I have been reading the story of the paralysed man whose friends brought him to Jesus (Luke 5:17-26), and how Jesus surprised everyone by forgiving him (usually, it would seem, he simply healed people and sent them on their way). The man hadn’t even asked for forgiveness. Jesus’ words caused a stir. But perhaps not for the reason we might think. Most of us would have felt Jesus’ response to the man’s need was inappropriate and uncaring. Surely Jesus could see the real problem. The man couldn’t walk. What did he care about forgiveness. It was his health he wanted back, not some airy fairy promise of “pie in the sky when I die.” Perhaps people saw it as a cop out by Jesus. He had finally met his match – a paraplegic! So instead of healing him he “forgave him.” As if that could compensate for the man’s disappointment!
Jesus knew what people around him were thinking. This was his response:
Luke 5:23 NIV
Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?
Which is easier to say?
Seems like a bit of a no-brainer. Of course its easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven.” Because the results are invisible, impossible to prove or disprove. You can’t see if a person is forgiven or not. He or she still looks the same. But you can see if a person is healed or not, especially if he was paralysed before and he is not paralysed anymore. If a person says to a paraplegic, “Get up and walk,” and nothing happens, then the speaker is discredited, shamed. But if a person says, “Your sins are forgiven,” it is hard to see whether anything has happened or not.
Jesus’ question highlights the tension here is between the invisible and the visible. This tension existed in the first century. It still exists today. We value the visible over the invisible, or perhaps it could be said, we believe the visible more readily than the invisible. We believe that if something is visible it is true, but if it is invisible it is impossible to prove. The physical has become more important than the metaphysical – the spiritual. Physical healing is prioritized over spiritual restoration. We value physical beauty more than inner beauty. We focus more on sex than love. The examples can go on and on. We believe in what we can see, and feel and touch, the evidence of our eyes and ears.
Jesus, in contrast, at least in this story, seemed to be saying that forgiveness was more important than physical healing. Faced with a paralytic he spoke out forgiveness of sins without healing him, at least initially. As if he was saying to everyone, “you may think that this man’s problem is paralysis, but his much deeper problem is his sinfulness.” So the solution was not physical healing, but forgiveness. Jesus knew that forgiveness is forever, but physical healing is only temporary; that physical wholeness is fleeting, whereas spiritual wholeness is eternal. In short, that the invisible is often, perhaps always, more important than the visible.
But Jesus also knows that we are usually more impressed by what we see than what we can’t see. So for the sake of the Pharisees, the onlookers, and for us (whom he knew would be reading about it centuries later) he healed the man’s physical disability too. He demonstrated his supernatural power in the visible realm to help us understand his supernatural power in the invisible realm.
Which is better, forgiveness or healing?
This event then, explores two phenomena, both of which are important to us, even if we tend to value one over the other – physical healing, and forgiveness of sins, one visible, and the other invisible. Jesus seemed to see the invisible – forgiveness – as more significant, more important, than the visible – healing. The Pharisees seemed to see Jesus’ words of forgiveness as more offensive than his act of healing, which suggests that they too thought forgiveness of sins was more important than physical healing. They saw forgiveness as the realm of God, whereas physical healing was possible by any skilled healer. They were angry because they saw that Jesus was claiming an authority only possessed by God, making himself equal with God. But was that Jesus’ intention, to simply use the opportunity to claim some sort of divine right? Or was there more to this encounter than that?
I believe that Jesus was making a point about the absolute necessity of forgiveness as a foundation for life, that as important as physical healing is, forgiveness, spiritual cleansing, is even more important. Jesus knew that forgiveness of sins is foundational to relationships, and for Jesus relationships were and are more important than anything. First and foremost our relationship with God. But also our relationships with each other. Without forgiveness, relationships founder.
In fact, forgiveness grounded in love is the foundation of all relationships that exist in a broken world. And we live in a broken world, that is easy to see. The solutions to that brokenness lie not in physical healing, even when it is miraculous. The solutions lie in forgiveness. Without love there is no forgiveness. Without forgiveness relationships break down. When relationships break down, all manner of suffering are the result. Jesus came into the world, not primarily to heal broken bodies, but to provide a way of healing broken relationships. His strategy was and is forgiveness.
Which is easier to do?
And although “Your sins are forgiven,” might seem easier to say, it is not at all easier to do. Forgiveness is the hard thing, much harder than healing. Anyone who has been sinned against knows that. Especially anyone who has been habitually and serially sinned against. Think of the abused wife or child. Think of the woman (or man) betrayed by an unfaithful partner. Think of the person who has seen their whole family murdered by evil men. Think of the person who has been serially exploited, raped, tortured.
No, forgiveness is not easy. It is not natural. It goes against all our sense of justice. Forgiveness is just as supernatural as miraculous healing. Perhaps more so. It is something that comes only from the heart of God. Spoken out of the mouth of Jesus:
Luke 5:24-26 NIV
But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”
Jesus knew that people would doubt his authority to forgive sins because forgiveness is invisible. He performed a visible miracle to prove his authority to perform an invisible miracle.
But he knew, like the Pharisees, that forgiveness of sins was the greater miracle, and the key to life, far more remarkable than the healing of the body. He knew that forgiveness of sins was a God thing, and he wanted to introduce a new way of making that possible even in the human realm. He knew that the only solution to the world’s problems was forgiveness, and he came to the earth as a man to make that possible. That is why Christmas is so significant, because it introduces God’s ultimate solution for a broken and hurting world. The solution lies in forgiveness, and the only true source of forgiveness is Jesus.
Which is easier? Physical healing. Which is better? Forgiveness of sins. When we are sick we can go to the doctor. But if we want forgiveness there is nowhere to go but Jesus. For in this story Jesus says not only that forgiveness is the most important thing for a better life, a better world, but that it is available. From him.