Mark 2:1-12

The Kingdom Challenges The Scribal Culture – The Debt Code

With this incident Mark continued the series of confrontations between Jesus and the respected institutions of Israel. His encounter this time was with a group of scribes, the “administrators” of the “honour” code in its application to the God-Israel relationship, particularly as it was spelled out in the requirements of the Torah, the “Law”, and by extension, for the Pharisees at least, of the traditions of the elders. Infringements of the God/Israel relationship brought him into the realm of sin, and issues of guilt/debt and forgiveness.

Mark 2:1-12 –Jesus Forgives Sin: the Paralytic

1 After a few days Jesus came again to Capharnaum,
and word got around that he was at home.
2 A lot of people gathered around so that there was no space,
not even around the doorway.  
He was preaching the word to them. 
3 Some people came bringing a paralytic to him
carried by four of them.
4 They could not present him to Jesus
because of the crowd;
so they stripped the roof where he was,
and digging a hole through it,
they lowered the stretcher on which the paralytic lay.
5 Jesus saw their faith,
and he said to the paralytic, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” 
6 There were some scribes sitting there,
debating in their hearts, 
7 “Why is this man speaking like this?
He is blaspheming.  
Who can forgive sins except God alone?”
8 Jesus knew immediately in his spirit
that they were thinking this way to themselves.  
He said to them,  
“What are these things you are thinking about in your hearts?
9 Which is easier?
to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’?
or to say, ‘Stand up, pick up your stretcher and walk?’
10 But so that you might know
that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins …” -
he said to the paralytic,
11 “I tell you, stand up,
pick up your stretcher, and go to your home.”
12 He stood up, immediately, picked up his stretcher,
and walked out in plain view of everyone.  
They were all beside themselves
and praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this.” 

The incident not surprisingly happened in the town. Jesus’ return from his encounter with the leper and his time away from population centres did not go unnoticed. Mark said he was at home, the new base he had established in Capernaum. He was popular with the crowds, who congregated outside the door. Capernaum streets were quite narrow, so the crowd need not have been big. Consistently Mark was not interested in giving the details of Jesus’ conversation. For him the actions of Jesus gave much clearer teaching than words.

The men bringing the paralytic to Jesus would have literally dug through the mud brick roof of the house. Their determination to help their friend was certainly striking, as was their faith in Jesus.

Amazingly, Jesus did not heal the man but simply stated that his sins were forgiven. This claim was not altogether new. John the Baptist had proclaimed forgiveness of sin as the motivation for repentance and presumably a consequence of it.  Jesus began his mission around Galilee by claiming that the Kingdom of God was near at hand. In the mind of Jesus this was a renewed offer associated in the tradition with the idea of Jubilee. (The year of Jubilee was the occasion for a universal release from debts of all kinds, including debts owing to God through failure to observe the requirements of the covenant. It involved the forgiveness of sin by God.) Seen in this light, Jesus’ claim that the man’s sins were forgiven was simply an explicitation of the consequences of the coming of God’s Kingdom and of a universal and on-going Jubilee. God would release everyone from sin.

It is clear from the story, however, that the statement was seen to involve more than that. The scribes challenged Jesus not on the basis of his claim of the coming of the Kingdom, but more precisely on his personal and direct entry into the area of forgiveness.

Mark gave no background to the story. Was the man’s paralysis due, in the mind of Jesus, to the man’s sinfulness (as it probably was in the mind of everyone else)? Or was his sinfulness an entirely unconnected detail? And, if so, how would Jesus have been aware of it? A further question, not dissimilar to the cleansing of the leper: Did Jesus himself forgive the man’s sins, or did he simply declare that they were already forgiven by God? 

According to Mark, Jesus saw a connection between the faith of the four friends and the man’s forgiveness (seeing their faith), but he did not explain what the connection could be. Mark did not stipulate who or what the men had faith in. No doubt it was faith either in Jesus or more generally in God, but what could that have meant? At this stage of the proceedings, they were not anticipating that Jesus would forgive the man’s sins. Was it faith, then, simply that things could be different, better, and that somehow Jesus would be the key to the difference?

What Does Forgiveness Involve?

Relational. When sin is seen as a break in a person’s relationship with God, forgiveness means an offer by God of reconciliation. The one offended is the one who forgives. God was shown in the Hebrew Scriptures sufficiently clearly, even if not consistently and unmistakably, as always ready to forgive.  God’s love was frequently and often beautifully said to be unconditional. Reconciliation happens when the sinner accepts the offer of forgiveness. The variable is always and only the human person. The return to God, the break with and sorrow for sin, were part of Jesus’ call to conversion, and were in themselves gifts of the calling God, even if they seemed to come from the unaided initiative of the sinner. 

Structural. The word “to forgive” used by Jesus, however, literally means to remove, to take away or to eliminate. In that sense, what is more in question is the removal of the power of sin over the offender. 

Since sin takes shape in whatever is essentially destructive of human dignity and relationships, the removal of sin from individuals and society would involve the reconstruction of human relationships in terms of mutual acceptance, respect and justice, as well as liberation from whatever exploits or oppresses human dignity or undermines mutual interactions.

The power of sin can arise from a host of possible causes: personal obsession from within, or the external influence of a dysfunctional milieu, etc.. 

For the man in question, sin may well have been felt as a loss of hope occasioned by the paralysing environment of the social and religious world in which he lived. The faith of the friends could then well be quite relevant to his rehabilitation. Their confidence in Jesus could have been contagious. Their support could have encouraged him to open to the hope embodied in Jesus and to experience liberation from the paralysing grip of sin.

