Up until this point in the Book of Matthew, Jesus has not had a confrontation with people who diametrically opposed his ministry, but that is all about to change once he arrives at his hometown. Sure, back in the Gerasenes the people were afraid of Jesus and wanted to be rid of him. But in this passage Jesus will have an encounter with scribes who actually believe his holy words to be blasphemy. What Jesus brings from heaven they will attribute to the pit of hell, while their own hell-bound righteousness is, to their minds, the very pathway to heaven. Satan strategically positions his most vicious servants in Jesus' hometown, perhaps to strike a blow at his morale.
And yet there are also people of great faith. A paralytic is borne to Jesus on a stretcher by friends. Jesus acknowledges "their faith," that is, not only the faith of the paralytic but of his friends, who took the trouble because they believed in Jesus' healing power. However, Jesus does something unexpected. Instead of immediately healing the paralysis, he says to the ailing man, "Take courage, my son, your sins are forgiven."
Now, the commentators I've read all say that this forgiveness is a completely unasked for blessing. The man came for a healing, and yet Jesus just decided to give him a surprise gift that totally caught him off guard. I'm not sure I entirely agree with that. Of course I don't have to worry about the Tyndale people or anyone else editing this blog, but at the same time I hope I'm not being too out of line here. I just have this idea that Jesus almost always responds directly to what people actually desire, because he wants them to seek him in faith. I don't think he plops stuff on their laps that was never on their radar screen in the first place.
As we've seen before Jesus responds to weak, hesitant faith as well as to panicky, near-hopeless faith. So when he says to the paralytic, "Take courage, my son," I have to believe that he was responding to some tremulous faith he also saw in this man's heart. Some cry of the soul. Some near-fainting hope. The man must have wanted forgiveness of his sins, and yet could he dare to ask? You can imagine how this situation might have arisen. His friends say, "Hey, Jesus is in town. Let's get you healed." The man can hardly protest since his paralysis puts him entirely at their mercy, so off they go. And yet he knows that his real paralysis his found in his own sinful heart, the spiritual paralysis of being totally unable to keep God's law. So there he is before Jesus, surrounded by friends who want his physical healing, and he wants it too, yet there is something he wants even more but cannot bring himself to say. Jesus sees it. He tells the man to take courage because he will receive the desire of his heart. "Your sins are forgiven."
If Jesus answered the unspoken desire of the paralytic's heart, he is now quick to turn his mind-reading powers the other direction to answer the unspoken grumbling of the scribes. They accuse him of blasphemy in their hearts so Jesus asks, "Which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise and walk'?" Now if the question were, "Which is easier to do?" then forgiving a man's sins would be harder, for Jesus would someday pay an enormous price to ensure that forgiveness. But he is asking about which is easier to say. That is, which can you get away with just saying because there's nothing you can do to prove it? Certainly it is easier to say, "Your sins are forgiven." But to show that he never says anything that isn't backed up by reality, he commands the paralytic, "Rise, take up your bed and go home." The fact that the man actually did it shows that the forgiveness Jesus had pronounced was real too. It shows that his words are never empty.
There is something ironic about the crowd's reaction to this miracle. They "glorified God who had given such authority to men." It would seem that Jesus is just a man in their eyes to whom God had given authority to forgive sins and heal. If he is just a man, just a spokesman or a human medium through whom God could channel his powers, then they are missing the point. The authority to forgive and heal does come from the Father above, but it also centers upon the person of Jesus, because as the Son he is the revelation of the Father. Jesus is not a divinely anointed man. He is the Son of God who has clothed himself in humanity, who reveals the character, will and desire of the Father.
And yet the crowd is right to glorify God "who had given such authority to men" because even if they are misunderstanding who Jesus is, they recognize that if God has given a man this power, then they have an advocate on their side. A man who can forgive sins is so much more accessible than the transcendent God. He is someone you can talk to and touch, who knows all your human struggles, who can draw from his personal experience to relate to you. If a man has been given authority from God to forgive, then this is revolutionary indeed.