The Healing of the Paralytic and the Authority to Forgive Sin (5:17-26)

Luke narrates yet another miracle, the healing of the paralytic. This miracle is significant for five reasons. First, it shows that Jesus' authority extends even to the forgiveness of sins. Second, the entire affair is witnessed by the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees and the scribes. They make an instant theological assessment and recognize that Jesus is making unique claims—claims that are blasphemous if they are not true. Third, this is the first time God vindicates Jesus' claims during his ministry. Later Judaism would teach that God does not help sinners or liars (t. Nedarim 41a), so if Jesus is not who he claims to be, then this man should not walk away healed. The fact that the paralytic walks away healed means that some type of transcendent power operates through Jesus. Later Luke reveals the debate over what or who that power is (11:14-23). Fourth, the miracle pictures what Jesus can do for people. The paralytic is stationary and totally helpless. But after his healing, he can walk through life and praise God. Finally, the text shows the importance of faith. It is the faith of those who bring the paralytic to Jesus that is highlighted. This detail seems to indicate that God honors us as we seek to lead others to the Lord.

Though Mark 2:1 mentions that this event takes place in Capernaum, Luke simply tells the story. The presence of Pharisees and teachers of the law shows that word about Jesus has spread to the upper echelons of the Jewish faith. The Pharisees were a nonpriestly, lay separatist movement whose goal was to keep the nation faithful to God. Their name is probably a transcription of an Aramaic term meaning "separated ones" (Fitzmyer 1981:581). To prevent violations of the Mosaic law, they developed an elaborate system of traditions to codify practice (Meyer 1974:11-48; Josephus Antiquities 13.5.9 171; 13.10.5-6 288-98; 17.2.4 41-45; 18.1.2 11; Jewish Wars 2.8.14 162-63). They desired to "build a fence around the law" to prevent it from being violated (Pirqe `Abot 1:1). The teachers of the law, also known as the scribes (v. 21), helped to study legal questions and develop the tradition (Jeremias 1964c:740-42; Rengstorf 1964:159). The word sometimes translated "scribes" has roots in the postexilic period to refer to one learned in matters of the law (Ezra 7:6, 11; Neh 8:1). Luke reveals that these leaders have come from as far away as Jerusalem.

In the midst of such traditional religious authorities, God's power rests on Jesus. He has the power of the Lord . . . to heal the sick. Luke is going to great pains to indicate that Jesus did not require official endorsement from the Jewish hierarchy. His commission was unique, coming directly from God, as his baptism had made clear (see 20:1-8).

The paralytic comes on a mat (kline, Luke and Matthew) or a pallet (krabbaton, Mark). But the crowds prevent access, so the friends must scale the ladder on the side of the house to get up on the roof, where they can cut through the roof and lower the man in front of Jesus. Needless to say, such activity is highly distracting. The man ends up right in front of Jesus. So now the Teacher must act. What will he do?

Jesus pulls a surprise. No doubt the crowd has expected a healing, since Jesus' reputation has spread far and wide already (4:40-44). But instead Jesus talks about sin. And thus again a miracle becomes a parable. This time it pictures the presence of the destructive forces of sin in the world. This man is a painting of the effects of the Fall. Such a linkage is not surprising in a Jewish setting (1 Maccabees 9:54-56; 2 Maccabees 3:22-28; 3 Maccabees 2:21-22; Jn 9:2-3). Jesus claims to have the authority to reverse those effects, so he says, "Friend, your sins are forgiven." This theme is frequent in Luke (5:29-32; 7:34, 36-50; 15:3-7, 11-32; 18:10-14; 19:8-10; 23:40-43).

The remark elicits an instant theological critique from the religious experts present. They began thinking to themselves, "Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?" The Pharisees get high marks for perceiving the theological significance of Jesus' statement. They see the stakes correctly. They understand how great Jesus' claim is. The issue of blasphemy will become a central concern at Jesus' trial, as Jesus reiterates an authority for himself there that the leadership will question (22:67-71). To blaspheme was to perform an action that violated God's majesty. Claiming a prerogative that was only God's would be such a violation. So the issue raised by the act and its proclamation is authority pure and simple. Jesus has implied the same authority in Luke 4:18. In his own eyes, Jesus is more than a teacher of ethics.

It seems likely that the Pharisees' musings are private, because the text goes on to note that Jesus knew what they were thinking. Usually when Jesus is reading someone's thoughts, a rebuke or challenge follows. Such is the case here.

Jesus poses a conundrum: "Which is easier: to say, `Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, `Get up and walk'?" Now there is irony here. It is easier to say sin is forgiven, since one cannot see it. But actually to forgive sin is the harder thing to do. Still, the healing of a lame man could be corroborated visually; one could see its success immediately. Jesus' remarks, however, link the two actions. Healing will reveal the authority to forgive—and in the process raise many questions about who Jesus is. So Jesus says, "But that you might know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." This moment in the account calls to mind the modern sports expression "crunch time." Either the man gets up and walks or he continues to lie there. Either Jesus' claim comes through, or he is utterly embarrassed. God does not help sinners, so what will happen? Jesus has put theological stakes on the event. Will God vindicate him?

This text is important for another reason. It is the first time Luke uses the important expression Son of Man. Later in this Gospel it is clear that he is using the term as a title. In Aramaic this phrase was an idiom that either meant "someone" or served as a roundabout way to refer to oneself. Be aware that at this point the Old Testament background for this term has not yet been revealed. Jesus will do that later in his ministry when he ties the title to imagery from Daniel 7:13-14. All son of man meant to the audience here was "some human being." But of course, the moment Jesus forgives and heals the paralyzed man, Son of Man becomes a very specific reference to him, since the authority he is claiming is not generic to all humans but is his alone.

In sum, Jesus' claim to have special authority and so to be a unique human being is the issue of the passage. The beauty of Jesus' use of this idiom alongside his action is that it allows him to raise a question about his identity in terms that honor both his unique authority and his humanity. The claim, however, rides on what the paralytic does in the next few moments.

Immediately he stood up in front of them. The man's walk means God has talked! As the former paralytic praises God, amazement overwhelms the crowd. They have seen remarkable things. The Greek term used here is paradoxa, a word from which we get our word "paradox." But in Greek the term simply refers to unusual events. Again Luke ends the passage asking the reader implicitly to ponder what has taken place. What happened? What has been claimed about what happened? Events speak louder than words (7:18-23): the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins.

Jesus has just painted a picture that speaks more than a library full of books on Christology. He has backed up his words with action. God is vindicating Jesus' claims. At crunch time Jesus applies his authority with great skill. As the paralytic walks, the question becomes who will walk with him and share the forgiveness Jesus has pictured. Fence-sitting is no longer possible, given the nature of Jesus' claims.

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