THE UNANSWERABLE ARGUMENT
Some of the experts in the law were sitting there, and they were debating within themselves, “How can this fellow speak like this? He is insulting God. Who can forgive sins except one person–God?” Jesus immediately knew in his spirit that this debate was going on in their minds, so he said to them, “Why do you debate thus in your minds? Which is easier–to say to the paralysed man, `Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, `Get up, and lift your bed, and walk around’? Just to let you see that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”–he said to the paralysed man–“I say to you, `Get up! Lift your bed! And go away home!'” And he raised himself, and immediately he lifted his bed, and went out in front of them all. The result was that they were all astonished, and they kept on praising God. “Never,” they kept repeating, “have we seen anything like this.”
Jesus, as we have seen, had already attracted the crowds. Because of that he had attracted the notice of the official leaders of the Jews. The Sanhedrin was their supreme court. One of its great functions was. to be the guardian of orthodoxy. For instance, it was the Sanhedrin’s duty to deal with any man who was a false prophet. It seems that it had sent out a kind of scouting party to check up on Jesus; and they were there in Capernaum. No doubt they had annexed an honourable place in the front of the crowd and were sitting there critically watching everything that was going on.
When they heard Jesus say to the man that his sins were forgiven it came as a shattering shock. It was an essential of the Jewish faith that only God could forgive sins. For any man to claim to do so was to insult God; that was blasphemy and the penalty for blasphemy was death by stoning (Lev.24:16). At the moment they were not ready to launch their attack in public, but it was not difficult for Jesus to see how their minds were working. So he determined to fling down a challenge and to meet them on their own ground.
It was their own firm belief that sin and sickness were indissolubly linked together. A sick man was a man who had sinned. So Jesus asked them: “Whether it is easier to say to this man, `Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, `Get up and walk’?” Any charlatan could say, “Your sins are forgiven.” There was no possibility of ever demonstrating whether his words were effective or not; such a statement was completely uncheckable. But to say, “Get up and walk” was to say something whose effectiveness would either be proved or disproved there and then. So Jesus said in effect: “You say that I have no right to forgive sins? You hold as a matter of belief that if this man is ill he is a sinner and he cannot be cured till he is forgiven? Very well, then, watch this!” So Jesus spoke the word and the man was cured.
The experts in the law were hoist with their own petard. On their own stated beliefs the man could not be cured, unless he was forgiven. He was cured, therefore he was forgiven. Therefore, Jesus’ claim to forgive sin must be true. Jesus must have left a completely baffled set of legal experts; and, worse, he must have left them in a baffled rage. Here was something that must be dealt with; if this went on, all orthodox religion would be shattered and destroyed. In this incident Jesus signed his own death warrant–and he knew it.
For all that it is an extremely difficult incident. What does it mean that Jesus can forgive sin? There are three possible ways of looking at this.
(i) We could take it that Jesus was conveying God’s forgiveness to the man. After David had sinned and Nathan had rebuked him into terror and David had humbly confessed his sin, Nathan said: “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” (2Sam.12:1-13.) Nathan was not forgiving David’s sin, but he was conveying God’s forgiveness to David and assuring him of it. So we could say that what Jesus was doing was that he was assuring the man of God’s forgiveness, conveying to him something which God had already given him. That is certainly true, but it does not read as if it was the whole truth.
(ii) We could take it that Jesus was acting as God’s representative. John says: “The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son.” (Jn.5:22.) If judgment is committed to Jesus, then so must forgiveness be. Let us take a human analogy. Analogies are always imperfect but we can think only in human terms. A man may give another man a power of attorney; that means to say that he has given that man the absolute disposal of his goods and property. He agrees that the other man should act for him, and that his actions should be regarded precisely as his own. We could take it that that is what God did with Jesus, that he delegated to him his powers and privileges, and that the word Jesus spoke was none other than the word of God.
(iii) We could take it in stiff another way. The whole essence of Jesus’ life is that in him we see clearly displayed the attitude of God to men. Now that attitude was the very reverse of what men had thought God’s attitude to be. It was not an attitude of stem, severe, austere justice, not an attitude of continual demand. It was an attitude of perfect love, of a heart yearning with love and eager to forgive. Again let us use a human analogy. Lewis Hind in one of his essays tells us of the day that he discovered his father. He had always respected and admired his father; but he had always been more than a little afraid of him. He was in church with his father one Sunday. It was a hot drowsy day. He grew sleepier and sleepier. He could not keep his eyes open as the waves of sleep engulfed him. His head nodded. He saw his father’s arm go up; and he was sure that his father was going to shake or strike him. Then he saw his father smile gently and put his arm round his shoulder. He cuddled the lad to himself so that he might rest the more comfortably and held him close with the clasp of love. That day Lewis Hind discovered that his father was not as he had thought him to be and that his father loved him. That is what Jesus did for men and for God. He literally brought men God’s forgiveness upon earth. Without him they would never have even remotely known about it. “I tell you,” he said to the man, “and I tell you here and now, upon earth, you are a forgiven man.” Jesus showed men perfectly the attitude of God to men. He could say, “I forgive,” because in him God was saying, “I forgive.”
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