Homily for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 21, 2006
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
(Based on Isaiah 43:18-25; Psalm 41; 2 Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12)
He said, “Your sins are forgiven” — and all gave praise to God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
During this period of Ordinary Time the church is telling us the ongoing story of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, as narrated in the Gospel of Mark.
In successive accounts there has been a growing sense among the people that this man is something extraordinary. He’s powerful, exciting, attractive. The word keeps getting around, and the crowds of people are coming out to see him are increasing. Scripture scholars tell us that Mark’s language and phrasing is almost breathless. He does . . . and then he . . . and he . . . an then. It’s like a group of teenagers talking among themselves about what happened at a rock concert: “He goes . . . and I go . . . and they go . . . and can you believe it, they . . .”
At the close of last week’s account of the cure of a leper we read that “it was impossible for Jesus to enter a town openly. He stayed in desert places; yet people kept coming at him from all sides.”
Then we come upon today’s scene and there is a dramatic turning-point. For the first time there are signs of rumbling against Jesus. Adversaries are showing up and he begins to be challenged. This is actually the first of five successive incidents in Mark when Jesus will be opposed by enemies. He has become a figure of power; the enthusiasm of these crowds is a threat to the religious leaders of the people. We are introduced for the first time to “the scribes.” They were the ‘experts’ on religious matters. It’s not just one more account of a healing. There are bigger things afoot. And we who know how it all turns out on Calvary need to place ourselves inside the developing struggle.
In order to appreciate what’s going on, we need to ask ourselves how we might have reacted if we had been standing in that crowd listening to Jesus proclaiming the word when suddenly we heard noise overhead and saw these men opening up space in the thatched roof and lowering down the paralytic. I think our response would be different than that of the people of that day.
I think that after we got over our shock at the sight overhead we would probably have felt sympathy for the poor fellow lying inert on his begging mat, and some admiration for those friends of his who are so determined to bring him into Jesus’ presence. We live in a society with an Americans with Disabilities Act.
What the people of that day saw was someone who was unclean, rejected by God. Physical deformities shouldn’t be, they disfigure God’s creation. Remember the story later on when the blind man is calling out to Jesus. The disciples ask, “Who sinned – this man or his parents? – that he was born blind?” That was the prevailing mentality, and Jesus had to contradict them directly: “No one sinned.”
This paralytic was someone to be avoided, not pitied. I tried to think of a contemporary analog and I think the best way to understand would be to imagine a homeless person coming into our congregation; someone who hadn’t bathed for months and is wearing disheveled clothing and smells disgusting. We wouldn’t want him or her anywhere near us, much less touch us.
And what does Jesus do? In the earlier accounts he cured the person’s illness. He drove out the evil spirit or healed the blind and deaf. This time he doesn’t do that.
Instead he tells the man his sins are forgiven!
This too much. This is over the top. Up till now Jesus has healed people – but to forgive their sins? That is God’s domain. Jesus is guilty of blasphemy, presuming to place himself on the level of the divine.
What’s really going on here is that Jesus is raising the ante. The stakes are going much higher.
And so we meet the scribes. Mark says they are “seated.” I never paid any attention to that detail, but the biblical scholars note that to be seated was the position of the teacher, the authority figure. You’ve seen pictures of African liturgies, where everyone is standing around. That would have been the scene at the time of this story: the crowd is standing to hear Jesus, while the scribes are seated. They are there as judges, an investigating team coming to protect the unenlightened masses against the possibility of false teaching. When they mutter among themselves about Jesus, they don’t just say – as our translation has it – “Why does this man speak that way?” The tone of the Greek is rather “Who is this fellow?” It’s disparaging. In today’s language we might say, “Who is this guy to be speaking like that?” They are the inquisition and he’s a target.
What’s going on is really that his power is growing and they can’t abide that. But they are also calculating politicians. They know that they had better not take him on publicly because if they do they will lose. So they keep their grumbling to themselves.
But Jesus won’t let them get away with playing that passive-aggressive game. He smokes them out and puts them into a corner. If you think it’s too easy to declare something that can’t be verified, I’ll show you. I’ll do that which is publicly verified. I’ll work a cure – as a proof that I can also forgive sin. He shows his power over the human heart.
Isaiah in his day had proclaimed the majesty of God. The prophecy in chapter 43 has been called the most beautiful poetry in the Old Testament. I encourage you to take some quiet time and read the whole chapter. Here are a few verses. Listen to the emphasis of God: I, I, I.
Thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob,
and formed you, O Israel:
Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name:
you are mine.
When you pass through the water, I will be with you;
in the rivers you shall not drown . . .
For I am the Lord, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom . . .
Because you are precious in my eyes and glorious,
and because I love you. . .
It is I, I the Lord;
there is no savior but me.
And the Lord tells them something very unexpected: not to remember the past. Their whole identity depends on remembering their story. Is he telling them to forget his saving deeds?
No, he’s telling them not to focus on their sins. “ You didn’t call on me . . . or honor me with sacrifices . . . you didn’t bring me sheep for holocausts . . . Instead you burdened me with your sins and wearied me with your crimes.
It is I, I, who wipe out – for my sake – your offenses;
Your sins I remember no more.
He is proclaiming a new creation. There was the first creation, in Genesis. Now that they are in exile he is going to create something totally new:
See, now I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
The sins of their past are no more. That is the new creation. And in Jesus there is yet another new creation, something unheard of before: the power of divine forgiveness has been put in the hands of an itinerant preacher.
And that same new power has come to us, in our day.
Our God can make all things new; our God does make all things new. We who have been paralyzed by sin are not “unclean!”
Sadly the story doesn’t end there. The scribes will continue their attacks on Jesus. They will bring him to his death.
And the scribes walk our stage today. There are still scribes around trying to control the action of God’s Spirit. They still claim the power to designate what is ‘clean’ and what is ‘unclean,.’ what is rightly ‘ordered’ and what is ‘disordered.’
But God’s word and God’s Spirit will not be denied. “Behold I am doing a new thing”: declaring holy what the world – and the scribes – declare ‘unclean.’
Paul tells the Corinthians that our ‘Amen’ is folded into the one great Amen of Jesus and brought before the Father. So let us not be timid, let us proclaim the new creation of the Lord with bold hearts and tongues.