Which Is Harder — Compassion or Blame?

  So Jesus got back in the boat and sailed back across the Sea of Galilee. He returned home. And check it out! A bunch of people brought a man on a stretcher to him. He was paralyzed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man in the stretcher, “Cheer up, kiddo, everything that you’ve done wrong is forgiven!”

And check it out! There happened to be some biblical scholars there and they said among themselves in the group, “This guy’s insulting God by saying that!”

But when Jesus realized what they were thinking, he said to them, “Why are you all acting like a bunch of jerks? After all, is it easier to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Everything you’ve ever done wrong is forgiven,’ or to say ‘Get up and walk around?’ But just so you’ll understand that the Son of Man has the credentials to forgive everything that anyone on earth has done wrong…” Then Jesus said to the paralyzed man, “Get up! Grab your stretcher and go home!” Then the man stood up, grabbed his stretcher and walked home. Everyone in the crowd was freaked out when they saw the paralyzed man standing up and walking home. Then they began to praise God because God had given a power like this to human beings.

~ As Matthew Tells It
The New Peace Treaty: A New Translation of the New Testament

I always think how disappointed the paralyzed man must have been when Jesus declared his sins forgiven. I know we are all religious, so the sin part seems to be obvious, but the man is not brought to Jesus to be forgiven, but to be healed.

Mark’s Gospel supplies more detain about the story. Jesus was teaching in a house and the crowd was so large, and the people were so packed together, the men carrying the stretcher could not get to Jesus. Our world tends to think of crowds as a sign of success, but crowds are barriers — they keep people who need Jesus blocked from Jesus. Plus crowds are filled with all sorts of people — supporters, but also enemies, and all those in between.

So the men carrying the paralyzed man, hoists him up to the roof of the house, and proceed to destroy the roof. They dig a hole in it, effectively ruining the roof — a whole new roof would have to be made. They also would have kicked up a cloud of thick dust, choking the people crowded in the house, and choking Jesus Himself. Once they have dug the hole, they lower the man down to Jesus.

Jesus sees all this as “faith” and looks at the paralyzed man and declares his sins forgiven. “My sins are forgiven? Well, that’s nice Jesus, but I want to move. I want to stand. I want to walk and be whole. I want some of that abundant life.”

Now either Jesus is clueless, or He’s making a point. The ancient world often thought that illness was the result of sin. Many Jews of the time thought illness, paralysis, blindness, and other conditions were divine punishments for sins committed by the person, or by the person’s parents. So when Jesus declares the man’s sins forgiven, he is essentially cutting to the root of the problem — sin.

So in this worldview of illness resulting from sin, the paralyzed man must have thought of himself as a notorious sinner. Paralysis is an extreme condition, so the culture would declare that it must be the result of extreme sin. NOWHERE IN THIS STORY OR ANY OTHER STORY DOES JESUS SAY THAT HE BUYS INTO THE CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING. In John’s Gospel and in Luke he actually declares that no one is to blame for such conditions and that they are not the result of anyone’s sins. But the people in the crowd most likely believed it, as would some or most or all of the Pharisees who were there. Worse of all, the paralyzed man himself would have believed it.

So by declaring that his sins are forgiven, Jesus was creating the condition for healing, even though he did not seem to be healing him. If the man was notorious enough to be punished with paralysis, then even if he is healed, he would just get himself paralyzed again. There are people who like to blame others for their hardships. They say things like “If you give money to the poor, they’ll just end up being poor again” implying that being poor is a moral defect or a matter of character, and not a matter of tough times, unlucky circumstances, or any combination of conditions. After the Haiti earthquake, Pat Robertson blamed the Haitians for the devastation, declaring they made a deal with the devil some time in the past. A situation is devastating enough without people blaming those who are victims. This is even more true when those who do the blaming are doing it in the name of God or Jesus.

The Pharisees hear Jesus pronounce the man forgiven and they are shocked. People always focus on the fact that Jesus knew what they were thinking and ask if Jesus could read minds. I doubt you would have to be a mind-reader to know what they were thinking at that particular moment. They were probably thinking very loud thoughts. No one can forgive sins except God.

