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.

Jesus Has Authority Over Sin – Matthew 9:1-2

In the previous two stories, Jesus demonstrated his authority over satanic powers. First, he calms the chaos of the seas and second, he commanded demons to leave two men who were living among the tombs. In both cases he is in “enemy territory” where Satan has the advantage. Now in 9:1-7 Jesus will demonstrate his authority over sin and sickness by healing a paralytic man. The one who silences the chaos of the seas and commands demons also has the authority to forgive sin. Matthew is making a clear Christological statement about who Jesus is as well as tracking a range of responses to Jesus, amazement, fear, and rejection.

Jesu Heals the Paralytic

The story appears in see Mark 2:1-12 and Luke 5:18–26. As is usually the case, Matthew’s version of the story is brief compared to Mark and Luke. “Matthew’s narration is surprisingly slim at this point” (Brown and Roberts, Matthew, 91). Matthew omits the situation (a large crowd in Peter’s house), the four friends who lower the paralyzed man through the roof, and the paralytic does not pick up his mat when he departs. An interesting addition is calling Capernaum “his town.”

Having returned to Capernaum, which Matthew calls “his own city” (ESV), a paralytic is brought to Jesus. In Mark’s version of the story, Jesus is teaching in Peter’s house and a crowd has gather which prevents four men from bringing the man to Jesus through the door.They are forced to dig a hole in the roof in order to lower the paralytic into Jesus’s presence. When Jesus sees their faith, he forgives the man’s sin.

It is possible the story was so well-known Matthew did not need to include all of the details since his focus is on who Jesus claims to be and the reaction of the scribes and the crowd. On the other hand, Nolland suggests the paralytic did not express faith (the other men who brought them did); since Matthew focuses on faith in Jesus as a basis of healing (see 8:10), he abbreviated the story to avoid the implication the healed man did not express faith (Nolland, Matthew, 380).

Paralysis was one of several impurities which would prevent this man from going up to the Temple to worship. The lame were not permitted to serve as priests or Levites (Leviticus 21:16-24), although they can eat from the offerings, they are not permitted to “come near to offer the Lord’s food offerings.” In the Rule of the Congregation (1Q Sa).

Deuteronomy 15:21 (ESV) But if it has any blemish, if it is lame or blind or has any serious blemish whatever, you shall not sacrifice it to the Lord your God.

1QSa 2:3-7 No man, defiled by any of the impurities 4 of a man, shall enter the assembly of these; and no-one who is defiled by these should be 5 established in his office amongst the congregation: everyone who is defiled in his flesh, paralysed in his feet or 6 in his hands, lame, blind, deaf, dumb or defiled in his flesh with a blemish 7 visible to the eyes, or the tottering old man who cannot keep upright in the midst of the assembly. (Martı́nez and Tigchelaar; see also those who are not permitted to participate in the final war in The War Scroll, 1QM 7:4)

Rather than healing the man, Jesus pronounces the man’s sins forgiven. Jesus declares the sins forgiven even though there has been no sacrifice or other means of atonement made. If the man was struck with paralysis because of an illness, then his friends may have thought he was under the judgment of God for some sin he may have done. They should have begged God forgive the man gone up to the Temple to offer sacrifices on his behalf.

For Jesus to claim to forgive sin is to claim divine authority. Only God forgive sin in the Old Testament (Exodus 34:7; Isa 43:25-26) and the literature of the Second Temple period.

Exodus 34:7 (ESV) …keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Isaiah 43:25–26 (ESV) “I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins. 26 Put me in remembrance; let us argue together; set forth your case, that you may be proved right.

4Q398 f14–17ii Remember David, who was a man of the pious ones, [and] he, too, 2 [was] freed from many afflictions and was forgiven.

4Q417 f2i:14 Be like a humble man when you conduct a case […] 15 grasp. And then God will see, and his anger will turn away, and he will forgive your sins [f]or before [his] an[ger] 16 no-one can endure.

11Q5 19:12-14 When I recall your power my heart is strengthened, 13 and I rely on your kind deeds. Forgive my sin, YHWH, 14 and cleanse me from my iniquity.

In a similar situation, Jesus forgives the sin of a woman in Luke 7:49. He gets a similar reaction from the witnesses: they are shocked he claims authority to forgive since forgiving sin done through the sacrifices and only granted by God.

What is Jesus claiming in this story? Is there a difference between claiming to have the authority to forgive sin and claiming to be God?

John 21 – The Restoration of Peter

The Gospel of John has a double ending. If we stopped reading at the end of chapter 20, we would be perfectly satisfied. Jesus has revealed himself as the resurrected savior, Thomas’s confession is the great theological conclusion, Jesus is both Lord and God. John 20:30-31 read like the conclusion to the book as John tells us the main reason for writing the Gospel in the first place, that we might believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that by believing, we might have life in his name.

But there are some unresolved questions – what about Peter? We know that he has declared himself to be the most faithful disciple, willing to be arrested and killed alongside his Lord. Yet when Jesus was arrested Peter makes a lame attempt to defend Jesus (only to be rebuked for attacking with a sword). He then makes his famous three denials, failing to make good on his commitment to follow the Lord all the way to the cross.

Yet the reader knows that Peter did “comeback” from his great failure and the despair which he must have experienced in the days between the cross and the resurrection. Peter is well known as a preacher of the Gospel from the book of Acts. By the time John was written, the readers must have known that Peter had been executed by Nero in Rome. According to tradition, he was crucified upside-down some time after the Great Fire destroyed large portions of Rome.

This conclusion to the Gospel of John is about the Restoration of Peter to fellowship with Jesus. Peter needs to experience forgiveness and grace from his Lord, so Jesus gives him the opportunity to express his love and commitment. When Jesus calls his disciple Peter to “follow me” he is calling all disciples of Jesus to follow to the very end.

There are numerous parallels between this story and Peter’s denial in John 18. Once again Peter is beside a coal fire (ἀνθρακιά, a noun used only in John 18:18 and 21:9). Peter will have three opportunities to declares his loyalty to Jesus, except this time he will respond positively each time. But there are also parallels to Luke 5:1-11, the first miraculous catch of fish. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus called Peter to be a fisher of men by showing them where to cast their nets. After Jesus tells Peter that he is calling him to fish for men, Peter, James and John “leave everything and followed” Jesus (Luke 5:11).

The last words to Peter are significant: Follow Me! The past becomes the present once again, since these were among the first words Jesus said to Peter (John 1:43, 13:36-38). Jesus defines Peter’s relationship as following his Lord, just as he did when he called Peter as a disciple in Luke 5.