7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
February 20, 2000
Which is easier? Which is more important?
Mark 2:1-12
The Rev. John H. Pavelko
 

SPIRITUAL INTEREST OF OUR CULTURE

Spirituality has become so popular in our culture that Madison Avenue now uses spiritual themes to sell everything from automobiles to soft drinks. Volvo suggests that their car can save your soul and a preacher reassures a guilt-laden parishioner that it is not a sin to be frugal thereby releasing her to enjoy her sporty new Cavalier. Catholic nuns talk about surfing the Internet while walking to vespers and Snickers parades a line up of religious leaders to bless a football team, with the tagline, "Not going anywhere for awhile? Garb a Snickers." And Gatorade features an eastern shaman offering to a tired Michael Jordon this spiritual wisdom, "Life is a sport, drink up."

The most dramatic is one by an insurance company. A flood is threatening to destroy the family home. In desperation dad cries out for help, the heavens open and a giant cartoon hand descends to rescue the family from disaster. The viewer nearly expects that family to offer up a prayer of thanksgiving to the benevolent insurance company for help in times of trouble.

Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey in an article for Christianity Today wrote "the need for salvation has been imprinted on the human soul since the fall"1 but it is no longer salvation from sin. The spiritual sequence of sin-guilt-redemption has been transposed into the psychological sequence of problem-anxiety-resolution. We no longer need salvation from our sins but salvation from our problems. The pain of a headache, arthritis, stomach cramps has become a higher priority than the concern for our eternal destiny. We want salvation in the here and now, we assume that salvation in the afterlife is given.

Whenever she teaches a SS class on the book of Mark, Margaret Gramatky Alter often invites the class to imagine themselves in the story as the paralyzed man. Let us for a moment follow Alter's suggestion by focusing on an area in our life in which we feel helpless, paralyzed. You do not have the power to change. The problem seems beyond anyone's capacity. Your friends and family show deep concern. They have heard about a Rabbi who has healed people. He cured a woman with a fever, given sight to a blind man and has even cast out demon. Would you let them take you to see him? You are reluctant at first. You have failed too many times to believe that you could ever succeed or that anyone can help. You are desperate but you are too discouraged to think anyone could help you. However, your friends are persistent. They strap you to a bed and take you to the Rabbi. You come face to face with Jesus. What do you feel? What do you expect him to do? Then he says to you, "Child, your sins are forgiven!"

What did you feel when you hear those words. Alter writes that eventually someone will ask, "If this is a healing story, why does Jesus bring up forgiveness of sins." Someone else will usually ask, "I wondered that too. I have trouble with the word sin. I feel guilty just hearing it, but I also try hard to lead a good Christian life." And then somebody will say, "Some of my friends say that they resent the Christian idea of sin. They try to lead a good life, and they don't want to come to church to be told they're bad."2  So why did Jesus confuse the issue by pronouncing forgiveness of sin? Why didn't he first heal the man and then tell him his sins are forgiven? These questions are answered when we consider that "...throughout the OT, sin and disease, forgiveness and healing are frequently interrelated concepts."3 Forgiveness is the prerequisite of healing and the physical cure becomes the proof of the spiritual restoration.

The psalmist prays in Ps 103 and Ps 147:

1 Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
2 Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits-
3 who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
 
1 Praise the LORD!
How good it is to sing praises to our God;
for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.
2 The LORD builds up Jerusalem;
he gathers the outcasts of Israel.
3 He heals the brokenhearted,
and binds up their wounds
Forgiveness and healing have an inseparable link.
One theologian describes it as such
Healing is a gracious movement of God into the sphere of withering and decay which are the tokens of death at work in [humanity]. It was not God's intention that [humanity] should live with the pressure of death upon [them]. Sickness, disease and death are the consequences of sinful condition of all [humanity].4
Before Jesus could heal the broken body, he had to restore the broken soul because no matter how much people object to talking about it, no matter how much people try to avoid it, the presence of sin was and will always remain, humanity's basic problem.

HUMANITY'S BASIC PROBLEM

In addition to being a good theologian and knowing the consequences of the Fall, Jesus also was a pragmatist. He believed that sin was humanity's basic problem because he saw first hand its devastating consequences. Everywhere around him Jesus could see distorted personalities, undiscovered joy, and unexpressed love. He could see how people were hurting themselves and each other.

Jesus also could see how sin created a sense of alienation from God, from others and from our selves. He could see people express their sense of alienation through anger, hostility, impatience, and competition. He saw what these attitudes and actions were doing to paralyze and cripple people.
He could also see the isolation and loneliness produced. We become reluctant to care when we feel alienated. We do not do anything mean, we just neglect relationships. We stop trying to show love. We withdraw into our own little world. "Jesus saw how carelessly people treated those around them. How little sympathy, tenderness and warmth there was!"5

Jesus told the paralyzed man that his sins were forgiven because the man's basic problem lay at the core of his soul.

