Matthew 9:1-8; Romans 12:6-14; Jeremiah 31:27-34; Jonah 3:1-10
“To err is human; to forgive is divine.” Indeed! Our Lord and God Jesus Christ both fulfills and breaks down this dichotomy, as we follow him through many episodes in his earthly life. He was the one human being who did not err—at least, in terms of morals, which is the focus of this well-known saying. We are told by the apostle Paul that he “knew no sin,” and it is because he always kept his feet on the moral high ground that He had the leverage, the strength, to pull us up with Him! So this second Adam, this perfect Son of Man, is the one who showed what it is to be truly human by never being in sin or moral error. At the same time he demonstrated his Father’s compassionate nature, forgiving again and again throughout his life, right until the moment of the cross: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do!” Indeed, the risen Jesus comes, characteristically offering peace and forgiveness to the likes of Peter, who had sworn, in a moment of weakness, that he did not know the Lord. As Human, he exceptionally did not err; as God, he exhaled forgiveness with every breath.
Our gospel reading puts this wonder of our forgiving Lord on display:
At that time, Jesus got into a boat, crossed over and came to His own city. And behold, they brought to Him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith He said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”— He then said to the paralytic—“Rise, take up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they marveled, and they glorified God, Who had given such authority to men. (Mat. 9:1-8)
When we read this story in Matthew’s gospel, we see that the controversy between Jesus and the scribes—that is, the Pharisees who were specialists in the Law—had to do with who can forgive sins. Understandably, they were offended that a mere human being had forgiven the sins—all the sins—of another. Notice that Jesus is not forgiving the man for sins that he had committed against Jesus as a particular human being—that might be understandable, for we frequently are asked to forgive, or say to another, “I forgive you.” Or, if we don’t we should! No, Jesus, on seeing this man paralyzed, brought to him by others who trusted in the Lord to do the right thing, absolved him of all his sins, before even dealing with his physical ailment. Obviously, Jesus knew the man’s real and hidden needs, and attended to these before working on the more obvious one. But words implied something very particular about himself—he considered that it was his prerogative to forgive even the sins that the man had committed against others, as though He were the more injured party. How very bizarre, or, as the Pharisees described it, blasphemous! C. S. Lewis works through the logic, warning us that when we hear a story like this we cannot demote Jesus to the mere position of a great religious teacher:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
In the first place, then, this story tells us that Jesus is Someone special —someone against whom all sins are chiefly committed! He is divine, and as such demonstrates, to the shock of the Pharisees, that “to forgive is divine.” But Matthew suggests something more in the way that he ends this episode! Of course Jesus demonstrates that he is not simply whistling Dixie, and heals the man, suggesting that forgiveness and creation are part and parcel of his person. And then the evangelist comments: “When the crowds saw it, they marveled, and they glorified God, Who had given such authority to men.”
That is very odd, isn’t it? The CROWDS did not immediately see Jesus’ divinity, but saw this as a divine gift of authority to human beings! And the evangelist doesn’t correct them. He doesn’t say, “O, you silly crowd, you obviously didn’t get the point that Jesus is God.” No, he just lets the saying sit there, undigested, tantalizing us.
Could it be that Jesus’ actions tell us something not only about his divinity, but also about our true humanity? Could it be that forgiveness is not only his prerogative, but something given to those who, through Him, become the children, the sons of God?
It would seem so. Certainly we know that Jesus breathed upon his apostles in the upper room, and gave them power to bind and to loose. Certainly we know that Jesus gives to every one of his followers the command to forgive innumerable times. As Orthodox, we know that we start Lent with Forgiveness Vespers, in anticipation of the great time of Pascha to come: and in that rite, we offer and receive forgiveness not only from and to those whom we know well, but from and to EVERYONE in the congregation there present. It looks as though, with the coming of the God-Man Jesus, everything changed. As St. Paul puts it in his letter to the Ephesians, “he took captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men”—including the gift of forgiveness!
Of course, for the sake of honoring our leaders, and for the sake of good order, there are those in the Church to whom it is particularly given to utter words of absolution or forgiveness. But, since Jesus took on human flesh, and modelled for us what a true Human Being looks like, the office of forgiveness seems to be something given to each one of us, to the Church as a whole! After all, when someone asks forgiveness, it has already, at least potentially, been given. “Father, forgive them!” God has pardoned. And so, as in Forgiveness vespers, our role is to remind others of this, and to add our own pardon: “God forgives and I forgive.” We shine like our Father who is in Heaven, as Jesus puts it elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel.
What, then, has changed? Why, of course, God has taken on human flesh, and raised us up with Him to glory—including the glory of tenderness and forgiveness. The OT prophets remind us of the character of God, and some of them anticipate the change in His relationship with the world at the coming of the new covenant. First, consider the sulking of the Prophet Jonah, a story that may be more of a cartoon than an actual historical recollection. Remember how Jonah ran away because he did NOT want to bring God’s word to a heathen people, a pitiless people who had wreaked havoc on Israel and others? Remember the storm, and his being spit out on dry ground? After all that drama, this is what we hear:
Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth.
Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he cried, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
Then tidings reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he made proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them cry mightily to God; yea, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence which is in his hands.
Who knows, God may yet repent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we perish not?”
