“Forgiveness and Restoration”
October 13, 2013
Jesus forgives and calls sinners.
I. He frees those paralyzed by sin (Matthew 9:1-8)
II. He establishes a relationship with sinners. (Matthew 9:9-13)
I spent a lot of time as I began writing this sermon looking at examples of great forgiveness. And there are many, ranging from those cruelly imprisoned forgiving their captors to victims forgiving the evildoers who harmed them or killed their loved ones, to wives forgiving their husband’s unfaithfulness.
But as astounding as great examples of human forgiveness may be, they are nothing compared to the forgiveness that is our central focus today. The king came to us in the person of Jesus Christ and offered us not merely human forgiveness of our sins against each other but the forgiveness of our sins against a holy and loving God who had done nothing to deserve our injury. Jesus, in one of the most astonishing acts of human history walked among us offering God’s forgiveness. And the astonishment of that moment was only trumped by the moment when he secured that forgiveness for us by his death on the cross.
In the Sermon on the Mount, in what we call the Lord’s prayer, Jesus taught his disciples to pray to the Father saying “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” But he hasn’t, until now, done anything in word or deed to show that he has authority to forgive sins. Now, in the incident with the paralyzed man in Matthew 9:1-8 and in the calling of Matthew himself, verses 9-13, Jesus shows that he is here with the authority to forgive sins and the desire to fellowship with sinners who turn to him. Matthew 9:1-8:
And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. 2And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” 3And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” 4But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 6But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . .” He then said to the paralytic, “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 7And he rose and went home. 8When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.
Verse 1 really wraps up to the events of Chapter 8, on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, all concerned with showing his authority as the king among us. Now Jesus returns to ‘his’ town, which is no doubt is Capernaum. So verse 2 begins a new account, which may not have taken place immediately following the crossing of the lake. They may not even be in chronological order. We know, for example, that Mark’s Gospel describes these events in chapter 2.
Remember too that Matthew often abbreviates compared to the other Gospels, so you may not recognize this as the account of the men who lowered their friend through the roof of Peter’s house. But the placement, words and outcome show it is the same event. Notice, for example that verse 2 says ‘some men’ brought a paralytic and that Jesus saw ‘their’ faith. Matthew simply chooses not to distract us with the vivid imagery. But this is the only account in the Gospels where Jesus commends ‘their faith,’ the faith of a group of people.
I want to take a moment to enjoy this. Often we think of faith as purely individual. And that’s true and powerful: we must each individually come to faith in Christ for rescue and renewal. But this faith doesn’t have to grow in a vacuum: it often grows in community. So imagine these four guys sitting around with their friend, the five of them having a heated discussion about this Jesus and the things he’s done; coming to the consensus that he could heal Jacob – or whatever the man’s name was. And so they carry Jacob to the house. When they discover the crowd is too big, they have another faith-growing conversation where they decide ‘we’ll just put him down through the roof.’
So often faith is expressed in a community; much of God’s work has been done by communities of people, not just by outstanding individuals. The disciples are one example. Or think of the 1957 Ecuadorean martyrs: Jim Elliot wasn’t there by himself, he was with a band of brothers who together faced death. Over the centuries groups of monks and nuns and theologians and seminarians have spurred one another on not just to love and good works, but to faith itself.
So when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven." Just as we paused to enjoy ‘their’ faith so we must enjoy Jesus’ audacity. There is no hint this man’s paralysis is the direct or even indirect result of sin, though it is possible; Scripture does record such things. Paul says to the Corinthians that because of their lack of faith in Jesus’ atonement, they are “weak and ill, and some have died.” On the other hand Jesus, when asked whose sin was responsible for a man’s blindness, said, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Here I don’t think Jesus is affirming or denying a possible link between sin and sickness. Instead he’s simply showing that just as he has authority over sickness, so also he has authority to forgive sin, even before his crucifixion.
Certainly, whether it was related to his affliction or not, this man like all men had sinned. And that was the man’s true core problem, and the true quest of his faith and the faith of his companions. So Jesus says, ‘let’s address the most important issue here; I see your faith, your sins are forgiven.’ It’s astonishing.
And the teachers of the law who are apparently watching all that Jesus does are astonished. They say to themselves "This fellow is blaspheming!" And in Mark and Luke the Gospel writers add ‘who can forgive sins but God alone. Matthew, in his quest to condense, doesn’t feel the need to add that, because to trespass on God’s prerogatives and name was the essence of blasphemy. Matthew’s readers knew that only God could forgive sin, and it was inconceivable to the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus could in any way be God.
But he is. He knows the faith of the paralytic and his friends because he can perceive their hearts. And he knows the hearts of the scribes and he can see their thoughts, and so he says to them “Why do you think evil in your hearts?” They inwardly accuse him of blasphemy, but in reality it’s their thoughts that are blasphemous. If it’s true that no one can forgive sin but God alone, then to doubt that Jesus could forgive was to accuse him of not really being God.
