When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it became known that he was at home. Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them, not even around the door, and he preached the word to them. They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd, they opened up the roof above him. After they had broken through, they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to him, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, “Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?” Jesus immediately knew in his mind what they were thinking to themselves, so he said, “Why are you thinking such things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, pick up your mat and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth”–he said to the paralytic, “I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.” He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone. They were all astounded and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this.”
I have never known quite what to make of the question of the forgiveness of sins in this passage, or what the 'easier' is supposed to mean. In preaching it, therefore, I have usually tended to shift the focus to the four men who carry the paralytic and break through the roof in order to get him in front of Jesus. That's a challenging image of Christian friendship, I say, exerting ourselves and even doing what is outrageous in order to get a friend into the presence of Jesus. Fine, it's a clever thought, and it makes for a nice little homily. Nevertheless, I was happy to find in Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives a beautiful reflection on the aspects of the passage that I have never known how to understand, and which are certainly more important:
The paralytic needed to be able to walk, not to be delivered from his sins. The scribes criticized the theological presumption of Jesus' words: the sick man and those around him were disappointed, because Jesus had apparently overlooked the man's real need.
I consider this whole scene to be of key significance for the question of Jesus' mission, in the terms with which it was first described in the angel's message to Joseph. ["...you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." Matthew 1:21] In the passage concerned, both the criticism of the scribes and the silent expectation of the onlookers is acknowledged. Jesus then demonstrates his ability to forgive sins by ordering the sick man to take up his pallet and walk away healed. At the same time, the priority of forgiveness for sins as the foundation of all true healing is clearly maintained.
Man is a relational being. And if his first, fundamental relationship is disturbed--his relationship with God--then nothing else can be truly in order. This is where the priority lies in Jesus' message and ministry: before all else, he wants to point man toward the essence of his malady, and to show him--if you are not healed there, then however many good things you may find, you not truly healed.It is from carrying poorly the injuries to our spiritual heart that we fall into the worst kinds of violence and disregard for ourselves and one another, but it also through their healing in forgiveness that we become free to love.