The servant's forgiveness - Luke 5:17-32
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
One of the scariest experiences a student at Oxford University will ever have is to be summoned before a panel of lecturers for what is called a ‘viva’, that is an oral examination. These usually take place to enable a candidate who is a borderline case an opportunity to move up a grade. And these are very formal affairs; you have to appear in what is called sub fusc- academic gown, white bow tie, mortar board, the lot, and the Oxford dons sit in a row adorned in their doctoral robes of crimson and gold- very daunting to say the least. There is the story of a young theology student who, to be frank, was a bit of a duffer, but his father was a generous benefactor to the university and so he was summoned for the viva. Well, they kept asking him question, after question in the hope that he would get one right so he could at least scrape by with at a pass degree. But no matter what question they asked him he just kept getting them wrong. And so in one last desperate attempt, one of the lectures said: ‘Tell us, who was the first King of Israel?’ The light bulb went on in his head, his face brightened and he said, ‘Why, that was Saul’. Relieved, the examiners declared that he had passed. And just as he was about to leave through the door, the student wanting to impress them all the more turned around and said, ‘Yes, but he became a much better person when after his experience on the Road to Damascus he changed his name to Paul’.
Now in the episode in the life of Jesus that we are looking at together this morning, Jesus seems to be appearing before a board of examiners. But as is often the case with Jesus, he turns the tables so that it is the examiners who are themselves examined and are to be found wanting. So, if you have not done so already, do turn with me to Luke 5 which breathtakingly unpacks for us the Servant’s forgiveness.
Just look at verse 17, ‘One day as Jesus was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law who had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem were sitting there.’ Here is the examining body then, ‘The Pharisees and ‘teachers’ or rather ‘doctors of the law’- sitting there. The term ‘doctors of the law’ only appears twice elsewhere in the New Testament, so it must be significant that Luke mentions them here. And it is. The Pharisees were a specialised religious ‘hit squad’ made up of lay people who saw themselves as custodians of God’s law. They were self appointed snoopers who made sure that people kept not only what Moses said, but all the other traditions, rules and regulations that they had tagged on. But these doctors of the law were something else. They were the professional theologians- the top professors of the day. And they were all there- descending from the villages, the whole area of Judea and from headquarters in Jerusalem. And do you think they were there because they were desperate for some teaching from Jesus? Hardly, he was just some northern country bumpkin as far as they were concerned. He had never been to theological college or rabbi school and yet here he is teaching away as if it were the most natural thing in the world for him to do. If anything, they were going to teach him a lesson. And sadly, it has to be said, that such an attitude is never too far away from those who love their Bible and theology books. Instead of sitting under biblical teaching they prefer to stand over biblical teaching. There is many a family today who will be going home to have roast preacher for Sunday lunch. So beware.
But then at the end of verse 17 were are being set up in our expectations, ‘And the power of the Lord was present with him to heal the sick.’ Jesus is teaching, but now we are getting ready for him to do some healing, after all God’s power is present with him in a special way to carry out such a task. And it looks like that is just what we are going to get- v18, ‘Some men came carrying a paralytic on a mat tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.’
Whether he was born paralysed or became paralysed, the result was the same, a life of total dependency on other people. Someone had to feed him. Someone had to wash his face and bathe his body. He couldn’t blow his nose or go for a walk. If an insect crawled over his face he needed someone to swat it away. The only time he ran was in his dreams and so even sleep was no escape, only a painful reminder of his own tragic predicament.
So what would you have said this man needs? The answer is obvious isn’t it? In fact it is a no brainer- he needs a new body. That is what his family would have thought. When people looked at him, they didn’t see as man, but a need, a body in need of a miracle.
That is what the man’s friends thought and in addition to that they knew there was someone who had a reputation to meet that need- Jesus. By the time the four friends arrived with their arms aching from carrying their hopeful friend, the situation looked hopeless. The doorways were jammed. People were craning their necks to get a glimpse of Jesus through the windows, other strained on tip toe looking over shoulders. So what do you do? Well, you have a choice – you give up or you go on. They decided to go on. In a classic case of lateral thinking, the friends decided to go vertical- to climb to the top of the house by the outside stairs, remove the roof tiles and lower their friend with their sashes to Jesus teaching below.