 THE SEROUSNESS OF SIN

Jesus also told the paralyzed man that his sins were forgiven because he takes sin very seriously. Many people would prefer to permanently delete the word 'sin' from our vocabulary. They would banish it as an archaic and meaningless term in our enlighten state of consciousness. They contend that all moral laws are relative. What is immoral in some cultures may be the norm in another. Karl Menniger likened this approach to his father who was an avid naturalist and botanist. Menniger's father objected to anyone referring to a growing plant as a weed even when they were removing the unwelcomed plant from the flowerbed. He argued that "Nearly every plant is called a weed by people some where, and what we here call weeds may be prize specimens in some lands." 6

While scientifically true for botany, the imagery distorts reality when applied to human behavior. A foundational principle of Scripture is that the law of God is the standard by which all behavior will be judged because it is the expression of God's own righteous character. Moreover, because we were created in the image of God, the Torah, or the Law of God is also an expression of our inner character. Paul writes to the Romans that the law has been written into our hearts. A vital connection links God's law to humanity, to commit a sin is not only the violation of the authority and love of God but also a violation of the inner core of our own being. 7 

Another way that people tend to minimize sin is by prioritizing the deeds. Murder becomes a more heinous crime than the display of an explosive but merely verbal temper. The multimillion-dollar embezzler is viewed with greater scorn than the petty thief is. The rapist is condemned and ostracized but the sexual exploits of the rich and famous are talked about on national TV.

A story is told from the medieval church of a woman who came to confess her sins one Lent but had nothing to say but praise of her own good deeds. Her priest asked her why she had not mentioned any of her sins. She thought for a moment and then told him that she could not think of any to confess. So he asked her what she did for a living she told him that she sold scrap iron. He then asked if she had ever put smaller pieces of iron into bundles along with larger ones, to deceive her customers. When she admitted her guilt, the priest warned her that of the seriousness of the offence.8

In the apostle Paul's theology, there was an absence of a hierarchy of immorality. Sin was sin and the person who engaged in the intentional practice of sin would not enjoy the promise of eternal life. In his letter to the church in Galatia he was most emphatic when he wrote

19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.


You may notice that he mentions dissension, factions, and quarrels in the same list as idolatry and socery. The apostle Paul did not see much difference between worshipping false gods and the person who either starts or sustains conflict in the church. Each behavior is an expression of lawlessness and deserving of the judgement of God.

FORGIVENESS IS NOT A GIVEN UNTIL IT IS GIVEN

Finally, Jesus told the man that his sins were forgiven because sin is not forgiven until it is forgiven. Unfortunately in modern Protestantism we have overused the doctrine of justification by faith to assume mercy, grace, and forgiveness are givens, they are automatics. They have become entitlements that we receive at birth, baptism, or confirmation. This has diminished the importance of the act of forgiveness; it has deadened the impact of its message. People live with the burden of guilt and shame because they are unable to experience the healing pronouncement. "My child, your sins are forgiven."

In 1972 a tragic accident killed seven missionaries from the Wycliff Bible Translators in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. Just before the fatal flight the plane had undergone a 100 hour inspection. The chief mechanic was stunned when he heard the news of the crash. He reviewed each step of the inspection in hopes of discovery what might have gone wrong. After hours of introspection, he finally remembered. He had been interrupted while tightening a fuel line and never returned to finish the job. That faulty connection had allowed raw fuel to spray out and catch fire with the plane was in flight. Knowing that his oversight killed seven people, the mechanic was crushed with guilt. The attempts by other mechanics and family to console him did not help in reliving his burden. For days he walked around lifeless not knowing what to do. Finally he decided to visit the family of the pilot who had died in the crash. When he stood face to face with the pilot's wife he could barely get the words our of his mouth. He sobbed in their presence. Looking at his right hand he said, "That hand took Doug's life." With those words the grieving widow embraced him. Later the mechanic would write, "Glennis sat by me and held the hand that took her husband's life....That was the most significant first step in the healing process."9

Jesus told the man that his sins were forgiven because sin is not forgiven until it is forgiven.

 THE MOST IMPORTANT WORDS

A man purchased a white mouse to feed his pet snake. Upon arriving at his home he took the unsuspecting mouse and placed it in the snake's cage. The mouse scurried about the cage in fear trying to find an escape while the mouse slumberly slept on a pile of sawdust. In desperation, the mouse began covering the snake with the sawdust. The mouse must have thought that he had solved his problem because after the snake was completely appeared calmer. The solution came from outside. The man took pity on the silly mouse and removed him from the cage.10

That mouse symbolizes for us the state of our spiritual condition. No matter how hard we try to cover or deny our sinful nature, it is fool's work. Sin is our human basic problem. We can try to cover it up or ignore it or we can pretend that it is not a serious problem but sin will eventually awake from sleep, shake off its covering, and eat us alive, if not for the saving grace of the Masters hand. That is why there are no words more important for us to hear than, "My child, your sins are forgiven."


1. Chuck Colson and Nancy Pearcey, Christianity Today, January 12, 1998 Vol. 42, No. 1, 80.
2. Margaret Gramatky Alter, Christianity Today, June 16, 1997 Vol. 41, No. 7, 28
3. William L. Lane, Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, vol. 2, ed. F. F. Bruce, (Grand Rapid MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 94.
4. Ibid.
5. Lloyd J. Ogilvie, Life Without Limits: The Message of Mark's Gospel, (Waco: Word, 1975), 49).
6. Karl Menniger, What Ever Become of Sin? (New York: Hawthrone Books, 1973), 179.
7. John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 88.
8. Richard Kieckhefer, "Major Currents in Late Medieval Devotion," Christian Spirituality, Vol II, ed. Jill Raitt, (Crossroads: New York, 1988, 104.
9. Online: http://sermonillustrations.com/s/sin.htm quoting Max Lucado, God Came Near, (Multnomah Press, 1987), 101.
10. Author unknown, Online: http://sermonillustrations.com/s/sin.htm

 

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Eastmont Presbyterian Church
200 South Kentucky
East Wenatchee WA 98802

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