When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, Stand up and take your mat 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— “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
So now to the other big question: why does Jesus’ pronouncement of forgiveness cause such a stir. I said earlier that I was initially puzzled over Jesus’ statement, but some of the characters in the story not only also didn’t understand why Jesus was telling the paralyzed man his sins were forgiven, but were actually offended by it. In fact, they call it “blasphemy.” Why?
This question actually gets to the very heart of the gospel. Not just Mark’s Gospel, mind you, but the Christian gospel we believe, preach, and teach.
Mark identifies those who are most upset as “Scribes.” While it’s easy for us to characterize Scribes, as we often do Pharisees, as legalistic or unyielding religious leaders, that’s actually unfair. Both Scribes and Pharisees were the folks who cared deeply about their religious tradition, enough to give much of their time to it. In this way, they were very much like our own members of the Church Council, Board of Elders, or Vestry. Scribes could read and write – a rarity in the ancient world – and so held positions of responsibility. Sometimes they were charged with copying sacred documents (hence the name “Scribe”), and often they functioned something like magistrates or lawyers, caring for and interpreting the sacred texts of the faith.
So why are they upset? Another way to ask the question might be, why aren’t we? That is, do we take forgiveness seriously enough to find it offensive? Think about it: if a friend says to you, “I forgive you,” and you either aren’t aware of having done anything wrong or actually don’t believe you have done something wrong, those words are quite offensive. Forgiveness, it turns out, implies judgment. If you agree with the judgment in question, forgiveness is wonderful as it represents a new beginning, another chance, a repair to the breach in the relationship. If you don’t agree with the judgment, then forgiveness can only offend.
Perhaps the Scribes are the most offended because they are most keenly aware that Jesus is claiming the right to both judge and forgive, both accuse and pardon. Perhaps this is why they accuse him of blasphemy, as Jesus in his words and deeds claims the divine right to mediate judgment, forgiveness, and salvation.
I think the matter boils down to this: forgiveness is great if you believe you need it. But if you don’t – if you trust your own merits, or the religious system you participate in, or your accomplishments, or whatever – then forgiveness can only be downright offensive. So I think the Scribes realize that if Jesus is willing to offer forgiveness to this paralyzed man, then who knows what is to stop him from forgiving them. No wonder they’re offended. And no wonder we often are as well.
Prayer: Dear God, let us hear in Jesus’ offer of forgiveness both the truth that we need forgiveness and the greater truth that you always offer it freely and gladly. In Jesus’ name, Amen.