And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” Mark 2:5 (ESV)
This passage comes at the end of a larger section focused on Jesus’ authority over powers that assail individuals in this world. The section is marked at the beginning and the end by references to Jesus calling disciples and teaching. Within the section, Jesus casts out demonic powers (and heals), cleanses from uncleanness (and heals) and forgives sins (and heals). Physical healing is correlated the spiritual acts of exorcism, cleansing and forgiving, but there is no attempt to provide a detailed theory of the correlation. Rather, this entire section serves to illustrate Jesus’ power to make lives whole in body and spirit, a power that presages the coming of the kingdom in all its fullness.
The narrative of Mark 2:1-12 is an absolutely wonderful story with all sorts of significant details. My favorite part is the image of the four friends tearing open the mud-and-thatch roof of Jesus’ home. I am reminded of the Old Testament reading from the first Sunday of this year’s Advent. “Rip the heavens apart! Come down, LORD” (Isa 64:1 CEV). Instead of God tearing open the heavens and coming down, the faithful tear open the roof and come down. What kind of faith does it take to tear someone’s house apart?
A couple of factors come together to mandate this impromptu remodeling. One is that Jesus is so popular that the crowds make access difficult. It would be nice to have that problem in churches today, but Mark isn’t identifying popularity with faith. By the end of Mark, Jesus is nearly alone.
The other factor is the faith of the four friends. The paralyzed man is not able to bring himself to Jesus, so his friends bring him on an improvised stretcher. The litter team can’t get in the house because of the crowds, so they make their way up to the flat roof of the Palestinian home, perhaps hoping that there might be an opening to an inner courtyard. The image of four men trying to get a litter-bound fifth to the roof, and then tearing open the roof to lower the man to Jesus is remarkable. Refusing to be stymied by their friend’s paralysis, the crowds or even a physical barrier, the friends did not give up until they achieved their goal.
Mark says, “When Jesus saw their faith …” (2:5). We might think of faith as an individual, inward feeling or experience. That’s not the sense of the word here. Faith is visible and corporate. Faith here is expressed in muscle, sweat and determination.
Jesus responds to the friends’ faith by giving the paralyzed man forgiveness, which is something of a non sequitur to say the least. It’s tempting to read all sorts of things into this act, but we are limited by the facts of the narrative. As mentioned above, however, Jesus’ acts in this section bring both spiritual and physical wholeness to those he helps.
This particular narrative marks a transition from authority stories to confrontation stories as scribes object to Jesus’ actions. Only God can forgive sins, they say, so Jesus’ claim to forgive sins must be blasphemy. Their accusation would, under the law, subject Jesus to punishment by death (Leviticus 24:16). Blasphemy is the charge that finally sticks in the Sanhedrin (14:64), so this encounter sets Jesus on the road to cross.
Jesus ultimately heals the paralyzed man to demonstrate his authority to forgive sins. The context, however, clearly implies that forgiveness is the greater – if less visible – of the two acts.
Mark doesn’t actually spend many words discussing forgiveness in his gospel. John the Baptizer proclaims a baptism of forgiveness in chapter 1. Jesus directly mediates forgiveness here in chapter 2. In chapter 3, Jesus states that failing to recognize the hand of God in his mighty works precludes forgiveness. In chapter 11, Jesus says that his listeners should forgive others in their prayers so that God might forgive their sins. That’s pretty much it. There is no forgiveness-oriented language in the words of institution at the Last Supper or in Mark’s description of the cross.
Nevertheless, Mark follows up this passage with one that demonstrates the reconciliation of a sinner. After healing the paralytic, Jesus calls the tax-collector Levi to follow him and then sits down to eat with Levi’s friends. When challenged on why he associated with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus responded that it is the sick who need a physician, not the well. Here again we find the image of healing and forgiveness (or reconciliation) intertwined, but in a slightly different manner. Jesus makes the spirit whole, not just the body.