After allowing the demons to drive pigs in the lake that ended the last chapter, Jesus heeds the pleas of the people to leave their region, and he gets into a boat and heads back to his home town, Capernaum. As soon as people hear Jesus is there, they come asking for favors, and Jesus is happy to oblige. We also see for the first time the beginning of an antagonism develop between Jesus and the religious professionals, “the teachers of the law.” This clash is inevitable because Jesus is slowly revealing who he is, and the professionals simply can’t and won’t accept it. In fact, we read for the first time the charge against him that will inevitably lead to his death, blasphemy.
The first story of the chapter is Matthew’s pared down version, compared to Mark and Luke, of the healing of a paralytic man. I can’t help but envision the scene as it plays out from my favorite Jesus movie, Jesus of Nazareth. And because we live in the age of Youtube, it’s (still amazing to me) instantly accessible if you want to see it. This is the more dramatic narrative of the other gospel writers, but Matthew boils it down to it’s essence: Jesus revealing his divinity. And yet again, we see Jesus do something that is completely unexpected which to me speaks of the credibility and believability of the story.
When the man is brought to Jesus you would expect him to heal him like he’s done for everyone else so far, but instead Jesus throws everyone for a loop. He says, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” What in the world does that have to do with anything! You can imagine those in the crowd being completely nonplussed (surprised and confused so much that they are unsure how to react). Wait, Jesus, we’re expecting you to heal the guy, and you tell him his sins are forgiven? For the first time in his ministry, Jesus is telling everyone why he is here. The physical healing, while not besides the point (because it points to the point, as we’ll see in chapter 11 in Jesus’ response to John’s disciples’ question if he’s the one or not), is primarily evidence that this man, this Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph, has the authority and power to defeat the devastating effects of the fall, sin, disease, and death.
But the religious professionals are having none of it, and their response: “This fellow is blaspheming!” Matthew says Jesus knows what they’re thinking because their response is perfectly logical: if Jesus is just a man, a normal human being, then he is indeed committing blasphemy. But Jesus calls their thoughts “evil” because he is indeed not just a man, so he asks them he asks what appears to be a strange question:
Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?
Well, they’re both easy to say depending on what you are capable of doing, and Jesus says something that tells us what kind of God we worship:
6 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . . . ”
And he tells the man to get up, take his mat, and go home. The words that stand out to me are, “so that you may know.” God condescends to our need for evidence. He never asks us, as we see throughout Scripture, to believe just because someone says so. Christianity is not fideism (faith as hostile or independent of reason). Jesus is giving us reasons to know that he is who he says he is. Atheists parrot the line, and all of them do it, that we believe, that we have faith specifically because there is no evidence for what we believe. That’s their definition of faith; it’s an irrational leap. This is of course the exact opposite of the truth. Biblical faith, in fact, is trust based on adequate evidence. And everywhere God is giving us that evidence, including in Jesus claiming that his ability to heal shows he has authority on earth to forgive sins. I’d say that’s certainly persuasive evidence! And the people’s response:
8 When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men.
Well, not just to any men, but to this man, Jesus of Nazareth.