Print Version December 6th, 2004
There are two unanswered questions in today’s gospel and one that isn’t even asked. ‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ and ‘Which is easier: to say, “your sins are forgiven you” or to say “Get up and walk”?’
‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ You’d think the answer was obvious but to this day Jewish theology is more nuanced than that. For the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur it is the duty of every Jew both to seek forgiveness and to offer it and the offering is essential because, in Judaism, even God is bound by the power of guilt. God can forgive wrongs done against Godself but wrongdoing puts a kink into the fabric of cosmic and human relationships that not even God can smooth out. If I have wronged you then you are the only one who can heal the wound by forgiving me. And if you don’t, God can’t. What power we have to warp the universe or make it whole by forgiving or not! So that question, ‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’, isn’t just rhetorical—it demands an answer from us.
Particularly with this paralysed man. Jesus seems to take it for granted that illness and sinfulness go hand in hand when his first impulse on seeing the paralytic is to offers to forgive the sin that has resulted in his sickness. Like the blind man in John’s gospel there’s the unasked question: whose sin caused this, whose fault is it? That might sound obscene to our ears but its flip side is the promise of Isaiah’s vision: when God’s justice comes the whole world will be healed: the eyes of the blind and the sands of the desert; the lame shall leap like the deer and the water gush in the wasteland.
Jesus’ seems to take his own power to heal as proof of his power to forgive. But his question, ‘Which is easier?’, is another strange one. The obvious answer is ‘forgiveness’—at least we know how to forgive while we can’t imagine what it would be like to heal. But Jesus seems silently to say the opposite: he heals. And the man gets up, picks up his stretcher and walks home, forgiven, praising God.
That’s meaty stuff to chew on for our advent feasting: sin and sickness, healing and forgiveness, personal and cosmic. But I think the gospel is urging us to chew well. It’s the unasked questions that cripple us; the answers we take for granted that keep the dry-lands barren.