[January 24, 2010] In the Gospel according to Mark we have Peter’s narration of the story of Jesus at the time when the church had spread far and wide and the church was under severe trial, the trial of persecution. The Roman Emperor Nero made Christianity a crime and many Christians suffered death at the hands of the state. When Mark edited this telling of the story of Jesus only a few years later, Peter himself had been executed and now Jerusalem, the beloved city of God, was under siege by the Romans and, if Jesus was correct, the Temple itself was about to be destroyed. It was a fearful and confusing time for the church. In this gospel we remember Jesus who was faithful to God in the midst of opposition, even unto death, and calls us to follow in His steps.
His faithfulness is that quality in humanity that God had always looked for and never found—until Jesus, the One about whom God declared, “You are My Son, the Beloved; in You I have found My delight” (Mark 1:11). He gives to God the faithfulness that would save the sinful. When we believe into Him, it is His faithfulness to God that saves us.
When we believe into Him, His faithful death becomes our death and His life becomes our life. When we believe into Him, He enters into us, so that our own life takes on the quality of faithfulness, the faithfulness of the Son of God who was faithful to God on our behalf and for our sake. What saves us is not our fulfillment of Halakha, the regulations of the Torah, but the faithfulness of Jesus to God. Listen to what the apostle Paul said to Peter: “We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; and knowing that a man is not justified by works of Halakha, but through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, we also have believed into Christ Jesus that we might be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by works of Halakha, because by works of Halakha no flesh will be justified … I am crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live in faithfulness, the faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Galatians 2:15-16, 20).
This human faithfulness of Jesus is the form that God takes when God comes to be among us, face to face with us, as our Judge and Savior (Mark 1:3, 15). Jesus lives out this faithfulness by His service to others, the service of teaching, healing, casting out demons and calling disciples. Mark 1:16—3:19 gives us a picture of this.
Jesus Release a Man from the Sins that Paralyze Him (Mark 2:1-12)
Let us consider the story of the healing of the paralytic. In chapter 1 Jesus established a home base in Capernaum where, once He cast the demon out of the synagogue, He was free to work. He then left Capernaum and went on a preaching tour of the towns in Galilee (1:38-39). During this tour Jesus healed a leper and had the leper show himself to a priest for a testimony. At one time leprosy (Hansen’s disease) was incurable and in the Old Testament it represented the uncleanness and deformity of the condition of all human beings because of their sinfulness. It was thought that God alone could heal a leper. Jesus’ healing of the leper was testimony to who He was, a testimony that is carried forward in the story of the paralytic, for it is true that only God can forgive sins.
Now Jesus returns to Capernaum and is in His home, probably one of the apartments that shared the same courtyard with Peter and his mother-in-law, across the street from the synagogue. People come to hear His teaching, for He spoke to them “the Word.” The healed leper spreads the Word about Jesus abroad in 1:45, and in 2:2; 4:33; and 8:32 Jesus “speaks the Word.” Mark uses the term Word to refer to the summary of Jesus’ message given in 1:15—“the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent and believe in the Gospel.” The time foretold by the prophets has come and the kingdom of God has drawn near in His own Person. When He announces His coming death and resurrection in 8:31-32, this too is the Word for it is the form that His coming takes.
So many people gather to hear Jesus that there is no room even at the door. Mark gives us the impression (see 1:45; 2:2 and 3:31) that the crowd prevents people from coming to Jesus. The popularity of Jesus can be a problem. It can hinder our coming to Jesus. For the crowds that flock to Jesus do not necessarily believe. They do not really know who He is. And the impression they give of Jesus can often be a stumbling block to anyone who wants to get close to Jesus and know who He is. How many different versions of Jesus do we hear about? These are the impressions of the crowd. This is a problem for anyone who wants to come to Jesus. It is not easy to cut through the crowd. It is going to take some work.
The paralyzed man in the story has another problem. He is paralyzed and cannot get to Jesus on his own two feet. Like the leper, his condition is a picture of us all. Sins are not just a problem because we commit them. According to Jesus, sins also enslave us. Sins cause us to lose our freedom, our power to act on our own. They also blind us. So in our primal relationship to God, we have become paralyzed because our will is enslaved to a foreign master and we are blinded to any other choice but to continue where we are. Sin is not primarily a deed. It is a rupture in our relationship to God, a condition in which we shut out God. Even “good” deeds can be sinful because they come from this place. When we turn away from God we get caught in a web, a matrix, a system, from which we cannot extricate ourselves. What traps us in sin is the mental world that we share with others, a world that functions as a gestalt but that attempts to insulate itself from the reality of God. The world—as such—however, has no reality of its own. It is fabricated by our belief in it, and therefore it is only upheld by the power that we give it. But while this is true, it nevertheless holds us captive so that we cannot free ourselves from its power. This is the nature of sin. It makes paralytics of us all.
