Reformation Series: Forgiving and Reconciling - Matthew 9:2-8
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.”
Then some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk?’ But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he said to the paralytic – “Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And he stood up and went to his home.
When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.
The book that inspires our current Reformation sermon series (One Hope: Re-Membering the Body of Christ) tells this story:
“After apartheid ended in South Africa, a white police officer named Mr. Van der Broek was put on trial. The court found that he had come to a woman’s home, shot her son at point-blank range, and then burned the young man’s body on a fire while he and his officers partied nearby. The woman’s husband was killed by the same men, and his body also was burned.
The woman was present in the courtroom and heard the confessions offered by Mr. Van der Broek. At one point, a member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission turned to her and asked, “So, what do you want? How should justice be done for this man?”
“I want three things,” the woman said confidently. “I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned so that I can gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial.”
She continued, “My husband and son were my only family. I want, secondly, for Mr. Van der Broek to become my son. I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have.
“And, finally, I would like Mr. Van der Broek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. And so, I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr. Van der Broek in my arms, embrace him, and let him know that he is truly forgiven.”
“The Gospel of the Lord.” Sort of, right?!?!
I thought that story from the Gospel – about Jesus healing that paralyzed man – was a miracle. And who doesn’t love a good miracle, right? I think it’s great when Jesus shows off his super powers. It’s good news when someone gets healed. And I especially like it, here, when Jesus does it all with a little bit of attitude.
When the scribes are grumbling about whether Jesus, that carpenter’s kid from Nazareth, could possibly have the power to forgive sins…? When Jesus says something like, “Really? That’s what you’re worried about here…?” And when he asks them, “What’s easier, do you suppose, to forgive sins or to make a paralyzed man stand up and walk?” It was a rhetorical question, of course. Almost sarcastic, it seems to me.
One big piece of this puzzle has to do with how 1st Century people understood the connection between sin and sickness. The short version of the story is that, often-times, when someone was paralyzed, or blind, or deaf, or mentally ill, or had a case of the chicken-pox, for that matter, those afflictions were often attributed to some sort of sinfulness on their part; like they must have done something to deserve some punishment; like they were paying dues for their misdeeds. Which means – in the case of the paralyzed man – to be able to stand up and walk, wasn’t just evidence of his physical healing. It was also proof of his divine forgiveness that couldn’t be refuted or argued or denied, no matter how hard it was to believe.
And, Jesus knows no one believed he had the power to cure paralysis any more than they thought his forgiveness was worth a lick. So when Jesus does one – sends that paralyzed guy skipping home, with his mat under his arm – everyone has to believe that he’s done the other, too; that his forgiveness is just as real, that it counts just as much as that miracle they all saw stand up and walk right out of the room.
And it is a miracle, right? Not just to cure a disease, but to forgive like that? And not just like Jesus does, but to forgive like that poor South African woman who lost so much and who had every reason to hold a grudge; to punish severely; to hurt, harm, and retaliate against the officer who murdered and defamed and disgraced her family in such an ugly, hateful way – and who stole so much from her in the process. Can you imagine?
We are supposed to imagine it. And we’re supposed to marvel at it…just like those first century witnesses who saw what Jesus did and “were filled with awe and glorified God,” like the Gospel tells us, “becuase God had given such authority to human beings.”
“BECAUSE GOD HAD GIVEN SUCH AUTHORITY TO HUMAN BEINGS.”
Which means we’re supposed to do more than just imagine it and marvel at it. We’re supposed to practice and model it, too.
My hunch is that that day in that South African courtroom wasn’t the first time that grieving woman had forgiven someone in her life. My hunch is, she didn’t show up to court ready for the Olympic-level, World Championship-sized game of forgiveness with which she was faced and crush it the way she did, without some serious practice over the course of her lifetime.
I imagine she had practiced the art of her forgiveness on the very souls she was grieving so deeply – her husband and her son, more than once. I imagine she practiced the art of forgiveness at the market with strangers… at school with her son’s teachers… in the neighborhood with other parents and children… at church with her fellow parishioners and pastors, even.
And I have another hunch about that South African wife and mother who was able to forgive the murderer of her husband and her only child. My hunch is, having practiced forgiving others in the past, she knew something about the benefits of forgiveness … for herself; that she had no choice, almost, but to offer it.
See, forgiveness isn’t just benevolence and blessing for those who are forgiven. When real forgiveness is achieved, when full pardon is able to be granted to another, the forgiver is set free, too – free from the weight of a grudge to bear; free from the anxiety of holding onto anger; free from the struggle of harboring the poison of unforgiveness in your body, mind and spirit. (Maybe you’ve heard that refusing forgiveness, holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.)
Which is why God calls us to forgive and why Jesus shows us how to do it. Forgiveness is God’s gift of power to us. Forgiveness is God’s gift of authority to us. The people who watched Jesus heal and forgive were filled with awe and glorified God because God had given such authority such power to human beings – to them – to you and me – and to mothers in South Africa, too.
Because can’t you just imagine the power shift in the courtroom that day as that grieving mother met face to face with that guilty officer, only to hug him and to love him in spite of the sins he committed against her? His power to hurt her – the power of sin and death – would have been overcome by her unwillingness to accept it – and to forgive him and to love him, somehow, in spite of it. That is the power of God.
May we never have to muster the measure of forgiveness and grace offered by that woman. But may her story give us some perspective about the power and pleasure of practicing forgiveness more often, more readily, more graciously in our daily lives, because we are blessed and better for it. And because God’s hope and intention is that forgiving and reconciling will change our hearts and lives, our relationships, our families, our schools, our churches, and the world in God’s kingdom, when we do.