The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity: The Son of Man
October 15, 2023

The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity: The Son of Man

Passage: Matthew 9:1-8
Service Type:

The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity: The Son of Man
St. Matthew 9:1-8
by William Klock

 

St. Matthew writes in our Gospel that Jesus got into a boat and crossed back over the Sea of Galilee to his own town.  He must have been tired.  Matthew says in Chapter 5 that Jesus left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum.  It was a town on the shore of the Sea Galilee.  He travelled the length and the breadth of Galilee teaching in the synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing the diseases and illness of the people who came to him.  And lots of people came to him.  He met Peter, James, and John there and called them to be his disciples.  And word went out, not just all around Galilee, but even throughout neighbouring Syria.  So wherever Jesus went, the crowds followed him.  Wherever he went, the diseased and the possessed came for healing.  All through Galilee, all through the Decapolis, even when he travelled down to Judea and Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley.

 

Most recently he preached a long sermon to the crowds—three whole chapters of Matthew’s Gospel—and then escaped with the disciples out onto the sea.  You remember the story.  Like any other preacher, he was exhausted.  He fell asleep in the  boat.  Then a storm came up and the disciples panicked.  They were all going to die and there was Jesus, fast asleep.  But Jesus calmed the storm.  There was always something for him to do.  And there was no rest when they got to the other side.  Practically before they could get out of the boat two demon-possessed men met them on the road.  Jesus cast the demons into a herd of pigs—which made him unpopular with the owners of the pigs—who ran into town and brought the whole town to confront Jesus and send him away.  So, now, back into the boat, back across the Sea of Galilee, back to Capernaum.

 

I suspect they got back during the night, because Mark tells us that Jesus managed to get a few days of peace and quiet and rest before people figured out he was back home.  But as soon as word got out that Jesus was home, the crowd showed up at his house.  So many people gathered in the street as Jesus preached, that you couldn’t get anywhere near the door.

 

And that posed a problem to four friends.  They had a fifth friend who was paralysed.  When they heard Jesus was back in town, these four men went and got their friend and carried him, cot and all, to Jesus’ house.  Jesus was healing everybody else.  Surely he would heal their friend.  If they could get to him, that is.  And they couldn’t.  Imagine them trying to push their way through the crowd.  There was no way they’d ever get through the crowd, not while carrying their friend on a cot.  And that’s when they see the stairs going up the side of the house to the roof.  (Remember that in those days, your roof was extra living space when it was hot.)  They have an idea.  They take their friend up to the roof and they start jabbing at it with sticks and kicking at it and digging at it with their hands.  The roofs of most people’s houses in a town like Capernaum were horizontal timbers with a layer of rushes or palms covered over with mud or plaster.  They broke it all apart and it didn’t take them long to make a hole in the roof big enough to lower their friend on his cot, and that’s exactly what they did.

 

But imagine Jesus, in the house, preaching to the crowd and wondering what in the world was going on when bits of mud and plaster and rush and palm started falling on him.  And pretty soon he and everyone else were looking up as these men tore a hole in his roof.  I wonder what went through Jesus’ head when he saw that.  He was tired.  His rest had been cut short.  The crowd was one thing, but he really didn’t need some yahoos tearing up his roof.  “Great!  There goes the damage deposit,” he might have mentally sighed.  But pretty quickly, as they lowered their friend to him, he saw what was going on.  And I think Jesus probably smiled.

 

And that’s because Matthew writes that Jesus saw their faith and if Jesus was anything like me and most of the other pastors I know, the exhaustion, the frustration of not having a break, the annoyance at having these guys destroy his roof, I think it all would have melted away, because seeing the faith of these men made it all worth it.  And looking down at the paralyzed man, Jesus says to him, “Have courage!”  In other words, “Don’t be afraid.”  Because I imagine some people might be afraid if their friends just tore a hole in the Messiah’s roof to get them inside.  And Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven!”