That is when all expectations are dashed. For instead of Jesus issuing a miraculous command, ‘Be healed’ he offers an astonishing absolution, ‘Be forgiven’.-v20.
You can just imagine the look of disappointment on their faces can’t you? Isn’t Jesus able to see what the problem is? “Look at his legs Jesus, his arms- he can’t move. We go to the priest for the spiritual stuff; we have come to you for the physical.” Can you see what is going on here?
There were other miracle workers around at the time of Jesus you know, men like Rabbi Ben Dosa, allegedly able to heal the body. But there was no one who had the power to heal the soul. All sorts of needs could be met by all sorts of people, but there was only one who could meet our greatest need and that was Jesus.
What do you think that need is? Well, I guess the answer you give will depend upon your estimate of the human condition- are we basically good or not? ‘Ah’ you say, ‘We know what Christians think and all that dark stuff about original sin- Puritanical doom and gloom’. Well, here are some quotes from non-Christians, including some atheists: ‘“Man” wrote Thomas Hobbs is ‘the most cunning, the strongest and most dangerous animal.’ ‘Man’ wrote Rousseau, ‘seek the author of evil no longer. It is yourself.’ ‘Man is the greatest enemy of man’ wrote the atheist philosopher David Hume. And after suffering the nightmare of the holocaust Eli Wiesel could only exclaim, ‘Man is not human.’ It is the human condition which is in such a bad condition that Jesus has come to deal with- sin that needs eradicating, sin which needs forgiving. This is our greatest need; do not tell me it isn’t so. And so Jesus leapfrogs the physical to deal with the spiritual. And why? Well, because healing the body lasts only for a moment, whilst healing the soul lasts for an eternity.
You see, here Jesus is fulfilling his role as the Servant of the prophet Isaiah, the role declared by his Father at his baptism, ‘This is my Son in whom I am well pleased’ and underscored in his inauguration sermon taken from Isaiah 61, recorded in the previous chapter, he is ‘setting the captives free.’ Sure, there is going to be a physical release as we shall see in a moment, but there is an inner spiritual release first. This is all part and parcel of Jesus being the spiritual physician. How do I know that? Well because of what happens straight after this episode. In v 27 we see the calling of Levi or Matthew the tax collector, who is classed by the religious establishment as a ‘sinner’. And when Jesus is criticised because of the disreputable company he is keeping he defends himself by quoting a proverb in verse 31, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.’ And how are these sick people Jesus came to heal restored? Jesus goes on, ‘I have not come to call the ‘righteous’ but sinners to repentance.’ Jesus is in the healing business alright, but primarily the spiritual healing business. Many of us may not have limbs which are paralysed, but we do have spirits which are paralysed, unable to move an inch towards God. And if that is you, then there is only one you can come to and plead with to heal you, and that is Jesus- and you know what? He will do it.
And it is precisely at this point that the examiners pounce, v 21, ‘The Pharisees and the doctors of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’
Well, give them their due; they didn’t get their doctorates in theology for nothing! They were quite right, only God can forgive sins. For any mere man to make such a claim is blasphemy. So Jesus tackles this criticism head on because he knows what they are thinking, maybe from the indignant look on their faces, but more than likely through a supernatural reading of their hearts- v22ff.
Which is easier; to say ‘your sins are forgiven’ or ‘take up your mat and walk’? On the face of it is easier to say ‘your sins are forgiven’ isn’t it? Any one can say anything- words come easily. But how is any one to know that sins have been forgiven? What evidence is there? And so Jesus connects the two- authority over sin and authority over sickness- the latter is proof of the former. The paralytic walks away a healed man as a sign that he is a forgiven man. Do you see? If he had been such a blasphemer would God have given him the power to heal having just said such a terrible thing? Of course not. The crowds at least saw that much hence them praising God in v26 shouting ‘we have seen remarkable things today.’ But seen what? They had seen healings before, bucket loads of them back in chapter 4. But what they had not seen was the forgiveness of sin. The one thing a Jew longed for, prayed for, offered sacrifice for day in day out and yet still remained elusive-forgiveness -Jesus gave there and then. And look at the results. The physical restoration of the man was but a visible, tangible expression of his spiritual restoration. He was no longer bound, he was free. The symbol of his captivity- his mat- he picks up and then walks away.
