Why are you harboring evil thoughts? (Matt 9:4) | Why are you raising such questions in your heart? (Mark 2:8) | Why are you questioning in your hearts? (Luke 5:22)
Already, early in his public ministry, Jesus was becoming increasingly popular. At one point, while inside a home preaching the “good news of the Kingdom” to crowds – many of whom were attracted by his ability to work miraculous cures – some young men arrived with a friend of theirs who was paralyzed. They are hoping that getting their friend to this Rabbi-healer might result in his being cured. They can’t possibly get through the crowds, so they try a bold “Plan B.” Climbing up the stairway on the outside of the house to the flat roof, they pull away tiles and thatching (likely showering the crowd with clay and debris), and lower their friend down into the midst of the congested room.
As seems to be typical, some “teachers of the law” are among those assembled. They probably aren’t “followers” as much as they are “informers” for the “authorities” who want to keep tabs on this new, and somewhat troubling, sensation. They are the ones with the expertise to make an “authoritative call” on whether or not Jesus is legit. These folks have, for generations, served their community by helping them maintain the “purity” of their religion. Their specialty is multiplying rules and regulations to ensure that every aspect of day-to-day life was performed properly (as defined by not only Scripture, but the accretions of “rule upon rule” which had been deposited over time).
So Jesus sees the faith that has brought this man (who has always looked up at people) down to them and says something unexpected… He tells the man on the pallet that his sins are forgiven. Now the “conventional wisdom” often assumes that different forms of disability is a result of sin. We still hear that sort of confused thinking today. Jesus, of course, makes no such acknowledgement, but he certainly plays on the close connection that exists between disability and sin in the minds of those surrounding him. (Of course, if his paralysis WAS due to sin – and if Jesus could and did just forgive them all – he would have gotten up right then. Right?) Jesus sees the opportunity – even in a dire situation – to draw people’s attention toward the spiritual, the eternal.
Just as Jesus sees the faith of the friends, he also sees what is going on in the minds of the “religious experts.” This “forgiving sins” language is slanderous; he purports to do something that only the Eternal can do. They are already looking for this young upstart to make some missteps in order to put him in his place; undoubtedly their legal minds are whirring away, figuring whether this is a “gaffe” they can exploit.
These experts had their understanding of God “in a box” – their adherence to their tradition had already eclipsed the revelation of wholeness, of healing, of salvation that God had set directly before them. They had reduced all the questions to points of religious law… and Jesus is certainly not coloring within their lines. Of COURSE, he can’t forgive sins… so therefore, he’s bogus. The problem was not in their legal reasoning, but with their inability to recognize what GOD was doing before their eyes.
Jesus confronts them on their inner dialogue (the verb used for what was going on “in their hearts” is the root, in fact, for our word “dialogue”). He doesn’t defend his statement, or address the thrust of their unspoken argument accusing him of blasphemy. He challenges them on their assumptions and their horizons.
Jesus curing the man’s paralysis is not only a sign of deeper, fuller healing, it refutes the charge of blasphemy since, in the eyes of these experts, God would not listen to such a “heretic” (cf. John 9.31). Jesus knows that the man has come because of his physical impairment, and that the crowd is looking to see “a sign.” However, Jesus is interested in more than the externals, more than just removing a physical impairment. He wants to see the man in the pallet – and each of his audience – to experience reconciliation with God.
Jesus doesn’t interact with the accusations being formulated against him. Instead, he calls his antagonists to consider the deeper motivations and principles that undergird their current thoughts. He doesn’t challenge them defensively – “What do you mean I’m a heretic?” – he challenges their inner dialogue, which rides along well-established tracks which tie together disability and sin, which predetermine how (and to whom and under what conditions) God will extend grace.
As God continues to pursue his mission to reconcile everything to himself through Jesus, his followers – while taking solace in knowing that he is eternally self-consistent – should know by now that he delights in employing unexpected tactics to show the boundlessness of his grace. When we are feeling very sure that we have a handle on “who is in and who is out,” and begin choosing up sides in our mind, we might want to be attentive to an interrupting voice asking, “Why exactly are you looking at things this way? Are you more concerned with your own self-consistency that you are with God’s character? Are you more concerned with where you have placed the boundary markers than you are with how God is active outside of them?”
As we seek to improve in the art of asking questions, we might make use a similar approach when confronted with something with which we disagree. Recall how Jesus passed up an opportunity to oppose the direct challenge that was being made against him by turning the scrutiny to the inner dynamics. We would be following Jesus’ example, and likely having more impact with people if, (as Anne-Marie Kool proposes) when we disagree with someone, we asking that person to explain why they said what they did, not by telling them where we think they are wrong.