Jesus doesn’t mind offending people. Each one of the gospel writers includes a first incident where he begins to tick off some of the people who have liked him up to that point. In every case, it comes fairly early in his ministry. In Luke, this happens when he preaches at his hometown of Nazareth, explaining that the Gentiles will accept him before his fellow villagers will (4:16–30). In John, people get angry at Jesus when he brandishes a whip in the temple courtyard and drives out a group of merchants and money-changers (2:13–22). However, in Matthew and Mark, the pivotal incident takes place inside a little house in the Galilean village of Capernaum.
Up till now, Jesus has been doing all the right things. He’s been teaching with a unique authority; he’s cast out demons; he’s healed people who are sick. These are great credentials for a Messiah figure. Now, however, Jesus is going to make the religious leaders of the day really uncomfortable really fast. He’s going to begin claiming authority for himself that doesn’t fit into their ideas of what the Messiah ought to be like.
The day begins innocently enough, with Jesus returning to Capernaum and stays at a nice, spacious house. Someone rats him out, and before long the crowd descends on him, filling up the house to the point where no one can get in anymore. Then, four men arrive, carrying their paralyzed friend on a cot; they believe Jesus can heal their friend. Since they can’t get in through the door, they take the stairs up top and proceed to “de-roof” the roof. No doubt this created quite the scene inside the house; amid all the dust and chaos and falling chunks of roof, a paralyzed man descends on a cot, lowered by ropes.
Jesus is impressed. These men (and presumably their paralyzed friend) have a lot of faith that Jesus can help them. They trust Jesus so much that they are willing to try something totally crazy in order to get to him. Jesus really likes people with creative, daring, and disruptive faith. So he announces to the man, “My son, your sins are forgiven.”
In the words of Keanu Reeves: Whoa.
I’m sure that’s pretty much the last thing that anyone standing there expected to hear. It’s not obvious why Jesus says this; did the man’s sins contribute to his paralysis? In any case, the first priority to Jesus is that this man be made right with God. What really ticks off the religious teachers standing nearby is that Jesus thinks he has the authority to pronounce God’s forgiveness. “He is blaspheming!” they think. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And they’re right about that second part. In every sin, God is ultimately the offended party; every sin is an act of insurrection against him. He is the King, so he makes the laws; when we break those laws, we reject him as King. And here we have Jesus thinking that he gets to forgive those sins. No mere man can do that—not even a man as great as the Messiah!
I love Jesus’ response. He doesn’t back down. Instead, he turns on his X-ray vision and reads their minds. Yeah, he can do that. Then, he poses a bit of a riddle for them. “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?” What a clever set-up! On the one hand, it’s easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” because it’s not something that can be tested; if you say, “Rise, take up your bed and walk,” people are going to figure out pretty fast whether you have that sort of authority or not. On the other hand, fixing a paralyzed man’s legs is small beans compared to forgiving his immense, grave sins against a colossal, holy God.
So Jesus plays the trump card and does both! He heals the paralyzed man, telling the religious teachers that he’s doing it “that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” This is the first time in Mark that Jesus identifies himself as the Son of Man—a veiled reference to the messianic figure of Daniel 7:13–14. The Son of Man has been granted authority by God to set up an eternal, universal, indestructible kingdom. And now, Jesus just proved that you can’t underestimate the authority of the Son of Man. He can do things that only God can do. So it’s only natural that the people in the crowd “were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We never saw anything like this!’” No, I’ll bet you haven’t. It’s not every day that the King of all the universe shows up in your town.
We don’t know yet how the religious teachers are going to respond to this smack down. But one thing is clear—Jesus isn’t afraid to claim immense authority for himself. He isn’t afraid to wield that authority by forgiving people who trust him. He isn’t afraid to humble anyone who challenges him. He isn’t afraid to flex his muscles. And this won’t be the last time he does.