October 27, 2019
There is none to plead thy cause, that thou mayest be bound up: thou hast no healing medicines. All thy lovers have forgotten thee; they seek thee not; for I have wounded thee with the wound of an enemy, with the chastisement of a cruel one, for the multitude of thine iniquity; because thy sins were increased. (Jeremiah xiii. 13, 14)
Our opening verses come to us from the 30th Chapter of the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. What the prophet is describing is the sorry and desperate condition of sinful man. The man whom he describes is not meant to be any man in particular, but one who knows himself to be in dire straits by reason of his sin. He knows his sin. 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 since they judge him beyond the reach of any lasting forgiveness and mercy. They judge that sin is a disease that God alone can cure, one that everybody has contracted, and whose effects can be, at best, mitigated by ritual and ceremonial purification. As Romano Guardini points out, forgiveness to them is a covering up, a looking away, a gracious ignoring, cessation of anger and punishment. (The Lord, p. 131) And 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. (Idem) The man who feels himself to be an outcast and alien, who knows and remembers his sin, is the very man whom God promises to visit and restore…at some future date.
In our Gospel lesson for this morning we find a similar situation, but that future date, that Jeremiah prophesied seems to have come. 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 outward and visible sickness, would have been judged to be suffering the chastisement of a cruel one…because his sins were increased. Yet, in this morning’s lection we find that this man has friends who sympathize with the his inner turmoil, that horrible spiritual sense that must accompany his disease. The man could not move and felt keenly that most of his fellow citizens had shunned him. But he had a few friends who were willing to share in some deep way the pain of this outcast and alien. Unlike those in the Old Testament lesson, who have no compassion for the sick and suffering, here we find a few fast friends who will reach out to Jesus for their friend’s healing. And though St. Matthew doesn’t mention it, both St. Luke and 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 had to let him down through the roof. (St. Mark ii. 2-4; St. Luke v. 18,19) Archbishop Trench tells us, From them we learn…[of]…a faith that overcame hindrances, and was not to be turned aside by difficulties. (Miracles, p. 157) Both the sick man and his friends see something in Jesus that promises to heal all men of the miseries of this world. And Jesus, who knows what is in [men’s] hearts…and knows their thoughts, brings God’s compassion to the man sick of the palsy. Notice that Jesus speaks first or makes the first move. Son, be of good cheer, (Ibid) He insists. 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 treated as one of God’s own sons. And more than that, Jesus even honors him with the best healing that He can offer. Jesus says, thy sins be forgiven thee. (Ibid) Jesus responds always to that faith which persistently seeks to obtain what He has to offer. First and foremost, what faith ought to be seeking is the forgiveness of sins. Jesus sees into the palsied man’s heart. There he finds the sin and corruption that are the root of sickness and death in the creation. 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. No matter what his sin, Jesus sees an inwardly and spiritually wounded, bruised, troubled, confused, and weak man. 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) Jesus will offer first to heal the man’s soul.
What follows is remarkable. No sooner does Jesus offer God’s forgiveness to the sick man, than the miracle is interrupted. It would appear that certain members of the crowd, the Scribes, have a real problem with what Jesus has said. 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 assuming His power. So, they think, who is this man Jesus who presumes to offer God’s forgiveness to another, and not conditionally, but absolutely?Forgiveness, it would seem, is a theoretical ideal to the minds of the Scribes. If it is obtained at all, it is bound up in the repeated sacrificial ritual and offerings of the Jewish priests in the temple. When it comes, again according to Guardini, it is merely God’s covering up or looking away from sin. (Idem) In other words, forgiveness, as the Scribes would have it, is a kind of merciful covering up of God’s eyes that puts sin to one side. For all practical purposes, forgiveness is an ongoing expression of mercy that tolerates sin by ignoring it. Cynically they think, Who can forgive sins but God only? (St. Mark ii. 7)
Now to be fair to the Scribes, if Jesus were only a mere man, His proclamation would be preposterous. But Jesus is always leading men to see that He is not only Man but God’s own Son. And as God’s own Son, part and parcel of His earthly mission is to liberate the forgiveness of sins from the jealous clutches of the Jewish priests and Scribes who hoard it with their Law. The Jewish Scribes, we do well to remember, are not making a theological point only; they also reveal most clearly that the forgiveness of sins is as alien and foreign to them as the poor man sick of the palsy. What one most assuredly misses when one meets the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes on the pages of the New Testament is any hint of mercy, kindness, compassion, pity, or the forgiveness of sins. 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? (Ibid, 4) Jesus might have followed up His question to the Scribes with these words: Evil thoughts fill your hearts and paralyze you. You are more paralyzed by your sins than this man whom I have forgiven. But unlike him, who is sorry for his sins and seeks to be forgiven, you persist in your sins and think that you have no need of the forgiveness I bring. For while it is true enough that the forgiveness of sins is God’s alone to give, nevertheless every man must discover his real need for it. Jesus comes to offer it to all men once again. The Scribes cannot forgive because, unlike the paralytic man, they are unwilling to see that the forgiveness of sins is at hand in Jesus and comes with power. Then saith he to the sick of the palsy, Arise, take up thy bed, and go unto thine house. (Ibid, 6) Yet, still they would not believe.
Today, my friends, you and I are invited to contemplate the nature of the forgiveness of sins. And I don’t mean to suggest that forgiveness comes naturally. It doesn’t. It comes supernaturally, through Jesus Christ alone. Forgiveness is indeed a hard thing to muster up from the coffers of our own best intentions, benevolence, and good works. Forgiveness is even harder if we subject it to our own calculations, measurements, and judgments. We tend not to forgive because we think that we are owed an apology. So, if we are true to our sinful natures, we shall discover that forgiveness is not something that we can give out naturally, but only what we must receive from Jesus Christ. It is the pure gift of God’s immeasurable love. What the Scribes in this morning’s Gospel lack is the humility to see that they too are sinners, first and foremost, in need of God’s lasting and effective mercy and forgiveness. What they cannot admit is their need for the forgiveness and healing that God brings to men whose consciences are seared by slavery to the tribulations, torments, and trials that sin brings. True healing comes to those like the paralytic and his friends in this morning’s Gospel who have the faith to surrender themselves to the power of God’s love in the heart of Jesus. The forgiveness of our sins and our forgiveness of others’ sins against us are both essential for our salvation.
You see, in the end, the forgiveness of sins is nothing short of the God’s absolute desire for all men’s spiritual healing and salvation. God forgives us for as long as we live because through it he gives us one more chance to repent, believe, and be saved. To repent us of our sins is the necessary first step. Then we must seek out God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the forgiveness of sins. But it does not end here. With the man sick of the palsy, we must cherish this gift so that its power might grow in our hearts. We feed on this forgiveness of sins so that we might take up our beds and walk. We want to walk in the power that forgives all others. The more we need, receive, and cherish this gift in Jesus Christ, the more natural it shall be for us to forgive all others. And with Blake, one day, we shall be able to sing:
Then through all eternity
I forgive you, you forgive me:
As our dear Redeemer said:
This is the Wine and this the Bread.
(Broken Love: William Blake)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons