“Child,” he said, “Your sins are forgiven.”
How inappropriate that was! Inappropriate… because the man’s four friends had just gone to great lengths to get him in front of Jesus. They had wrestled with the crowd outside, a crowd that had overwhelmed the small house and spilled out into the streets. There was no room to squeeze through. Nor could they hope to lift him up over the heads of all those people. And so they climbed. Somehow they carried the man up onto the top of the building. They dug through the mud and dirt between the beams of the roof. They tied ropes. They lowered the man and his bed inch by inch, from the top down to the floor below. And at long last, there he lay in front of Jesus. Surely Jesus would heal him after all that trouble!
“Child,” he said, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Completely inappropriate… The man needs healing, not forgiveness! He is paralyzed! What was Jesus thinking? Your sins are forgiven? How does Jesus even know what this man’s sins are? What if this man has done something unforgivable? It was widely thought during the time of Jesus that bodily illness was caused by personal sins. We of course know differently today, but if you’re standing in that overwhelming crowd of people, watching a paralyzed man being lowered down through a hole in the ceiling, you would think… This is not a good person. He must have done something very, very bad in order to be stricken with total paralysis. “That’s probably what he deserves, though,” you would have thought. “He is obviously a terrible sinner… and the paralysis is his punishment.” As disturbing as that sounds to our ears today, that was a popular way to think back in those days! It would have been clear to all these people that if Jesus knows anything at all about God, he knows that the paralysis is obviously God’s punishment for this man’s sins. He’s very sick, but he brought it on himself! He’s getting what he deserves.
But, “Child,” Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven.”
That can’t be right. For one thing, only God can forgive sins! Who does this Jesus think he is? Not only is he uttering blasphemy against God, but he is also claiming that God forgives the unforgivable! “Child,” he called him. This man isn’t God’s child, he is an outcast. He is a wretched, miserable sinner who cannot even speak or move a single muscle. He’s barely even a human being.
“Child, your sins are forgiven.”
With those five little words, Jesus instantly puts himself in conflict not only with the self-righteous scribes and religious leaders of his day, but also with every Christian who has walked the earth ever since. There’s just something not-quite-right about all this. There’s something very unsettling about Jesus being so willing to forgive all kinds of people. Maybe it’s the fact that we all (myself included) have such a difficult time forgiving people who are very obvious sinners, especially if they haven’t done anything to deserve forgiveness. So, it does seem a little inappropriate when Jesus forgives so readily and so easily.
Here Jesus forgives a man who, as far as we know, has done nothing to earn or deserve it. The fact that he is paralyzed means that he is completely incapable of doing or saying anything to make up for his sins. He can’t speak, or move, or respond to Jesus in any way. He’s done nothing to come before Jesus of his own volition. He was carried there. He was lowered in front of Jesus by ropes. He did nothing. His destructive friends did all the work. Even though Mark describes their actions in great detail, it is clear that this story isn’t about them. It’s about Jesus. It’s about what Jesus does for this sinful and powerless man lying in front of him.
This passage cuts across every tendency we have to believe that forgiveness, salvation, redemption are a result of our own work, or our own faith. We live in a society where nothing is free, most everything is for sale, and if you want something you have to earn it. Our world is full of transactions, where you have to do something in order to get something. “Do you have a receipt for that?” they ask at the customer service counter. “Please deposit $1.00,” says the parking meter. “Sure, I’ll come pick you up at the airport,” one friend says to another, “But you owe me one.” It’s no surprise that we have a deep tendency to expect that forgiveness and salvation work the same way that our world does. If God is going to forgive all of us sinners, if God is going to redeem us then we surely have to do something to earn it. We all know how the world works, and surely God isn’t just going to love and forgive sinners who do absolutely nothing to deserve it, right?
But, “Child,” he said, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Can that be right? Is God really so eager and willing to forgive? Our Old Testament reading for this morning describes a God who is weary of the sins of his chosen people. “You have burdened me with your sins,” God says. “You have wearied me with your iniquities.” But immediately after reminding the people of their obvious sinfulness, God reminds the people who God is. “I,” he says, “I am He who blots our your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” God forgives because that’s who God is, not because the people deserve it.
Many years ago someone told me about a children’s Sunday School class that was talking about sin. At one point in the class the teacher asked the children, “Can anyone tell me what you have to do before you can obtain forgiveness of sins?” After a short pause one boy in the front of the class spoke up and answered, “Sin”.
He was exactly right! Of course, to be forgiven for your sins you must be a sinner in the first place. He was also right because time and time again, scripture tells us that in order to be forgiven, all you have to be is a sinner. God is a faithful God, even to unfaithful people. You might call this a “top-down” approach. Rather than being stricken with the task of working our way out of our own sinfulness little by little from the bottom up, rather than working ourselves to death trying to earn God’s love and forgiveness by our own power, God instead comes down to us right where we are. Forgiveness comes from the top-down, not from the bottom-up. Do we deserve it? No. Have we earned it? No. But the good news of the gospel is that God gives it anyway. That’s grace. And that’s wonderfully good news for us sinners.
A few years ago, Heather and I were visiting New York City, and we had the opportunity to see Les Miserables on Broadway. I was completely awestruck by one of the opening scenes. Jean Valjean, who is an escaped felon on the loose, seeks refuge in the house of a kind Bishop. The Bishop gives him food and a place to stay for the night, but in the middle of the night Valjean gets up and steals the Bishop’s silver. When the Bishop wakes up to find Valjean cleaning out his silver drawer, Valjean knocks him out cold with a blow to the head, and then runs away. The following day Valjean is caught by the police and taken to the Bishop’s house. “This man has your silver,” the police say, “yet he claims that it was a gift from you.” The Bishop stares hard at Valjean, then suddenly replies, “Yes, I gave it to him. But he forgot the candlesticks”. The Bishop enters his house, comes back out with two silver candlesticks, and gives them to Valjean. This act alone was the beginning of Valjean’s redemption.
Reverend John Piper tells the story of a night when he was reading the Bible to his six year old daughter and got to Romans 4:5, which says that God justifies ungodly sinners. His daughter asked what that meant, and in response he made up a little story.
Imagine, he said, that there are two accused criminals on trial. One is innocent, and one is guilty. After hearing the evidence and testimonies of witnesses, the judge points to the innocent one and ‘justifies’ him. That is, he tells the man that he is a law-abiding person and as he is innocent, he can go free. The judge then turns to the other accused criminal who has been condemned by the evidence against him. He’s a guilty man. But surprisingly, the judge doesn’t sentence him. He instead justifies him just as he did the innocent man, saying, “In my eyes, you are a law-abiding citizen, an innocent man. You may go free.” It’s inappropriate, isn’t it? But it is precisely the way that God looks at each of us sinners.
In Jesus Christ, we come face to face with a God who gives us much, much more than we could ever deserve. This is an incredibly difficult thing to remember, because we live in a world of transactions. It is incredibly hard for us to see other obvious sinners as God sees them – children of God, each and every one. And yet, our scripture readings for this morning give us a starting point. They remind us that we, too, are obvious sinners in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. Maybe we will learn to forgive the sins of others, because God first comes down and forgives our own. We are all sinners, redeemed only by the grace of God.
It is as though we’re thrown in front of the judge and condemned as guilty by the evidence at hand… and yet, God justifies us, and calls us innocent.
It is as if we are all obvious sinners, and if our own forgiveness were up to us, then we may as well be paralyzed. We are powerless to deserve or earn God’s love and forgiveness in any way. But then somehow, we end up in front of Jesus.
And, “Child,” he says, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Amen, and thanks be to God.