The reason this paralytic is able to come to Jesus at all is because of his four companions who bear him up and carry him to Jesus and work hard to get around the crowd. They are not able to cut through the crowd but they find another way. They simply go over the crowd and dig a hole in the roof. We may discover that our friends are paralyzed when it comes to God. No movement seems to be possible. They either cannot fathom what we are talking about, or it all seems ridiculous, or they cannot understand why it should matter to them at all. When we talk to them we cannot cut through the crowd, the piles of popular opinions that our friends have accumulated about Jesus. How can we bring them to Jesus? In the story the four companions carry their friend directly to Jesus, lowering him right in front of Jesus, by-passing the crowd entirely.
This, it seems to me, is a picture of prayer. Our prayer is a way to bear our friends directly to Jesus, to lay them at His feet. If we care about our paralyzed friends, this is what we will do. We will struggle in prayer for them. Struggle, I say, for earnest prayer is not easy. We need to “dig through the roof” and bear the weight of our friends. To pray is to bear their weight, the weight of their suffering and their sin on our heart, and to “dig through” to Jesus.
Jesus sees their faith, not the faith of the paralyzed man, and says to the paralyzed man, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” That is all. That is the power, the power of forgiveness, that un-paralyzes the man. This does not mean that everyone who suffers paralysis does so because of their personal sins. It only means that in this particular case that is so. Paralysis can sometimes be caused entirely by the mind. Years ago Sigmund Freud discovered that often paralysis could be cured by uncovering the mental cause of it. We do not know what caused this man’s paralysis, but we do know that when Jesus told Him that his sins were forgiven it was enough to cure him of his disease. In other words, his sins in some way caused his paralysis.
Jesus is not saying that He forgives the man as if the man had sinned against Jesus as one man sins against another. If you insult me it is within my power to forgive you. But if you insult someone else it is up to that person to forgive you. If a person has sinned against God, it is not within our power to forgive them. We can only forgive what they do to us. When we forgive them, we release them from the debt that they owe us. Only God can forgive someone who sins against God. People also have the idea sometimes that God automatically forgives everyone, as if our sin made no difference to God, as if it were irrelevant. To say God willy-nilly forgives everyone is tantamount to saying that God does not love us, that God does not care about the condition we are in, that it is irrelevant to God how unhappy and miserable we all are, and that all the terrible things we do to each other and the earth make no difference to God. The scribes were right that no one can forgive sins—our sins against God—except One, He who alone is God.
In the Bible, God’s forgiveness is dependent upon our repentance. That is a problem if we are inwardly paralyzed and therefore cannot repent. We need to appreciate this fact in order to take on the significance of Jesus’ words, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” For by these words Jesus releases this man from his sins so that he can repent, and by receiving these words the paralyzed man does repent, he does offer to God repentance that is acceptable to God. This is the power of the Gospel. For the repentance that the man now is free to give and does give because he is free is only acceptable because of the One who raises him up. It is really only the faithfulness of Jesus that enables and empowers our own repentance.
The scribes are offended by what Jesus says because they give what He says its true weight. That is what we do not do because of our familiarity with Christianity (the crowd that surrounds Jesus). Only God has this kind of power. They do not recognize who Jesus is. Jesus asks them, “Which is easier?” for it is easy when the authority is there. “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and take up your mat and walk’?” If Jesus can truly say, “Your sins are forgiven,” if He can say it with the authority of God, then the healing is no longer an issue. The authority for the healing is there.
If we follow this, then we realize too that when Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven,” He is granting this man repentance from his sins (see Acts 11:18). Freeing the man from his paralysis is a picture of this. We have repentance in relationship to Jesus, a relationship that is established by His personal call, His word to us. In this case that word is the pronouncement, “Your sins are forgiven.” It is the fact that Jesus says these words to him that effects this.
Let us consider the next story in order to look at this same fact another way.
Jesus Calls a Sinful Man (2:13-14)
This story is identical to the calling of the fishermen—Jesus is even walking beside the sea—except that the man whom He calls is a notorious sinner. The fishermen were common men, business owners who “fitted in” even if their nighttime occupation made some people look askance at them. They were not “sinners.” The paralyzed man’s sins were known to himself alone. But Levi, the son of Alpheus was a man whom people despised, a tax collector. He made himself un-kosher by working directly with the Romans and handling their idolatrous money. But tax collectors had a reputation for making themselves rich off the money they collected. The Romans did not stipulate how much to charge, only how much they needed to collect. Whatever the tax collector could charge over and above the toll he could keep for himself. They made themselves rich at the expense of their countrymen. People despised Levi for this more than for the fact that he was a non-practicing Jew.
