Sin and Forgiveness

What was it about Jesus’ ministry that brought resistance and finally got him killed?  Well a big part of it was his preaching about sin.   So we have to ask, since sin has been around for such a very long time and has had people preaching about it for thousands of years, what was different about Jesus’ approach?  




When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. 3Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4And 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. 5When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7“Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8At 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? 9Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? 10But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” —he said to the paralytic— 11“I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” 12And 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 2:1-8 


What was it about Jesus’ ministry that brought resistance and finally got him killed?  Well a big part of it was his preaching about sin.   So we have to ask, since sin has been around for such a very long time and has had people preaching about it for thousands of years, what was different about Jesus’ approach?  


Quite a bit different from our general notion about sin, the Jewish tradition holds that there were four men, Benjamin, Amram, Jesse and Chlieab who died without having committed any sin.  For all that is right and good, they should never have died, and would not have were it not for Adam’s yielding to temptation and eating the forbidden fruit.  Were it not for sin, the idea was, we would live forever, free from pain and illness.  And the lesson to be drawn from that is, of course, that it is sin that causes pain and death.  The popular assumption in Jesus’ day was that illness, in this instance paralysis, was a consequence of sin, somebody’s sin.  The roots of this idea were deeply embedded in the Jewish community.


In our day we have adopted as the more popular understanding of sin a rather literal translation into English of the Greek word that means “missing the mark”, like a spear or an arrow.  If we hit the bulls eye with every relationship or contact with others, we would be considered sin free. Our culture has pretty well written off sin as unimportant.  It just isn’t such a big deal because we know that we have a whole quiver full of arrows and many more opportunities to do better the next time.  That was not so for the Jews of Jesus’ day.  Sin for them wasn’t simply missing the mark.  Sin was a willful disregard of a positive command or a willful infraction of a negative command of God as proclaimed by Moses and interpreted by the Rabbis.  Sin came in three denominations; sins against God, sins against Society or sins against another person.  Sins against another destroys personal and family relationships; sins against the community disrupts the social fabric; sins against God can destroy a nation.  Sins defile the body and corrupt the mind.   They are a perversion and distortion of the very principles of creation.  Sin creates disorder and confusion in society and brings mischief, misery and trouble for the community.  Sin causes pain and death.


The list of sins in the confession of Yom Kippur gives us a better understanding of the rabbinical concept of sin: trespass, treachery, slander, presumptuousness, violence, lying, scoffing, rebellion oppression, extreme wickedness, corruption and blasphemy.  The theory is that sins can be expiated by sacrifice, repentance at death or Yom Kippur or in the case of lighter transgressions, by repentance at any time.   Repetition of the same sin can be forgiven once, twice, or even three times – but not four.  If you persist in the same behavior you will not be forgiven.  Amos 2:1 speaks to that clearly.  “For three transgressions of Moab I will forgive, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof.”  In the Old Testament small sins are generally overlooked in so far as  punishment is concerned.  Atonement for sins between a man and his neighbor is an ample apology.   Did you know that not pleading for mercy for a neighbor was a sin?


As a warning against searching to uncover other people’s sins there is a beautiful word picture in Zephaniah (1.12) were we read “I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men.” That was interpreted to mean that God searches for the sins of people not by day-light, nor with a torch, (or in our case a flash light) but rather with candles, so as not to detect the small sins.  I guess it’s a reminder that we can spend too much time focusing on sin.  Early Quakers felt that there was too much preaching up sin rather than celebrating the good news. 



So who would be the recipient of the punishment?  The responsibility for sins against Judaism rests forever on the individual.  Listen to this: “Whosoever is in a position to prevent sins being committed by the members of his household, but refrains from doing so, becomes liable for them.”  The same goes for the governor of a town or even of a whole country.  The greatest responsibility falls to the High Priest. Next it falls to the representatives of all Israel and then the ruler of a faction of the Jews.  A special sacrifice was required for people holding these positions of public authority commensurate with the office they held. 


