spiritually satisfied or healed. Man knows that he must be judged by God. His sin is only too real and thus cries out for a power that can overcome it and make him better. Man longs that God’s forgiveness might come with the power to go and sin no more. But then he finds that while he longs to be forgiven, he has trouble forgiving others. Along with the Scribes, Fallen Man says that only God can forgive (St. Mark ii. 7). He says this because he doesn’t really know how to forgive. The power of others’ offences seems too strong; his memory of them is so fresh that it still enflames his breast with ill will and bitterness. At best, he feels resentment and at worst he feels contempt. He cannot allow Jesus to forgive since he cannot imagine that power can persist in human society.
Jesus, however, insists that the forgiveness of sins is the foundation of all healing that God brings to man. What man is most in need of from God is the healing of his soul. The fallen soul is far sicker than the body and is the cause of man’s division from God’s will and way. The fallen soul is therefore the root that brings all other sickness and death into the world. What separates us from God is a spiritual disease. Jesus comes to restore the love of God as the forgiveness of sins into our lives. The forgiveness of our sins is the first moment of reconciliation with our Maker. Without man’s reception of it, all the bodily health in the world will never save a man from damnation.
For God’s perfection of our souls through forgiveness to proceed, our hearts must erect no conditions or barriers to its free operation. Nothing must stand in the way of God’s forgiveness taking root downward and growing upward in us. If we would be saved, God’s forgiveness must overcome the hold that sin has on us. Sin must die. 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 sanctified, and 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, we will die on the vine of a life that has rejected God’s love.
We must add that the forgiveness of sins is a spiritual state that can be shared with others in prayer, though seldom in person. Most of our fellows are about as spiritually mature as the Scribes, and so they respond to our forgiveness of their sins as an insult to their pristine perfection. Thus, they are made all the worse by a pride that refuses to accept what they so desperately need. No matter, we, for our part, must forgive all men their trespasses against us from the ground of our hearts and souls. To expect mutual and reciprocal forgiveness from others can only ever be a fringe benefit to our mercy. To die to self is to come alive to God’s transformative love, as forgiveness gives birth to hope that abounds. And, as William Blake reminds us, Death is part of the Divine Loving that makes and saves:
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)