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God repented of the evil which he had said he would do to them; and he did not do it.
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. (Jon 3:1-4:1 RSV)
Then Jonah goes and sulks, and when the Lord asks him if he should be angry, he says, I didn’t want to go because that is what I was afraid of—you are compassionate, and might forgive, and so my prophecy that they should rightly be destroyed would not come true! The Ninevites did not know God’s nature (“Who knows?”) but gambled; Jonah knew, and was not happy about it.
Then there is the luminous prophet Jeremiah:
Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast. And it shall come to pass that as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the LORD. In those days they shall no longer say: `The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But every one shall die for his own sin; each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.
“Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, `Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar — the LORD of hosts is his name. (Jer 31:27-36 RSV)
Well, we know that under the old covenant, it was the case that if parents sinned, children also were affected—even punished. But a new time was coming, a time when God would deal directly with each person, not only through their corporate identity. For their identity would be in Christ, by means of baptism, and not in Adam, by means of mere genetics. And at that time, teaching the way of the Lord would come from within, by means of the Holy Spirit, not be imposed by the Torah from without. As sure as God is the Creator who fixes sun, stars, sea, and land, and calls even the angels by name, that sure it is that he is the NEW Creator, the One who by Incarnation, and by the Holy Spirit, is making sons and daughters for Himself. God will forgive, and will plant His Word within. Things will be different, and we will be called not only to be like the angels, but like GOD HIMSELF. God and man have been joined in the God-Man Jesus, and what God has joined, no one can put asunder!
So it is that we learn the wonder of forgiveness, though this is a divine attribute. Perhaps we need to start in small ways, forgiving those who ask us, who show true penitence. But our generous heart is meant to grow, and to blossom, and to embrace even those who “don’t deserve it” and maybe who are not even, at this time, aware of their dark deeds. That is harder—but it is what Jesus did, isn’t it? Along with the coming of the Holy Spirit among us has come God’s promise that “not a hair on our head” will be hurt, even if we are undergoing persecution! The prokeimenon before our epistle reading for this weekend recognizes that God is our protector, and we do not need to be self-protective. We can afford to be vulnerable in order to help others, in order to show them God’s deep compassion. That prokeimenon rejoiced,
Thou, O Lord, wilt preserve us and keep us from this generation. Save me, O Lord, for the Godly man hath disappeared!
God is our protector even in an ungodly era; and so, with this assurance, we can listen to the challenge of the epistle reading:
Brethren, having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, and serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. (Rom 12:6-14)
Here, each of us is said to have gifts: prophecy or preaching, service, teaching, exhortation or encouragement, liberal contribution, helping others with cheerfulness, and so on. Within the church this should show by means of our “brotherly affection:” there is to be a godly contest, so to speak, as to who can honor others the most. Our Lord’s humility is the model here! We can afford this humility since it is the Holy Spirit who protects us in our vulnerability, and because we are among other brothers and sisters who have experienced God’s mercy. We keep this generosity of spirit alive in our hope, in our patience, as we pray, and as we liberally share our lives with other believers. But then comes the real challenge: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” In other words, do not bring down a word of judgment, but forgive them, in anticipation that they will repent. God forgives and we forgive.
Of course, for reconciliation to occur, the one who is doing harm must come to himself or herself, and be repentant. But that is THAT PERSON’S job. Mine is to forgive, and to pray for them. For everything has changed. God Himself hung on a cross. God Himself descended to Hades, and brought up the dead who were in chains. God raised humanity up with Himself in the resurrection, and promises that, at the right time, we too will be glorified, as was the God-Man in his ascension. This does not mean, of course, that we are to pretend that evil is good, or be doormats in life. St. Paul made the magistrates come and get him out of jail, and did not pretend that they had not broken the Roman law in beating a Roman citizen. Early Christians, and Christians throughout history have stood against evil in various ways, and called a spade a spade. Our refusing to judge OTHERS does not mean that we should not make judgements against evil—in fact, we are called to do this! (Consider how St. Paul calls the Corinthians to do something about sexual immorality in the Church, or how Jesus challenged the people of his day to “make righteous judgments.”) But to practice a life of forgiveness does mean that we cannot allow our all-too-human desire to protect ourselves to stand in the way of allowing the glory of Christ, God-made-Man, to shine in our lives.
As St. John Cassian reminds us, blessing follows upon blessing in a life that is learning to freely forgive others:
Hence, in whatever state a person is, he sometimes finds himself making pure and intense prayers. For even from that first and lowest sort (which has to do with recalling the future judgment,) the one who is still subject to the punishment of terror and the fear of judgment is occasionally so struck with compunction that he is filled with no less joy of spirit from the richness of his supplication than the one who, examining the kindnesses of God and going over them in the purity of his heart, dissolves into unspeakable gladness and delight. For, according to the words of the Lord, the one who realizes that more has been forgiven him begins to love more.
Forgiveness, then, is the hallmark of the Christian, whether he or she has just started the journey, or been on it for a long time. We have been given the grace of forgiveness. And so, we pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” Every day. All the time. In doing so, may we shine like our Father who is in heaven, who sends his rain upon the just and the unjust, and who has sent the Son, the One who was the ultimate sacrifice, to give the gifts of the Holy Spirit to humankind.