Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
In today’s Gospel Jesus heals the paralysed man who is brought to him lying on a bed. He proclaims that the man’s sins are forgiven. For Jesus on his own authority to declare that the man’s sins are forgiven sounded a blasphemous presumption to the scribes. But Jesus, knowing their thoughts said, “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. But when the multitudes saw it, they marvelled, and glorified God, which had given such power unto men” (Matthew 9:4-8).
Jesus’ proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God in his own person and ministry meant that the new covenant foretold by the prophet Jeremiah in which sins would be forgiven was now dawning. For some (such as the scribes in today’s Gospel) such a claim sounded blasphemous. By contrast, the multitude responded by glorifying God who had given such power unto men.
What astonished Jesus’ contemporaries was the authority with which he acted. He went around not simply talking about God, but claiming to be his representative on earth, acting and speaking for him. He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes (Matthew 7:29). “What manner of a man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him” (Matthew 8:27). “Never man spake like this man” (John 7: 46). Many saw him as a prophet, like one of the old prophets. Yet, as many also saw, his own self claim was greater than that of a prophet. The prophets had looked forward to a coming age in which sins would be forgiven. Jesus proclaimed that this age was being inaugurated in his own person and ministry. The prophets prefaced their utterances with “Thus saith the Lord”, but Jesus said “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, but I say unto you”. He thus said in his own name what the Law of Moses said in God’s name. It was not so much the content of the teaching (though many found that scandalous enough) but the authority with which Jesus spoke. “Think not that I have come to destroy the Law and the Prophets, I am not come to destroy but to fulfil” (Matthew 5: 17). He claimed to be the full, final and definitive revealer of God’s will. In his coming the Kingdom of God is made present. He says that man’s attitude to him will determine God’s attitude to them on the last day. He proclaims rest for the weary and heavy laden, and that he alone truly knows the Father and the Father knows him (Matthew 11: 27-30).
Jesus was condemned for blasphemy, for making himself equal with God. Jesus replied that he did not claim anything for himself on his own authority, but everything for what the Father was accomplishing through him. He and the Father are one, utterly identified, for they are one in action, but not identical, for the Father is Father and not Son. “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do; for what things soever he doeth these also doeth the Son likewise. For the Father loveth the Son, and sheweth him all things that he himself doeth…He that honoureth not the Son honoureth not the Father which hath sent him” (John 5: 19-23). To have met him is to have been met and judged by God. To have seen him is to have seen the Father (John 14:9).
The claim to proclaim the forgiveness of sins is the distinctively Christian affirmation. It challenged Jesus’ contemporaries, and it challenges us today. To reject it is to say that Jesus was a false prophet and blasphemer who claimed an authority that he did not rightly have. To accept it is to acknowledge that Jesus is indeed who he said he was, the only begotten Son of the Father who came to bring forgiveness in his own words and mighty works, but above all in his saving death. “This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28).
Jesus proclaimed the forgiveness of sins in the name of his Father. The Church, his Body on earth, proclaims the forgiveness of sins in the name of the Son. “As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you…Whosever sins ye remit they are remitted unto them; and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained” (John 20:21). “He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me” (Matthew 10:40) It is this that distinguishes Christianity from other religions. The teachings of the Buddha or Confucius offer good advice, but not the forgiveness of sins. Mohammed claimed the authority of a prophet, but not that of a redeemer who forgives sins. By contrast, the Christian faith brings not simply good advice, but good news, the good news of salvation, the forgiveness of sins through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
“Son, be of good cheer, thy sins be forgiven thee” (Matthew 9: 2).