Say to my soul, “I am your salvation” says King David in today’s Introit. Psalm 98 begins, Sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done marvelous things! The new song is Jesus Christ. The lyrics to that new song are much like what the crowd says in today’s’ Gospel when they glorified God, Who had give such authority to men.
The authority given to men is not so much the authority to heal from sicknesses, though that did happen in the apostolic age of the New Testament Church. I can lay hands on you all you want and even anoint you with oil if you would like, but that doesn’t guarantee you will be healed. Healing from paralysis is an amazing thing. It shouldn’t be downplayed. The authority, however, that left the crowds in fear was the authority given to men to forgive sins. The healing was, if you will, icing on the cake.
If only the scribes would return to Psalm 35 and read what King David writes about the Lord’s words to His children: I am your salvation. They can’t, or won’t, make the connection between the word spoken by King David and the Messiah Himself standing in their presence. This man is blaspheming, they say among themselves. Blasphemy is a serious charge. You don’t take on divine authority in such a flippant way, or so they think. The scribes would know. They spend a lot of time writing the Word as well as interpreting the Word. Ascribing to one’s self the authority to forgive sins with nothing to back you up is blasphemy.
Jesus has something to back Himself up. He is the divine Word Who has come down from heaven and pitched His tabernacle among us. The tabernacle is made of flesh, blood, and bones, as Jesus is born of the Virgin Mary. In [Jesus] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, says Saint Paul in Colossians chapter two. That is why Jesus is able to read their hearts and ask them the first of three consecutive questions: Why do you think evil in your hearts?
Apply Jesus’ question to yourself. When you apologize and receive forgiveness from your neighbor, why do you think evil in your hearts? When you are the one giving forgiveness to your neighbor when you have been offended, why do you think evil in your hearts? It is probably not because you or your neighbor has committed blasphemy. Perhaps it is because God has given such authority to men.
The smart thing to do, from a human standpoint, is to hold the sin over your neighbor’s head and make them ferment in their own juices for a while. Human beings play that trick all the time. You are offended. You bring that offense before your neighbor. Maybe your neighbor understands what has happened and apologizes before you bring the offense before him. You hear the apology…and say nothing in return. Perhaps you tell him that you’re thinking about whether or not you want to forgive him. Come back this time next week and you might have an answer. Then again, you might not have an answer except for him to go to hell where he belongs. After all, he deserves it.
What about you? You deserve a place right there next to your neighbor when you blaspheme God’s authority given to me to forgive sins. There is a more subtle way to play the same game. You forgive your neighbor, but you also let them know the hurt, the gnawing pain, will never go away. That’s another way to let someone ferment in their own private hell. Now you have some real power over them. They won’t forget your words anytime soon. Forgiveness, yes, of course. But forgetting the transgression means you have something over him. It’s a more subtle way to get your point across.
What kind of point are you making? You’re making the point that the authority to forgive sins equals the opposite reaction: the authority to judge someone’s soul straight into the burning lake of fire. Maybe authority isn’t the right word for it. Power. That’s the better word. It’s a different thing from authority. Power means you have something and you are able to use it to your own advantage, whether that advantage is right or wrong. Using power to your advantage in this instance means you do the opposite thing Jesus does to the paralytic. You forgive his sins, but you let him lie in his paralysis. There needs to be some temporal consequences for sin. There needs to be some sort of sign that a person is a filthy, stinking, rotten sinner…and others need to know about it.
When you treat the blessed authority to forgive your neighbor’s sins like it’s a hard-core Fortune 500 board room hostile takeover from hell, you blaspheme the Lord’s name and why Jesus becomes man. Forgiveness is not a bargaining chip to make you look powerful and your neighbor weak. Forgiveness is simply that: forgiveness. The slate is clean. The debit column on the balance sheet of life is clean, paid in full in the blood and righteousness of Jesus.
You may be familiar with the phrase, “Hey, watch this!” or “Hey, hold my drink!” Nothing good usually happens after those phrases are spoken. What follows is a stupid human trick that often ends in failure. When Jesus says to the scribes, But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…”Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” He is saying in His own way, “Hey, watch this!” If you think that forgiveness of sins is something, He adds a little something extra. The paralytic gets up, takes his bed, and goes home. There’s no need for friends carrying a bed. He’s gone.
Forgiveness of sins works just that fast. Jesus gives authority to His Church to forgive sins. Everything she does is about applying the forgiveness of sins, even when she has to retain the sins of an impenitent Christian. It’s all about forgiveness and how that forgiveness is received. Forgiveness is given as it is received. There’s no catch, no fine print, to the forgiveness of sins. The pastor publicly or individually absolves a penitent. It’s over. Nothing left to see or say here. The Christian absolves a neighbor. Done. Gone. Forgiven. It’s not brought up five days later. There’s no condition to it. There is certainly no power play behind it. You are free. Pick up your bed and go home.
Christ’s Church gives away forgiveness of sins every opportunity she gets. She gives it away in the Absolution. She gives it away in Baptism. She gives it away in the Lord’s Supper. She doesn’t hoard it and hide it in a cellar to age and mature or to keep it away from undeserving schmoes. She holds a fire sale every day and gives it away as fast as she can. The Church gives it away for free because she has received it for free from a giving God Who gives his only-begotten Son to save you from eternal hell.
Forgiveness of sins is a precious gem, and it’s also a hot potato. You treasure the authority to forgive sins that comes from Jesus Himself. You also are in need of forgiveness so you treat this authority with respect. But forgiveness is also a hot potato. You can’t hold on to it for very long. You want to have it out of your hands and into your stomach once it cools down. In this case, you want to give it to someone else, who will in turn give it to someone else, and so on. Sinners will take advantage of it, as is their wont. When sinners return, the arms of the heavenly Father wait for them, ready to welcome them home from exile. He will give them the precious gem of the hot potato of the forgiveness of sins.
When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears. The Lord hears because He says to you again today, I am your salvation!