 

Now, that’s not what we might expect Jesus to say to this man.  Judging by Jesus’ other encounters, we’d expect him to say something like, “Get up and walk; your faith has made you well.”  But instead, he tells him that his sins are forgiven.  That’s nice, but he’s still lying there paralysed on his cot.  What’s going on?  Well, Jesus is using this as a teaching opportunity, just as he did with so many other situations.  He’d healed people more times than anyone could count at that point, and that was a sign that the Messiah had come and that God’s kingdom was breaking in to the world.  But what did that really mean?  Because everyone had their own ideas about the Messiah and about the kingdom—and, most important, how they could have a share in it.  They needed more than just to see miracles.  And Jesus saw a group of scribes there in his house that day and that made this a perfect opportunity.  Maybe they were legitimately curious to hear what Jesus had to say or maybe they were there just to criticise or report back to the priests or the Pharisees, but, right on cue, they hear Jesus’ words and he can see their outrage.  He could see how they scowled as they grumbled to each other about how blasphemous this was.  “Who can forgive sins except God?” they say to each other in Mark’s telling of the story.

 

They were out of earshot of Jesus, but just as he could see the faith of the paralysed man’s friends as they lowered him through the hole in his roof, he could see just the opposite in the grumbling scribes.  And so he calls over to them, “Why are your hearts so intent on evil?” he asks.  You can imagine that getting them even more worked up.  “We’re not the evil ones!” they say back.  “You are…you…you…you blasphemer!”  But Jesus goes on with the teaching moment and says to them, “Which is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up and walk?”  But so you may know that the son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—and now he turns back to the paralysed man—“Get up, take up your cot, and go home.”

 

And the paralysed man got up, took up his cot, and went home.  I think there was probably a little more to it than that.  He probably stretched a bit and moved his arms and legs around and maybe jumped up and down a few times.  I think he probably laughed and yelled and gave a hug and many thanks to Jesus, but Matthew doesn’t get bogged down in those sorts of details, because his point is—as usual—that when Jesus healed the man, he was healed.  When he told him to get up, to take his cot, and to go home, that’s exactly what the man did.  And if that’s all that had happened, the scribes would have had nothing to complain about.  Maybe they even would have been happy to see the man healed.  At worst, they would just have been annoyed to see that Jesus had such authority over sickness—that he was really doing Messiah things—but that he wasn’t doing other parts of the Messiah job the way they thought he should.

 

What really stuck in their craw was Jesus declaring the man’s sins forgiven.  That’s what made them mad.  Even for the Messiah, as far as they were concerned, that was too big a claim.  To heal the paralysed man?  That was great.  But if he had sins in need of forgiveness, his friends should have taken him to the temple in Jerusalem for that.  The priests there were the only ones with the authority to offer sacrifices for sin and to declare someone forgiven.  But the crowd understood and Matthew makes a point of saying that the crowd was afraid—afraid in the sense that they were awestruck by what had happened and knew that somehow and in some way the God of Israel was at work in and through Jesus—as if they’d just witnesses one of those great and awe-inspiring events from the Old Testament that no one in Israel had seen in hundreds and hundreds of years.  Matthew says they saw what had happened and that they praised God for giving such authority to men.

 

The story is sort of the whole gospel story in a nutshell.  Jesus teaches and he heals—he does the things the Messiah was supposed to be doing.  But he does them the wrong way and the Jewish leaders condemn him for blasphemy.  But then he exposes, for everyone around to see, that their hearts are full of wickedness.  He heals the man and in doing that he points everyone to the resurrection and to the day when God finally sets the world to rights and, somehow, everyone with faith in Jesus will be caught up in that act of new creation and share in the life of God.

