"Which Is Easier, To Forgive Sins or To Heal?"
Trinity 19, October 9-10, 2010
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In today's Gospel, Jesus poses a question which is worth considering very carefully. Our Lord asks, "Which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven you,' or to say, 'Arise and walk'?" And, of course, Jesus doesn't mean merely to speak the words but to actually accomplish what you say. Which is easier, to forgive sins or to heal?
Our initial reaction might be to think that healing is the harder of the two. After all, you can't see forgiveness. But you can see whether or not a body has been made well. Doing that seems to be the harder trick. We all know of modern-day counterparts to the paralytic in the Gospel, people like Christopher Reeve, the actor who became paralyzed after a horse-riding accident. Just keeping him alive and breathing is hard. Fully restoring his body, that would take a miracle. Many of us have had loved ones who became paralyzed by a severe stroke or some other accident or disease. What a tremendous thing it would be if there were some way to reverse the damage that was done to mind or body! Sometimes God allows doctors and scientists to come up with cures and therapies to heal our injured and deteriorating bodies. Often progress is slow. Healing the body is hard.
However, I would suggest to you that forgiving sins is even harder. For it involves the healing of the soul. Curing soul sickness is something that no ordinary human being can do. The disease in our spirit is so foul and malignant that it runs deeper than any of our therapies and counseling and 12-step programs can reach. The best we can do is mask the spiritual symptoms. Forgiving sins is something only God has the power to do.
That's what got the scribes all up in arms in today's Gospel. Here this paralytic had been brought before Jesus. I'm sure that the crowds, along with the paralytic, were hoping that Jesus would heal him, as He had done for others before. Instead, when Jesus saw the faith of the paralytic and his friends, that they trusted in Him and were looking to Him for help, Jesus said to this man on the stretcher, "Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you." When the scribes heard this, they said within themselves, "This Man is blaspheming! He's dishonoring God and profaning God's name by claiming to forgive sins! What arrogance! Who is He to say such a thing!" Little did they know or believe that Jesus is God, the Son of God veiled in our real humanity as the Son of Man. And so He indeed has the full authority to forgive sins. He was not blaspheming but blessing.
What would have been your reaction if you were the paralytic on the stretcher? Perhaps you would have been surprised-words of forgiveness were probably not what you were expecting. But hopefully you also would have been deeply comforted. For consider the things that must have gone through this man's mind in his condition. He must have asked again and again, "Why did this happen to me? Does God even care for me? Is this His judgment against me for my sin?" This man wasn't just laid low physically, he was laid low spiritually. And so Jesus first speaks to this man's troubled soul with words of comfort and mercy that address his spiritual need. "Son, be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven you." God was with him and for him. Through Christ he was at peace.
It is very often in times of physical distress that our conscience attacks us. People who are ill or in pain can begin to waver in their faith and wonder if God really cares for them or forgives them. When someone's body is not well, he is reminded of his spiritual unwellness before God. The fact is we are all very much like this man on the stretcher-inwardly paralyzed by our fears and our sin. Just as the paralytic couldn't move his limbs, neither can we do anything by our own strength that moves us toward God or merits favor with Him. Just as the paralytic couldn't work, neither can we on our own power do works that are counted as good and holy in God's sight. The Scripture calls them all filthy rags. But then we are carried before Jesus, even as our parents literally carried most of us to the baptismal font, and Jesus speaks to the deepest need of our troubled souls. He says to you yet again today, right now, "Child, don't be dismayed and discouraged; be of good cheer. Your sins are forgiven you." God is with you and for you. In Christ you are at peace with the Father.
What more healing message could there be than that? No matter what your current state of bodily health is, there are no greater words than these that come from God Himself, "Be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven you." Those words alone would have been more than enough for the paralytic. For those words put you right with God. And if you are right with God, then you have everything. Then you are truly and fully healed, not only spiritually, but even physically as well.
Jesus shows that to be true in the last half of the Gospel. After the scribes in their hearts accused Jesus of blaspheming, He replied, "Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven you,' or to say, 'Arise and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins-then He said to the paralytic, 'Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.' And he arose and departed to his house."
The proof that Jesus had the authority to forgive sins was in the healing of this man's body. That outward cure confirmed and uncovered the truth of the greater inward cure. For the real and lasting power that brings physical healing and restoration is the forgiveness of sins. Look at it this way: The Bible says that death came into the world through sin. In other words, everything that causes us to deteriorate and lose our health and finally die is a result of the sin to which we are all in bondage. So it follows that if the sin is taken away and forgiven, then the consequences of sin will also be taken away-the sickness and paralysis and disease and pain will also, in turn, be removed.
So in a sense, when Jesus healed this paralytic, He didn't actually give him anything new or more. Jesus simply revealed what the paralytic had already been given when He forgave his sins.
Jesus first went right to the root of the problem. He didn't only treat this man's physical problems, the outward symptoms and effects of sin. Jesus destroyed the deadly sin-virus itself. One could say, then, that this paralyzed man is healed as soon as Jesus forgives him. To be sure, that healing isn't visible right away. But the paralysis has already been conquered through those absolving words.
And that's exactly how it is also for you. The power of Christ to heal and eternally restore your bodies is contained in His words of forgiveness which He speaks to you. For those absolving words get to the heart of the situation. They deal with the very spiritual syndrome which attacks and eventually tears down your physical well-being. You may suffer from any number of aches or pains or physical or mental ailments. But when Jesus pronounces to you the forgiveness of your sins, He is also restoring your entire being to the blessedness of paradise and healing you. For Christ has thereby taken away the very source from which those troubles come.
Now, that healing may not be visible to you yet. You may not feel any differently. For just as it was with the paralytic, there is a delay between the forgiveness being spoken and the healing being revealed. The one comes now, the other in all its fullness at the return of Christ. But the point here is that they are intimately connected. In fact they are one and the same thing. To be forgiven is to be healed and made whole, in both soul and body-by faith now, by sight on the Last Day. Therefore, you can face paralysis or arthritis or cancer or any sort of earthly trouble with bold confidence and firm trust in God. For all of your prayers are answered most profoundly, all of your needs are addressed most deeply in Christ's words of absolution.
In the end that's why it's harder to forgive sins, because forgiveness touches both soul and body. It's possible to cure the body but not the soul. Even if we were to discover cures for all diseases and ailments and find ways to extend our lives by decades, the death rate is still going to be 100% in the end. We still haven't gotten to the root of the problem. But forgiveness does.
Forgiveness is harder because it requires the cross. There is a price to be paid to purchase this healing, the price of our Lord's body sacrificed in your place and His blood shed to redeem you and His soul tormented that you might be set free from death and hell. Jesus allowed Himself to be lowered into the paralyzing depths of the grave for you to break its power over you. And then He arose from His mortal bed that you might also rise with Him in the body to life that is free from disease and paralysis and pain.
So if you've prayed to God for healing or relief, and it seems as if He hasn't heard you, listen to today's Gospel well. He has answered all of your prayers with a resounding "Yes." Jesus is your "Yes" with a capital Y. He says "Yes" to you right now in the Lord's Supper. Here is the remedy that heals you, the medicine of immortality, the living body and blood of Jesus given and shed for you to enliven you and make you whole.
So be of good cheer. Your sins are forgiven you. And where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation and the resurrection of the body.
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.