He goes on “For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? Again, you have to love the way Jesus confronts things. This is at least doubly ironic. On one level it is way easier to say ‘your sins are forgiven,’ because that cannot be measured. Jesus had already said it, and no one looking on could tell if it had accomplished anything.
So on one level it’s easier to say ‘your sins are forgiven;’ – but not if you’re serious about doing it. Whatever was physically wrong with this man, all it took was a rearrangement of molecules and atoms to speak health. He may well have been ill with something that modern medicine, with only the help of common grace, could nonetheless cure. But for a holy God to forgive, when every sin is an offense against his own character and against the very fabric of the universe he created, that is a true miracle.
And we don’t believe it. For generations we have been taught that forgiveness is God’s thing, it’s just what he does. But there is no reason for God to forgive. Every argument of justice and equity calls him to swift, complete judgment. It is only his pure unearned grace and infinite love that saves us.
My favorite verses to this effect are Hosea 11. God is lamenting the evil of his people and explaining the punishment justice insists they deserve: “They shall not return to the land of Egypt, but Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. 6The sword shall rage against their cities, consume the bars of their gates, and devour them because of their own counsels. 7My people are bent on turning away from me, and though they call out to the Most High, he shall not raise them up at all.”
But then he says: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” The miracle of grace is that a God who wholly and utterly requires justice has found a way to allow mercy to triumph, though the death of the Savior.
Jesus illustrates the sheer magnitude of God’s forgiveness with a parable: “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. 24When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all he had, and payment to be made. 26So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30He refused and went and put him in prison.”
The main point is that having been forgiven much, we should also forgive. But I was struck by the wild difference between what we are forgiven and what we are asked to forgive. The second man owed a lot of money, a hundred denarii, equivalent maybe to $12,000 in our terms, a hundred days wages. But the first man owed his master ten thousand talents, each talent being almost 9000 denarii, for a total forgiveness of six billion dollars. Do you think Jesus didn’t know this was an unreasonably large debt? Sure he did. He was reminding us that the debt God forgives when he forgives our sins is incalculably large.
So the Pharisees were right that to claim the power to forgive sin is to claim to be God. Exactly. Verse 6: But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . .” He then said to the paralytic, “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 7And he rose and went home.” I love the way Matthew understates the actual miracles: the guy was paralyzed; his friends had to carry him; but at Jesus’s word he simply got up and went home.
Verse 8: “When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.” Here was a man acting with the authority of God. And this terrified them. They were afraid because standing in front of them was a man so filled with God’s authority that he could not only rescue from physical sickness but also forgive sin.
If we even faintly grasp the nature of our offenses and rebellion against God, that’s a scary thought. As Carson says “Men should fear the one who has the authority to forgive sins. Indeed they should fear whenever confronted by an open manifestation of God Such fear,” he says, “breeds praise.”
So what have we seen? Jesus claims authority to forgive sins, and he does so. But you can’t see forgiven sin, so the evidence he chooses to leave behind him is healing. The problem we have is that we really think it’s more difficult for God to heal than to forgive. We tend to value the healing more highly; we pray for each other for healing: do we ever pray for each other that God would forgive us. Do you ever pray for me that God would forgive me my sins?
Part of the reason we don’t is that on this side of the cross we think we know where forgiveness comes from and what price was paid. But if we really knew the six billion sufferings of God’s self-sacrifice for us in Jesus, we would not take forgiveness lightly. We must not allow ourselves to take it for granted, to go on sinning that grace might increase. In the words of the Apostle John we must confess our sins, and we will find that He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. And in the words of Jesus to some of those he healed, though not to this paralytic, we must go and sin no more. We must so depend on Jesus daily and be so caught up in our relationship with him that our vulnerability to sin is weakened.
This relational aspect of His ministry to sinners is illustrated in the remaining verses of our text. Matthew 9:9-13: As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. 10And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
This calling probably occurs on the outskirts of Capernaum. Matthew was sitting "at the tax collector's booth," a customs and excise booth at the border between the territories of Philip and Herod Antipas. Like all of the Jewish tax collectors, Matthew would have been despised, both because of the cheating greed that characterized their vocation and because his contact with Gentiles made him ritually unclean. But Jesus, having demonstrated his authority to forgive sins, now called to himself a man who would be instantly recognized as a sinner and an associate of sinners.
And as you read these few verses don’t fail to make the connection that this Matthew Jesus is calling is the same Matthew who is writing this Gospel. We’re seeing this event and many of these events through his eyes. For example, in the parallel accounts in Mark and Luke, he is called Levi. In that culture, as in many cultures, people might be called by more than one name. Apparently Matthew’s formal name was Matthew – that’s how even Mark lists him among the disciples, but his common name, possibly even a nickname, was Levi.
In addition, Luke puts some emphasis on the fact that Matthew left everything to follow Jesus. Matthew doesn’t mention it. He simply records the simple yet obviously compelling ‘follow me’ of Jesus and the equally simple respond: ‘he rose and followed him.’ Again, we need to pause to enjoy this. Jesus chooses an obvious sinner and calls him to follow, calls him into relationship. This is an awesome testimony not only to his forgiveness, but to the fact that his heart, his mission was to establish relationship with those who had been estranged from him and from His father. He did not come to find the best and most righteous people and give them an exclusive contract to religious celebrity. Far, far, far from it. He came to seek and save the lost, the lowest, the most needy, the most hurting, the most broken – that is, you and me.