A lot of people who were packed into the entry to that house were surprised that day in Capernaum; the curious spectators, the friends of the paralytic and the scribes. But as they watched and listened their surprise turned to sense of observing an impropriety and then to an unshakable feeling that they had just witnessed blasphemy.  What level of responsibility did these practitioners of the religious law who had gathered in that home have for what they considered blasphemy? 


A world free of sin is – well it is creation as God intended.  It is human relationships of equity and justice.  How is such an ideal restored?  How do things get set right, how does reconciliation occur?  The answer, of course, is forgiveness.


Our English word ‘forgive’ is rooted in ancient German and Latin represented by a word that looks a lot like our word pardon. It meant to give completely without reservation. I found it humorous that the word is descriptive of what a bride’s father does in giving away his daughter in marriage.  The Greek word we translate ‘forgive’, interesting enough, can be used to mean divorce, or to let go or send away. But for those listening to Jesus that day, their word for ‘forgive’ was rooted in a tradition that goes back to Abimelech giving Abraham a thousand pieces of gold – as a covering – the idea being that the owner of an animal that is killed would be pacified by covering the corpse with wheat or gold until it could not be seen.   When Jesus declared the paralytic forgiven he was saying something like “God is no longer able to see your sins”.


That is what Jesus said to the paralytic that so unnerved them! What Jesus said didn’t sound like good news, at least to them!  In the mouth of Jesus, God’s forgiveness is so unconditional that it precedes repentance.  Jesus implies that God stepped across the sacred boundary toward humanity, toward sinners.  One persons characterized it as if salvation and penance seem to have exchanged places.  Forgiveness now becomes the condition of repentance, rather than the other way around.  It is through the offer of and our acceptance of forgiveness that we are able to repent of sins to which we have previously been blind and deaf?


Imagine, pardon without first repentance.  Imagine, pardon for sin without a payment required, without a sacred rite performed.  Imagine, forgiveness from God without a sacrifice required.  That is what Jesus announced and that is what the religious leaders found blasphemous then and many find unsettling today.  The religious authorities controlled repentance and penance, their livelihood depended on it.   They were the ones who promised forgiveness from God – if and when they performed the prescribed religious ritual.  Jesus freed us from the tyranny of organized religion.  He freed us from the prescriptions of a rule book.  Grace is what it is all about.  No question in our story: no penance here, no repentance required – Jesus simply announces the man was absolved, pardoned, forgiven. He was free to go. 


The story here isn’t about the faithful friends of the paralytic who creatively found a way to put their concern before Jesus; it wasn’t about the crowd who welcomed Jesus back to Capernaum; it isn’t even about the man restored to health.  Mark wants us to know that any of us, any Son of Man, has the authority and even the obligation to forgive the sins of another. The Apostle Paul, in II Corinthians 2, says that for the person who has caused grief in the community we ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.  We are called to reaffirm our love for him.  He went on to say that “If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him.  And what I have forgiven – if there was anything to forgive – I have forgiven in the sight of Christ for your sake, in order that Satan might not outwit us.” What an awesome power it is that has been put into your hands.  And if what we’ve learned means anything it tells us that sometimes it requires forgiveness to enable the one forgiven to open their eyes and ears of to know the depths and damage of what they have wrought.  In Unprogrammed Meeting this morning my mind was turned to an experience I had as a recently married graduate student.  I felt sinned against by people in my home Meeting.  I realized I’d let that hang around in my life for over forty years.  The people who where involved are long dead and gone – but I discovered that I was holding that sin against them – and needed to let it go. 


Maybe it would be helpful if we could, for a moment, identify with the man who was paralyzed.  Here was a man who was literally let down by his friends.  He was stuck, stagnant, unable to move.  What was keeping him that way?  What would it take for you to know, for you to experience, the freeing and forgiving Christ who calls you like he called the man on the stretcher, ‘My son…’? Are you content to stay on your mat, resolutely refusing the offer of forgiveness?   What does it take for us to pick up our mat and become a witness to the world to the power and authority of the Son of Man to forgive sins and restore us to life?





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