I know we have been trained to think that Pharisees were evil, or jerks, or mean. We think of them negatively. But the pharisees were men, no better or worse than other men. Some were mean, some were jerks, some were welcoming, some were forgiving, some were compassionate, some were cold, but they were all committed to their faith — just like clergy today, just like lay-people today, just like the religious today.

Jesus’ response is a question about which would be harder, saying he is forgiven or telling a paralyzed man to get up and walk. Telling a paralyzed man he is forgiven is compassionate and pastoral; telling a paralyzed man to get up and walk is cruel. I think of clergy who are so concerned with doctrinal purity that they say cruel and hurtful things to those who are experiencing loss or tragedy — the priest who tells a grieving relative that someone is in hell because they committed suicide, or because they left the church, or some other reason. The compassionate thing to say is that their sins were forgiven, but they instead choose to afflict the afflicted rather than to comfort them.

Jesus employs a debating style of presenting two options, one being harder than the other. If it is accepted that one can do the harder of the two options, then one can do the other option too. So Jesus asks them which is the harder options, saying to a paralyzed man, “Your sins are forgiven” or saying “Get up and walk.” He does not wait for their answer because the answer is obvious.

Jesus chooses to take the harder of the two options, he tells a paralyzed man to get up and walk, which would be cruel if he cannot make it happen. The man gets up and walks, showing that Jesus can do the harder option; therefore, Jesus can do the easier option as well — Jesus can forgive sins.

Jesus can do both options because Jesus will take the hardest option of all: Jesus will die on a cross, and Jesus will come back to life. When that happens, it’s like a forgiveness bomb exploding in all directions — past, present, and future.

The people freak out when they see the paralyzed man get up and walk. They don’t say that God has given such power to Jesus, but that God has given such power to people. THIS IS IMPORTANT! Most Christians relegate Jesus’ healings and miracles and other amazing deeds to the fact that Jesus is God — the Second Person in the Trinity. But Jesus is not God in disguise, but God who takes on humanity. The God who is in Jesus is limited and bound by all the conditions of any other person. Most Christians claim that Jesus gives us an example to follow, but if He gives us an example that is impossible to follow because He is God and we are not, then it is not an example, it’s a cruel joke, it’s teasing.

Everything Jesus did, He did as a man, not as God. Even if someone does not believe that Jesus is or was God, that one can still accept that Jesus is the clearest picture of who God is because human beings were created in God’s image, and Jesus shows us how to live the way human beings were created to live as the image of God. When we relegate all of Jesus’ activity as something done by a God and not by a man, then we abdicate our responsibility to act in kind — we choose not to follow the example Jesus gave us while pretending that we are following.

Everything Jesus does, He does as a man — a man of faith. If we have the tiniest amount of faith, we can move mountains. Jesus has more than the tiniest amount of faith. But Jesus has a possible amount of faith. It is a faith that is available to us all. But it is a faith in which I abandon my wants in favor of God’s wants. It is a faith that is founded upon an absolute dependence on God and nothing else. It is a possible faith, but it is a risky faith, a scary faith, a challenging faith — until that leap of faith is taken.

So, what I take away from the Gospel today is:

1) Followers of Jesus do not get to blame people for their conditions or their hardships. People experiencing hardship need compassion and care, not blame or insults or worse of all, apathy.

2) In the Gospel, Jesus takes the initiative to forgive sins. He never says you have to feel bad, or remorse, or grovel, but he forgives regardless. Maybe the people express remorse for sin, maybe they don’t — the Gospel writers never tell us — but Jesus declares them forgiven any way. Sometimes we cannot experience the weight of our sins until we have already experienced the grace of being freed from those sins.

3) The example of Jesus is an example of compassion. A follower of Jesus must make compassion his or her example too. Compassion is an action, not a feeling. There may be times when compassion may be the harder of two choices — choose compassion anyway!

4) Jesus shows us what we can do if we have faith. Can I stop trusting in my job, my bank account, people, political parties, or anything else for my security and trust in God alone?

© 2013 Bishop R. Joseph Owles



One comment

  1. Anne E. · · Reply

    “They were thinking very loud thoughts.” This made me laugh. I always think about that poor guy on the stretcher, too. I bet he’s thinking something like, “WTF, Jesus! Aren’t you going to heal me? Oh, man! He’s just going to tell me I’m forgiven. Great, my mom can do that.”

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