Now will you notice the reason Jesus gave for performing the healing- verse 24, ‘So that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins….” What’s that all about? Well, here we have another veil lifted on who Jesus really is. We saw at Jesus baptism that Jesus is the promised King or Messiah of Psalm2 and the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 42- the Servant King. Here Jesus takes to himself another title found in the Old Testament, taken from that strange vision of Daniel 7 and this mysterious figure called, ‘The Son of Man.’ Now in the vision of Daniel, this figure is more than a human, he appears to fall on the divine side of reality and can be identified with God on the throne, who is described as the ‘Ancient of Days’ since he comes ‘with the clouds of heaven’- which in the OT is always associated with the appearance of God. But notice what happens in the vision. We read, that this ‘Son of Man’ ‘was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him.’ Well, you only worship God for a start. But what is important here is the statement that he has been given ‘all authority’. That is exactly what Jesus is claiming here. To the utter astonishment of the people and to the total bewilderment of the religious experts, Jesus is claiming that the one standing before them teaching, forgiving sins and healing, is the one prophesised by Daniel. He has all authority- now, he has all sovereign power, now, and in fact, really, he should be worshipped now. And to prove it, he heals the man!
But when you think about it, from another point of view, for Jesus to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ was the hardest thing to say, much harder than saying ‘Take up your mat and walk’. Let me explain why.
This so called ‘blasphemy’ of Jesus was eventually going to cost him his life at the hands of these very same religious people who took exception to his behaviour. They were the ones who were to say let’s get rid of this man. It is not that easy, is it, saying something you know is going to put your safety at risk? But Jesus did it.
Elsewhere Jesus talks about ‘giving his life’ as a ransom for our sin. So which causes Jesus less pain- providing the man with health or providing the man with heaven? You see, to heal the man’s body took a simple command; to forgive the man’s sins took wooden cross. The first was done in the house of friends; the second was done on a hill with thieves. One required a spoken word, the other a broken body. That was hard.
Now do you see what our greatest need is and what God’s priority is? We were made for a relationship with God- that is the purpose of our existence, to know him, to love him and be loved by him. Sin reverses all of that. Instead of embracing God’s kindness we feel the chilly wind of his judgement. Life never gets sorted while we are in that state. And if we were to leave this world in that condition then the most appalling fate awaits us, a condition for more serious than the paralysis this man suffered- eternal paralysis. And God is so stirred by our plight that he moves heaven and earth to spare us by sending his Son to be paralysed for us on the cross as he bears away our sin for ever.
Now imagine that just for a moment, the angels in heaven allow this man a brief visit to be with us here at St John’s this morning. That would be an astonishing thing in itself. Imagine that he comes to this lectern and begins to speak. He says, ‘I have heard a lot about you in Hull and it is a pleasure to be with you. I want to tell you that when I met Jesus for the very first time, myself and my friends hoped very much that he would take pity on me and heal me. And when he did it was the greatest experience of my life. I leapt up and ran out of that house praising God. I had 20 years of active life after that. I married, had children, a rich and full life in so many ways. But I have now been with Christ for over 2,000 of your years and I now realise that the first words Jesus spoke to me were by far the most important. If I had to choose between the two things Jesus did for me, there is no doubt now what it would be, although at the time it would have seemed like madness. I now know that terrible though my paralysis was, the forgiveness of my sin was by far the greater need. And I thank God that he sent Jesus to put first things first and do the hardest thing God could ever do- forgive a sinner like me.’
If you are Christian here this morning, let me ask: what will you be praising God for in 20,000 years time? That God cured you of neck ache once or that he saved you for all eternity? So why not start now praising him now? And if you are not yet a Christian- what do you make of this amazing person Jesus? Is he just a historical novelty to be brushed aside or is he the one who alone can make sense this business called life? If it is that, then can you really afford to ignore him? This man didn’t and really, neither can you.
Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.