Yet the purpose of Mark in recounting the incident at this point in his narrative was not simply to expose the reader to the issues of sin and its removal. He was more interested in highlighting the reaction of the scribes. The scribes, as the experts in the Law, the Jewish way of life, determined and defined what was sin and what was not, as well as how sin was to be removed. They were the ones to decide what God forgave and how. In speaking as he did, Jesus had invaded their area of expertise.

They voiced their objection in theological terms, but basically their problem was one of offended honour, not God’s but theirs.

Jesus read their mood, and directly confronted them. Which was more easily healed: physical or moral paralysis, sickness or sin? Both interventions were expressions of the coming of the Kingdom of God, and Jesus was its herald, its exemplar, and its agent. God was moving in the world, and the old ways were being radically challenged.

At this stage in his narrative Mark introduced Jesus as the Son of Man (or the Human One), a title that would be repeated frequently and further nuanced as the story unfolded. As Mark presented Jesus, Jesus’ own preferred way of referring to himself was not as Messiah, or Christ, but precisely as Son of Man.

The Son of Man

The title took its origin from the Book of Daniel, a book written less than two centuries earlier. The Book of Daniel appeared at a time when the Jewish nation was being persecuted by Antiochus Epiphanes, a Hellenistic successor of Alexander the Great, who put the Jewish population under intense pressure to abandon their own religious practices and to adopt pagan ways. Those who resisted were eliminated.

As a nation the Jews had come to terms with their earlier deportation to Babylon (four centuries before Antiochus). They had seen their humiliation as a merited punishment for the infidelity of their kings and of themselves. However, under Antiochus, it was the faithful Jews who were persecuted. This strongly challenged their sense of God as protector of the just and defender of the innocent.

The author of the Book of Daniel aimed to address precisely this problem. Unable to express himself clearly and unambiguously, he used a form of writing that subsequently became quite popular - a literary form that scholars term “apocalyptic” (and that has been encountered earlier in Mark’s narrative [1:10-11]).

The Son of Man sequence was introduced in chapter 7 of Daniel: (In the NRSV version, the term “son of Man” is translated as “one like a human being”)

As I watched, thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne... (Daniel 7:9)
... The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened... (Daniel 7:10)
As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being (Son of Man)
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
As for me, Daniel, my spirit was troubled within me,
and the visions of my head terrified me.
I approached one of the attendants
to ask him the truth concerning all this.
So he said that he would disclose to me
the interpretation of the matter: .... (Daniel 7:13-16)
... the holy ones of the Most High shall receive the Kingdom
and possess the Kingdom forever—forever and ever.”... (Daniel 7:18)
The kingship and dominion and the greatness
of the Kingdoms under the whole heaven
shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High;
their Kingdom shall be an everlasting Kingdom,
and all dominions shall serve and obey them. (Daniel 7:27)

In the Book of Daniel, the image of the Son of Man (the one like a human being) was a composite image. Initially, it spoke of an individual person. Then later in the vision this mysterious individual became identified as the faithful Jewish nation (the holy ones of the Most High).

The essential meaning of the passage was that God would indeed vindicate the just, and that their fidelity would be precisely the criterion by which the world would be judged. It will be obvious in his later uses of the title that Jesus saw it as applying to himself directly in this sense. He would indeed be persecuted for his faithfulness, yet God would vindicate his stance. The title Son of Man, while hinting at his eventual resurrection, clearly allowed room for the suffering, humiliation and death of Jesus. He would live forever. His faithfulness would be the standard by which goodness and evil would be discerned. 

It is not absolutely clear from the context whether the sentence: But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins...was an editorial insertion by Mark himself, intended for the enlightenment of the reader, or whether it formed part of the comment of Jesus. It depends on who was being referred to by the phrase that you may know – the readers or the people present at the scene.

In the context the term applied directly to Jesus and his faithfulness being the criterion of the world’s judgment. Yet his role would be an exercise of forgiveness rather than of exposure and condemnation, as the Daniel reference to judgment might seem at first glance to imply.

Mark’s passage said even more. It made the point that Jesus had authority to forgive sins in this world of historical interactions (on earth). The word authority had occurred earlier, again in context of a confrontation with scribes. Jesus spoke and acted with authority, and not as the scribes. In the earlier context Jesus’ authority had liberated the possessed man (seen as the symbolic figure of the religious, social and political culture and institutions of contemporary Israel) from the evil that had constrained him.

What was the Authority of Jesus?

In the original Greek, the word “authority” speaks ultimately of an “outflowing of being”, or of life or energy, that of itself is communicative or life-enhancing. This sense is picked up, too, in its Latin equivalent, from which our English word derives. In Latin the word has the sense of “growing” or “making grow”. Genuine authority refers to people’s capacity, through their own fullness of life and energy, to foster the life and growth of another. It is not felt as imposing an obligation from outside, but as empowering felt from within. In this sense, it is also frequently translated as “power”. However, it is crucially important to understand the power in question not as coercive constraint but as empowerment in freedom.

The authority of Jesus, the Son of Man, no doubt came from 

Somehow people resonated with these in their own depths and responded warmly, even if they were not always able to identify or put words to that experience. Jesus gave them hope, and hope in turn gave them energy. This was, indeed, a new teaching. He educated them in the truest meaning of the word: he released what was already within them, originating as it did from the hand of the creating Father.

The vision of Jesus that life could be better and his total commitment to that vision were liberating and empowering. His enthusiasm was attractive. Had people shared his vision, his hope and his dedication, the power of sin at large in the dysfunctional institutions of his day would have been overcome. 

Mark believed that the same message was critical for his own community. With the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the good news had only begun. Jesus would meet them in their own “Galilee”. The “next chapter” was to be written by them through their fidelity to all he stood for.

The story has continued to be lived across history and we need to make it our story.

Some commentators would see in Mark’s narration a veiled description of the celebrations in a “home-Church”:

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