Christ Healing a Paralytic, Mosaic from the Cycle of the Life of Christ, Chora Church, Constantinople (1310-20)
Matthew 9: 1-8
Parallels Mark 2: 1-12; Luke 5: 17-26
1 And after getting into a boat he crossed the sea and came to his own town.
2 And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” 3 Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” 4 But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5 For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? 6 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he then said to the paralytic — “Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” 7 And he stood up and went to his home. 8 When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.
In this final miraculous story of this set of three which have all pointed to the authority Jesus bears and opened windows into who Jesus is in Matthew’s gospel we hear for a second time in this section of Matthew the use of the title the Son of Man. The differences in the way Matthew narrates this story from Mark and Luke probably are elements that may add details to the story (like the house being so full that the friends of the paralyzed man have to dig through the roof) but for all the gospels the central issue of this narrative is the authority that the Son of Man has and how to answer the charge of blasphemy that Jesus and his disciples will encounter.
We are returned to Capernaum which acts as a base of operations for Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and while the return connects us to the previous two stories where Jesus crossed to the other side of the sea, the return voyage is merely noted as we transition back to Jesus’ hometown. Unlike Mark and Luke we are not told that we are in a home and therefore there is no need for the friends of the paralytic find a way through the crowd at the home, climb up on the roof and open the roof to lower their friend. The story could take place in a home or in an outdoor location, but instead of the actions of the friends demonstrating their faith Jesus sees their faith. The faith may include the faith of the paralytic man or it may just be the faith of his friends, but this faith is enough for Jesus to see and speak.
Faith in Matthew’s gospel involves trusting that Jesus can do what is being hoped for, and here the faith can come from those other than the one being healed. I’ve been asked if it is possible to believe for someone else, and in the way the church has traditionally understood belief in terms of cognitive assent to doctrines my answer would be no, but in the way the New Testament discuss faith I think we need to say yes. Here, and in several places in Matthew’s gospel (ex. Matthew 8: 5-13, Matthew 9: 18-26, Matthew 15: 21-28) the trust of another in Jesus’ ability to bring about the healing they desire works on behalf of another person.
Jesus’ initial response to observing the faith of the friends and the paralytic man is to declare forgiveness on the man’s sins. While the declaration of forgiveness may seem strange to those of us who live in a world where injury and sickness are rarely viewed as dependent on the moral character of the ill or injured one, in the ancient world sin and sickness were often viewed as connected. Skin diseases or bleeding made one unclean and untouchable, blindness may be viewed as caused by either the individual’s or the parent’s sinfulness, and even injury or disability was viewed as either an action by a demonic threat or of divine judgment. These views are not limited to Judaism, but were common among cultures and in some strange forms persist even today when those who are sick or injured are viewed as lazy, gluttonous, or have done something morally deviant to incur their disease (Think for example of the way people think about diabetes or in the past the way HIV/AIDS was viewed). Matthew’s placement of this story as the climax of a series of stories where Jesus has demonstrated his authority over the elements, over the demonic prepares us for the declaration that he is one with the ability to forgive sins.
When a person can be labeled as a sinner the community is not responsible for their care, they can be left as an outsider. Forgiveness makes a way for inclusion. Like Job’s friends, religious people can sometimes spend time justifying why a person is dealing with an illness or injury, why they are disabled and while religion does help provide order for people’s lives it can also be used to exclude those who do not fit within the framework that they have established. Job’s friends needed to explain why Job’s suffering was Job’s fault and often it is easier to blame those who are needing assistance than engage the uncomfortable reality that sometimes people suffer and there is no apparent reason. On the other hand there are times where one’s actions do cause pain for oneself or others: one is intoxicated and causes an accident, one is injured while doing something unethical. We don’t know why the man in this story is paralyzed: was he injured while working, was he a revolutionary or a bandit who was injured, we can speculate and create a story behind this story but ultimately whatever the cause his friends trusted that Jesus could provide the answer and Jesus forgives whatever the believed or real cause of his paralysis was.
The reaction of the scribes which is not spoken publicly but only saying among (literally in) themselves and yet Jesus chooses to address this unspoken, or softly spoken deliberations. Unlike the friends of the paralytic who trust that Jesus is able to do what they desire for their friend, the scribes do not believe that Jesus is able to do what he says and that is the evil in their hearts. Jesus commands the paralytic to ‘rise up’ (again the Greek word egeipoo which is frequently used in this section and for Jesus at the resurrection) and take his bed and go home. His command and the paralytics response to the command, which demonstrates the authority Jesus had over the disability of the paralytic, demonstrates to the crowd the authority that has been given to human beings by God (not just Jesus in particular). On the one hand the Son of Man’s authority is implied in the narrative to be granted to the sons of humanity.
The title Son of Man is used in Matthew for the second time (Initially in Matthew 8:20). The title originates in the book of Daniel in a vision of judgment. This is one of the times where the desire for inclusive language in the NRSV obscures the linkage between texts. As the book of Daniel relays the vision:
I saw one like a human being (Aramaic is one like the son of man) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve him. His dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. Daniel 7: 13-14
The Son of Man is often discussed as an apocalyptic title in writing about the New Testament, but since the word apocalyptic carries a lot of baggage for many Christians that may not be appropriate to the way that scripture actually is used in books like Daniel or Revelation and certainly not in terms of Jesus. In the literature around the time of Jesus we do see a hope for God’s intervention in the world through a representative of God. Much like the earlier Jewish hope where the Davidic king would be the means through which God would provide security and blessings for God’s people, now this ‘heavenly figure’ becomes the one through which the dominion, glory and kingship of the kingdom of heaven is exercised. The term is used frequently in the gospels and with Son of God and Son of David become ways of referring to Jesus. The intentional use of the title Son of Man in relation to the authority to forgive sins links Jesus to operating with the authority of God.
The Son of Man has appeared in two sections related to the scribes at this point in the narrative and it is worth watching as we continue to journey through Matthew when this title continues to be used instead of another title. Matthew is very concerned with demonstrating that who Jesus is and what Jesus does is in accordance with the scriptures and yet the scribes, those with the ability to read and interpret the scriptures seem resistant to Jesus’ authority. Perhaps the introduction of the Son of Man whose authority comes directly from God and doesn’t need to be mediated through scripture is one of the reasons that it is introduced in relationship with the scribes. Jesus as we encounter him in Matthew makes some astounding claims of authority and interprets scripture at times in ways that are either blasphemous or awe inspiring. Perhaps the demons in the previous story may see who Jesus is because the threat he poses to them and their dominion, for them Jesus is an undeniable threat to their power and authority and denies them the ability to continue their oppression. The people in Gadarene and the scribes may see the acts Jesus does, but they are unwilling or unable to grant him the authority he claims. Where the evil that lies in their hearts originates (and the heart is the organ of decision not emotion in scriptures) that stands in contrast to the faith of the centurion and the friends of the paralytic but for the followers of Jesus he is one with authority from God, for the crowds he is one who embodies the authority God is granting to the sons and daughters of humanity, but we will continue to see conflict with those who will be unwilling or unable to see who Jesus is through the actions he does and the words he says.