We are not all despised by others but we are all sinners, no less than Levi. In Luke Peter falls at Jesus’ feet and says, “Depart from me for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). In the sight of other people we may fool ourselves into thinking we are better. This is the danger of religion. But in the sight of God we all are in the same condition. Levi, no less than the paralyzed man, is a picture of us all.
Jesus calls Him and he at once follows Jesus just like Peter, Andrew, James and John. Levi becomes a disciple with the same abruptness that they did. He became free from what occupied him and turned to Jesus as the only object of his heart no less than they.
No one burdened with the weight of their sins, whether their sins are known only to them, or they are despised by the whole world, no one buried under their guilt, is too low for Jesus. He knows you and He knows the burden that you bear. He knows how much you suffer under that guilt, and He nevertheless calls you by name and says, “Your sins are forgiven; you are Mine.”
At times we can feel hopeless and utterly forsaken. But Jesus does not forsake us. We need only listen and hear Him call our name. When Levi rose and followed Jesus he was freed from his paralysis, the prison in which he had locked himself, no less than the man who was borne by his friends to Jesus. The only difference is that Levi was in a place to hear Jesus himself. And if you are reading this, you are in that place. Jesus says to you, “Follow me.”
Jesus Sits at Table with Sinners (2:15-17)
The next words we read tell us that Jesus and his disciples are sitting at table in Levi’s house and many tax collectors and “sinners” are at table with them. Luke tells us that Levi made a feast for Jesus, to celebrate the new relationship that he found himself in. By Jesus’ calling him he had become a disciple of Jesus. His relationship to Jesus changed everything.
Presumably the many others—the other tax collectors and sinners—came because Levi invited them. They were his friends. If that is the case, then the following words are wonderful. “And they were following Him.” For it means that as Jesus sat at table with them, they too heard His call and just like Levi began to follow Him, not later but then and there. To follow Jesus is to become distinguished from the crowd by entering into a person-to-person, face-to-face, relationship with Jesus. They have not yet done anything, but they are following Him because His friendship with them has already liberated them from the burden of their identities, from their enslavement to the world, from their sin.
This also means that the table, the table in the home where fellowship takes place, is as much a setting for the Gospel to come forth as the synagogue, the seaside, or the workplace. We know from the Gospel according to Luke that it is the normal place for the Gospel to come forth; it is the normal place for the church’s mission. The point here is that the table is a place for that face-to-face encounter with Jesus. When we sit at table with our friends, when we sit face-to-face, there is an opportunity for them to hear the call of Jesus through us. Our personal relationship to others is the medium for the Gospel. The impersonal is not.
Levi is a model for us. We ought to present Jesus to our friends at our table, or at theirs. This is how people come to Jesus.
The scribes of course are shocked by the freedom with which Jesus moves. Jesus associates with sinners and by that association frees them from their sin. To be a “sinner” does not necessarily mean that one is involved in something terribly disreputable, such as politics or prostitution or collecting taxes, though it might. To be a sinner in this context means that one is either a Gentile or a non-practicing or non-religious Jew. Nevertheless, the offence is the same. We either feel that we are too good for the Gospel—we want to clean Jesus up so that He can look more socially acceptable—or we are unworthy. We are sinful and dare not approach the sinless One. Jesus, however, approaches us. There is no difference between the “righteous” and the “sinners” except that the “sinners” know they are sinful and the “righteous” do not. We can only really hear the Gospel when we give up our pretensions. We are all ill and need this physician. When Jesus—who is our Judge—starts to make us uncomfortable, we need to surrender to this discomfort and be the sinners that we are. When we are there, only when we are there, can we hear His voice which speaks directly to us—“Follow Me.”
The Opposition Building (2:6-7, 16)
In the story of the healing of the leper, the priests receive the testimony of the man’s healing. But in the story of the healing of the paralytic, the scribes accuse Jesus of blaspheming. Now the scribes of the Pharisees are offended because Jesus eats with sinners and tax collectors. Next people will wonder why He and His disciples do not fast, why they even pick ears of grain on the Sabbath, and why Jesus heals on the Sabbath. This questioning and accusing build until in 3:6 the Pharisees and Herodians counsel together “against Him as to how they might destroy Him.” Jesus is serving humanity faithfully with the Gospel of God (1:14), and crowds flock to Him so that He can barely function, but as this happens, those who do not understand or who might envy Him begin to oppose Him and begin moving toward violence. This is also what was happening to the church in the days when the Gospel according to Mark was published.
What the gospel is teaching us is that we are to act in the face of this as Jesus did. The gospel shows us how Jesus was faithful—always faithful to God and faithful to the work that God gave Him to do—in the midst of this. He is our pattern. Let us follow Him.