Sin and Sickness – Matthew 9:1-8

Some of the scribes who have gathered to hear Jesus teach think Jesus blasphemed when he forgave the paralytic’s sin without healing him.

Jesus heals a paralytic

“This fellow” or “this man” may be pejorative, something like “who does this guy think he is?” in Matthew 8:27 the disciples ask, “What kind of man is this” after he calms the sea. But the question “who is this man?” is at the heart of all the stories in Matthew 8-9, Jesus is revealing who he is, the God who forgives sin, but the scribes do not accept that claim. There is a contrast between the demon possessed men in 8:29 who know Jesus is the Son of God and these Jewish scribes, who deny he could be the God who forgives sin.

What does it mean to blaspheme?  In the Law, blasphemy is a misuse of the name of God, a “verbal slander against God” and the punishment for this offense of death (Bock, “Blasphemy” in DJG, 84) or example, in m. Sanhedrin 7:5, a blasphemer has “fully pronounced the divine Name.” As is well known, the punishment for pronouncing the name of God was death punishable by death (Lev 24:10-16). In m. Sanh. 6.4 some sages say, “Only the blasphemer and the one who worships an idol are hanged.” Philo said “But if anyone were, I will not say to blaspheme against the Lord of gods and men but were even to dare to utter his name unseasonably, he must endure the punishment of death; (Mos. 2.206).

Ironically, but the end of this section of Matthew, Jesus declares the Pharisees have committed “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (12:30-32). As far as the scribes are concerned, the many has not been forgiven since he is still paralyzed. They seem to interpret his condition as the result of sin.

For some writers in Second Temple Judaism, God punished sin with physical illness. In Matthew quoted Isaiah 53:4 as fulfilled in Jesus’s healing, “He took up our infirmity and bore our diseases” (8:17). Psalm 103:2-3 says the Lord both forgives sin and heals disease. When Hezekiah was afflicted with a deadly boil, he may have assumed there was a connection between the disease and punishment for sin. In the Prayer of Nabonidus (4Q242), the king is afflicted with a disease until a Jewish exorcist “forgave his sins.”

Psalm 103:2-3 Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases.

4Q242 (4QPrNab ar) 4QPrayer of Nabonidus ar [I, Nabonidus,] was afflicted [by a malignant inflammation] 3 for seven years, and was banished far [from men, until I prayed to the God Most High] 4 and an exorcist forgave my sin. He was a Je[w] fr[om the exiles… (Martı́nez and Tigchelaar)

Ned. 41A R. Alexandri in the name of R. Hiyya bar Abba, “A sick person does not recover from his ailment before all of his sins are forgiven: ‘Who forgives all your sins, who heals all your diseases’ (Ps. 103:3).”

As is the case in Matthew 8:16-17, it is also possible the illness was caused by demonic influence. Like the owners of the pigs in the previous story, the scribes are less concerned about the paralyzed man than Jesus’s blasphemous statement claiming to forgive sin.

Jesus Responds by Healing the Paralytic (Matthew 9:4-7). Jesus knows their thoughts, as he will the Pharisees in 12:25. In both cases, these thoughts consider Jesus to be claiming divine authority in a way which is offensive to God.

“Which is easier?” Jesus asks. Nolland calls this a “riddling question” that depends on the saying “your sins are forgiven.” God grants the authority to heal to humans, even the disciples will be given authority to heal (Matthew 10:1), but only God can forgive sin. Therefore, it is easier (for a human) to heal than to forgive sin (Brown and Roberts, Matthew, 91). On the other hand, anyone can say “your sins are forgiven,” that does not make them forgiven.  The problem is that there can be no proof a person’s sins are forgiven (or not). However, healing a paralyzed man is verifiable. He if stands up and walks, then he has been forgiven.

Jesus then heals the paralytic so that they will know “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” In Daniel 7:14 a son of man is given authority to judge the Gentile nations and establish the final kingdom of God. By using the phrase “Son of Man has authority,” Jesus is alluding to Daniel 7 and claiming to be God’s appointed representative who is qualified by God himself to render judgment, to punish or to forgive sin.

Jesus made an extraordinary claim, to have the authority to forgive sin, then verifies that the man’s sins have been forgiven by healing his paralysis in full view of a crowd.

It is important to understand that this passage disconnects the man’s illness from any punishment for sin. We do not know why he is sick, and it does not matter since the story is about Jesus’s authority, not whether (or not) a person’s sin is related to their illnesses.

The crowd saw the man stand up and walk out of the house and they are amazed. But is this fear or amazement? Normally φοβέω refers to fear (in Matthew 8:26 Jesus asks the disciples why they are so afraid, the noun there is δειλός, cowardly, timid). Later when Jesus walks on the water, the disciples are afraid because they think they have seen a ghost, and when Peter attempts to walk on the water, he sees the waves and is afraid.

The crowd does glorify God “who gave such authority to men.” Why plural, men? It is possible his anticipate Matthew 10. Jesus will authorize his own disciples to drive out demons and heal all kinds of sickness. In John 9, Jesus explicitly contradicts the belief that a person’s illness or infirmity was caused by their sin.

Matthew does not tell us anything more about the once-paralyzed man or his friends. His focus on in Jesus’s claim to have authority to forgive sin. Just as the crowds were amazed when Jesus taught by his own authority (7:28-29) and the disciples were amazed when he calmed the sea (8:27).

But like the people in the area of Gadarene who were frightened by Jesus’s restoration of the demon possessed man, now a crowd is afraid of  him, yet they glorify God.

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