The Paralysis of Sin
By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal
Some people came, bringing to [Jesus] a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven." Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, "Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, "Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins "— he said to the paralytic — "I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home." And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!" (Mark 2:2-12 NRSV)
Why did Jesus discern that the paralytic needed forgiveness rather than just a physical healing? The man was sick. The man was paralyzed. The man could not walk. The man was so ill that four of his friends had to carry him to see Jesus; and, because the crowds were so thick, they had to make a hole in the roof and lower him down. What was it about this man that caused Jesus to forgive him? I want to offer two observations: firstly, our sins can paralyze us. And, secondly, true divine healing involves the repairing of not only our broken bodies, but also our broken relationships with each other and with God. Indeed, I can make a good argument that it’s the healing of broken relationships that’s the most important aspect of being healed, for without our being restored to God and to neighbor, physical curing is nearly meaningless.
Sin affects so much in our lives that it can be difficult to focus on any single aspect, but this passage makes it clear that sin destroys our desire and ability to have a meaningful relationship with the Creator. Apart from God’s grace, we can do nothing; we cannot save ourselves, nor can we even want to be saved unless God is calling us. Indeed, so dead are we in our sins that it sometimes takes the faith of others – praying for us, carrying us, lifting us and moving us forward toward God – to break through our paralysis and overcome the sin-induced immobility of our souls.
At one point or another we have all been paralyzed by our sins. Indeed, I have been so angry, so eaten up by the pain of betrayal, that I have refused to forgive. I once had an old friend, a fellow minister and a long-time confidant, who had wronged me; he had broken a critical confidence and, in so-doing, he had ruined a long-standing relationship which had meant a great deal to me. I was so angry with him, so hurt and so disappointed, that I refused to even consider forgiving him. I rationalized my refusal by saying: “If I forgive, he’ll do it to me again.” And, “I don’t want to forgive, for if I do it will be as if I’m saying it was ok … but it wasn’t okay!”
I knew that Jesus was calling me to forgive. I knew that I, too, was a sinner and was in desperate need of God’s forgiveness. But, rather than forgiving and being forgiven, I was holding onto my pain, my anger, and my sense of violation … and, as a result, my ministry was being paralyzed. I didn’t realize it for a very long time, but my situation was desperate. The damage that was being done finally became evident when I began to notice that, during this period, I had not once preached or taught on our Christian duty to forgive. When the lectionary appointed such scriptures, I artfully managed to avoid the topic, or so super-spiritualized the passages that the duty to forgive never reached the surface. I simply could not preach something that I, myself, was refusing to practice. I was paralyzed in my sin, and my ministry was paralyzed too. With horror, I realized that until I forgave, and until I accepted the forgiveness which Jesus had for me, I would be forever immobilized by my sin.
About the time I came to this realization several good friends coordinated – no, they plotted – to bring the two of us together so that we could express contrition and forgiveness to each other. Their faith in us – their faith in the grace of Jesus, which could overcome our estrangement – was powerful and played a major role in our eventually voicing words of forgiveness. With those words – with his cry for forgiveness, and with my releasing of his sin – the paralysis which had been destroying my Christian witness crumbled to dust.
“Who can forgive sins but God alone!” True, only Jesus can forgive; he paid the price for our sins by dying on the cross and, as a result, forgiveness is his alone to give. The good news is that Jesus has given us the duty, the responsibility, and the authority to forgive sins in his name. Yes, we have the authority, the power, and the responsibility to forgive. By God’s grace, it is within our ability to overcome the paralysis of sin, the paralysis of illness, the paralysis of alienation from God – the paralysis that destroys relationships, families, our communities, and our world.
The question the Scriptures place before us as we move toward Lent is a simple one: will we stubbornly refuse to forgive? Or, will we reach out, with hands of faith and hearts of compassion, and carry our fellow sinners to Jesus? Will we hang onto our paralysis a little longer? Will we hang onto the sins of others, bitterly refusing to release them to Jesus, bitterly refusing to forgive? Or, will we accept the calling to rise, take our mat, and go home?
© 2009 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved
As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.