Even the Apostle Paul, who was something of a religious celebrity, came to the wonderful realization that “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the chief.” And so all of us can be reminded that though we are sinners, Jesus did not come to ignore, condemn or even judge us – as John says, the judgment comes from our own choices. Instead Jesus came as Messiah King to rescue, forgive and restore us, to call us to follow and to walk with us through the cares and ministry of life in a fallen world. He is all about relationship and we are the recipients of his sovereign desire for relationship.
This is seen in what happens next: Jesus goes to Matthew’s house. Matthew himself doesn’t make it perfectly plain that it is his house, but Luke and Mark do. Verse 10: “And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples.” We’ve talked before about the huge importance of table fellowship in that culture. You extended your hand of approval and blessing and you signaled the existence of relationships, new or old, by those you welcomed at your table. And one of the things I love about Jesus in the Gospels is that no matter whose house he was at, he was the one who was seen as extending that fellowship. Matthew would have been expected to eat with these people, but for Jesus to sit down at a table with tax collectors and so called sinners was a remarkable breach of standard social etiquette and a remarkable testimony to the true compassion and love of the Father expressed by the Son.
But the Pharisees, characteristically, didn’t get it. Verse 11: And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” "Sinners" included common folk who didn’t share all the scruples of the Pharisees, and any others who broke the Pharisaic rules of conduct: harlots, thieves and other disreputable people. Though eating with them might lead to ceremonial uncleanness, Jesus and his disciples did so.
This is how Jesus became known as a friend to tax collectors and sinners. And he reveled in the association. Verse 12: 12But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” The sick need a doctor, and Jesus healed them; likewise the sinful need mercy, forgiveness, restoration, and Jesus healed them as well. The Pharisees were not so healthy as they thought; more important they did not understand the purpose of Jesus' mission. Expecting a Messiah who would crush the sinful and support the righteous, they had little place for one who accepted and transformed the sinner and dismissed the "righteous" as hypocrites.
So, verse 13: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” The quotation is from Hosea 6:6 and is introduced by the common phrase "go and learn," used by the rabbis of those who needed to study the text further. When Jesus says it, it has to be slightly ironic: those who prided themselves in knowledge of and conformity to Scripture needed to "go and learn" what it means.
The Hebrew word for "mercy" is chesed, God’s steadfast love. This kind of love, according to Hosea, is more important than "sacrifice." God said that the people of Hosea's day, though continuing the formal ritual of temple worship, had lost its heart. As applied to the Pharisees by Jesus, therefore, the Hosea quotation was not simply telling them that they should be more sympathetic to outcasts and less concerned about ceremonial purity, but that they were aligned with the apostates of ancient Israel; they too preserved the shell while losing the heart. Jesus' final statement, that he has not come to call the righteous but sinners, cannot therefore mean that he viewed the Pharisees as righteous people who did not need him. He cannot be teaching that these people were already perfectly acceptable to God by virtue of their obedience to his laws. If the Pharisees were so righteous, then his earlier demand for righteousness surpassing that of the Pharisees would be meaningless.
On the other hand, it may not be exactly right to say that "righteous" is ironic here. The saying simply defines the essential nature of Jesus' messianic mission as he himself saw it. It’s not that he would deny the universal sinfulness of man, but here he’s talking more about how men see him and themselves.
On the one hand, he is denying the Pharisees image of what Messiah should be and do, replacing it with the correct image. He’s teaching that his mission is characterized by grace, that he pursues lost sinners, calls them, invites them to himself. So those who do not see themselves rightly in the light of Jesus' mission fail to grasp the purpose of his coming and they exclude themselves from the kingdom's blessings, because they do not respond to the king’s call.
I mentioned at the beginning that I had run across a lot of illustrations and examples of human forgiveness. But I also ran across a couple that offer striking examples of God’s forgiveness, what we’re focused on today, and I want to close with one that leans that way. You may have heard this, it’s been around for years, and Max Lucado had an extended version of it in one of his books. His version is too long, but the original story was pretty short and it reminds us that we are offered and receive a father’s forgiveness.
So the story goes that in Spain, a father and son had become estranged. The son ran away, and the father set off to find him. He searched for months to no avail. Finally, in a last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in a Madrid newspaper. The ad read: Dear Paco, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father. On Saturday 800 Pacos showed up, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers.
The point we’re making today is that we’re all Pacos, we’re all runaways, and God has come searching for us. And he offers us forgiveness and the restoration of relationship if we will simply show up, turn to him, respond to his invitation and his call. He offers to forgive the incalculable wrong we have done him, and to pay the six billion sacrifice for us, and make us his own sons and daughters. That’s the true and shocking beauty of forgiveness, and that’s what Jesus offers us. It’s also the true and shocking beauty of relationship, and he offers that to you today as well.