 

But the heart of the story is the part about the forgiveness of sins and the authority that Jesus claimed to do it.  I wonder if this teachable moment popped into Jesus’ head as the plaster rained down on him and the man was lowered through the hole.  He probably had an apologetic look on his face—like, “I’m really sorry, Jesus, for the hole in your roof.  Please forgive me and my friends.”  And Jesus realised that this was the perfect moment to say something about forgiveness—because this man and his friends and, in fact, all of Israel, that’s what they really needed: forgiveness, not for making a hole in his roof, but for far more serious sins—for idolatry and for greed and for faithlessness and for all the ways they’d failed to live out their covenant with the Lord.  Israel needed a lot of things—just like the paralysed man did—but most of all she needed forgiveness.  In that, the paralysed man represents Israel and all her wrong expectations of the Messiah.  The Jews wanted the Messiah to solve all their problems, for some that was healing sickness, for others it was casting out demons, for some it was getting everybody to keep the law better, and for others it was bashing Roman heads and destroying the pagan gentiles.  But not very many people understood that none of these things was the real problem.  The real problem was sin.  The people had been unfaithful to the Lord.  They had failed to be the people he had called them to be.  And forgiveness, that’s what would pave the way to set them and, eventually, everything else to rights.

 

So, again, the heart of the story is that statement by Jesus that the son of man has authority on earth to forgiven sins.  When Jesus calls himself the “son of man”, he’s drawing on an image from Daniel 7.  The book of Daniel is about faithfulness in the midst of exile.  Israel had been defeated and the people taken off to Babylon. Worse, some like Daniel, were pressured to compromise, to bow to a pagan king and to pagan gods—to give up on the God of Israel and to give up on his promises.  And some did just that.  But Daniel stood firm and the Lord gave him a vision of his enemies—those pagan kings—cast down, of the God of Israel taking his throne, and the son of man “coming with the clouds of heaven…to be given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:13-14).  And yet, when Daniel asks what the vision means, he is told that this kingship and dominion “shall be given”—not to a single person, but “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).

 

The son of man in Daniel’s vision was a symbol for the faithful remnant of God’s people—for those who stood firm in their faith in the God of Israel, who remembered his covenant, and who refused to bow to pagan gods and kings.  So when Jesus referred to himself as the son of man, this is what the scribes (and everyone else) would have been thinking of.  And this is why Matthew says at the end that the people praised God that this authority has been given not to a man—Jesus—but to men, plural.  Because up to this point, Daniel’s vision had yet to be fulfilled.  The Maccabees, for example, had claimed to be that faithful remnant, but their kingdom didn’t last.  The people who were that faithful remnant—people like Zechariah and Mary and Joseph and Simeon and Anna, although they were probably too humble to actually claim being the faithful remnant—people like them knew all too well that the Lord had yet to grant them anything like authority and dominion.  That’s what Mary’s song, the one we call the Magnificat, is all about.  But here Jesus identifies himself with that vision.  In him the son of man is finally being granted that authority and dominion—that kingship that everyone thought of in connection with God’s kingdom and the world finally being set to rights—and Jesus isn’t just saying it or claiming it.  He proves it when he tells the paralysed man to get up, take his bed, and go home.  For the people there that day, this was bigger than just the Messiah.  Jesus could claim to be the “son of man”, but the son of man wasn’t just one person, the son of man represented the faithful remnant in Israel, so there’s hope here.  It’s not just Jesus who will take his throne.  He will.  But that he will take his throne also means that the faithful will be vindicated as their enemies are cast down, and that they will finally share in that God-given authority and dominion.  His kingdom had come and they would be part of it.

