Forgiven before we ask

Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 19 February 2012

Isaiah 43:18-19, 21-22, 24b-25; Psalm 41:2-5, 13-14; 2 Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ words and actions demonstrate the Kingdom of God. As we watch Jesus and listen to him, we come to understand what life looks like when God’s will is done on earth, when God is present. In the Gospel readings over the last few weeks, we have seen aspects of God’s kingdom breaking in. The casting out of the demon in the synagogue showed God’s victory over the powers of darkness; the healing stories showed God bringing wholeness to the broken; Jesus’ touching the leper challenged the purity system that kept God at a distance and showed the transformative power of holiness. In today’s Gospel, not only does Jesus heal a paralytic, but he also pronounces his sins forgiven. He doesn’t grant absolution to someone who has confessed their sins to God, but confidently proclaims to someone who hasn’t even asked: “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Some people deduce from this that Jesus is working within the worldview of the day which linked sickness and sin, so that he first removes the cause of the man’s ailment before dealing with its effects of paralysis. I don’t think so. Rather, Jesus recognises that what binds and cripples the young man is not only his physical ailment, but also his sense of guilt. To borrow the words of the psalm, his soul needs healing. Jesus restores him to wholeness at every level.

It’s easier to understand the dynamics of the psalm. There the worshipper calls out to God, and is healed and forgiven. This is the graciousness of God that we expect. But the young man in the Gospel doesn’t ask. His friends have demonstrated their faith: their commitment to their friend and confidence in Jesus is such that they’ll even break the roof of someone else’s house to get him close enough. Jesus notices and responds to their faith. But the paralytic himself appears silent.

Isaiah tells us something amazing about God’s commitment to God’s people: God rescues and forgives them even when they haven’t asked. The reading from Isaiah 43 is set during the exile, a time when God’s people were forcibly alienated from their land. The prophets had interpreted the exile as God’s punishment for the sins of the people. But now the prophet tells them to keep their eyes open for something new that God is doing. They looked to the past with nostalgia – remembering the glorious stories of the exodus and the gift of the promised land – and with guilt at their own sinfulness. Now they need to look to the future, and to the present, to see the signs of God at work. They find themselves in a barren space, and the way back seems to be an impenetrable wilderness. But God will make a way for them, and give them abundant water in the desert. Why? Not because they have managed to earn God’s forgiveness, or because they have called out to God. No, it is because they are God’s, and because that is what God is like. It is the nature of God to be compassionate and gracious. Forgiveness, the washing away of their guilt, is not the reward for appropriate penance, but the free gift of God’s grace. Jesus pronounces the paralytic forgiven not because of what he knows of the paralytic, but because of what he knows of God. Forgiveness is given, not earned. It need only be accepted.

If God’s Kingdom is where God is present and reigning, and if God is pure and holy, how can the sinners and the impure be part of that kingdom? They can’t. The solution, though, is not the exclusion of the unrighteous, but the free gift of righteousness to all who will accept it. Jesus reminds us that the holy God is also a forgiving God. Not only does God invite us into the Kingdom, God makes us worthy to enter it. Repentance, a change of heart and mind is not the prerequisite for forgiveness; forgiveness is what makes our repentance possible. As Paul puts it, God is already turned toward us with a resounding ‘yes!’ What radical divine hospitality! Forgiveness, like the Kingdom itself, is pure gift. And it is already ours in Christ Jesus.

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About Jessie Rogers

I'm a Scripture scholar and Godly Play practitioner living in Ireland.
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