 

This makes sense of another passage that often confuses people.  Twice Jesus said to his disciples “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”.  The first is in Matthew 16, after Jesus praises Peter for his confession, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God”.  Jesus says to him and the others, “I will give you the keys of heaven”.  And in Matthew 18, in that passage about what we call “church discipline” and dealing with an unrepentant person, he repeats this statement about binding and loosing.  This is “son of man” stuff.  Jesus isn’t giving special authority to Peter alone because he’s going to be the first pope.  In fact, he’s not giving any special authority just to the apostles.  No, this is a gospel authority given to all of the faithful remnant, to everyone who by faith identifies with the Messiah.  This is a people who are not only given dominion—to rule alongside the Messiah—but who also share in his role as prophet and priest.  That’s what this binding and loosing language is about.  As prophets, Jesus’ people were to speak out against the sins of Israel and to rebuke her faithlessness, and as priests they were called to mediate the saving, the forgiving message of the gospel to the nation.

 

This was good news and it explains why the crowds wouldn’t give Jesus a break.  Israel’s scriptures were full of promises, but so many of them had yet to be fulfilled.  Promises like Daniel’s vision of the son of man.  Promises of forgiveness and of restoration and of dominion and authority.  Time and again, things would happen and people would think, “Oh!  This is it!”  But it never quite happened.  The remnant returned from their Babylonian exile, but things were never as they had been.  The Maccabees defeated the Greeks and established Judah’s independence.  And for a little while it looked like the Lord’s promises were on track to be fulfilled.  And then it all fell apart.  But the people knew that the Lord is faithful.  Time and again he had shown his faithfulness in Israel’s past and they knew he would be faithful in their future.  Every year they ate the Passover and remembered the Lord’s promises and looked forward in hopeful anticipation.  And now, here was Jesus, and he was actually doing the things the Lord had promised and he was doing them like no one had before.  They had faith.  They would be forgiven, their enemies would be cast down, and the faithful remnant—who were now gathering around Jesus the Messiah—in them the people of God would be restored and made new and would be the people the Lord had promised—a people full of his life and a people for the life of the world—prophets, priests, and kings.

 

Brothers and Sisters, this is still good news for us—maybe even more than it was for the people crammed in Jesus house that day.  In Jesus we see the faithfulness of God.  They were still looking forward in anticipation, but we can look back and see the whole picture and how Jesus fulfilled the Lord’s promises and that ought to strengthen our faith and ought to give us reason to look forward to our future in hope, knowing that what God has begun in Jesus he will surely finish.  The world is often dark, we can feel small and alone, sometimes it feels like we’re fighting a losing battle, but we can look back and see what the Lord has done and trust that he is faithful.  He always has been and he always will be.

 

And this is good news because it tells us who we are.  I think that too often we look at passages like this, where Jesus talks about himself as the son of man and we forget that it’s not just telling us something about Jesus.  The son of man represents a whole people.  Because Jesus has fulfilled the role of the son of man, that means that we his people, through our union with him, we have been caught up in that son of man identity, too.  Jesus has been given power and authority and dominion forever, and you and I share that with him.  It’s authority to live and to proclaim the good news that he has died, that he has risen, and that he has come again and that he brings forgiveness and life.  And it’s also the authority to speak as prophets to the world, to call out sin, to remind the world that the Lord will come in judgement to cleanse his creation, and to call men and women to repentance.  And hand in hand with that role, we have the authority of priests.  We’re not only prophets, but priests, mediating the good news of Jesus and the life of God’s spirit—mediating the redemption Jesus has made at the cross—to a sick world, desperately in need of forgiveness and life.

 

Brothers and Sisters, think about that as you come to the Lord’s Table this morning.  The Table reminds us of the forgiveness and the life and the hope we find at the cross, but it should also remind us who we are in Jesus.  We are Daniel’s son-of-man people.  We are prophets, priests, and kings and we have been made so for the life of the world.  Seeing the faithfulness of God revealed in Jesus ought to move us—like the people that day in Jesus’ house—to give God glory and there is no better way to glorify him than to be the people he has made us in Jesus and the Spirit, a people who live and proclaim his good news so that the world might see and know his faithfulness and give him glory.

 

Let’s pray: O GOD, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts, that in his power we might be the gospel people who have made, that we might be faithful in making known your faithfulness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

 

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