In this season of Epiphany we are exploring some of the stories in the gospel of Luke about the early ministry of Jesus. These are the stories that begin to reveal to us who Jesus is. Instead of just making doctrinal statements, Luke tells stories to help us not only learn the facts but feel the power of who Jesus was and what he came to do.
The first week we talked about how John the Baptist presents Jesus as the Affirming Judge. We can either judge OR affirm, but Jesus can do both.He can correct us without shaming us.
The second week we heard the story of Jesus’ inaugural address in his hometown where he announces God’s release for everyone. He is the Releaser. Being released requires releasing, but that’s a choice we have to make for ourselves.
Last week we encountered Jesus as the Fisher of Friends. When he calls people to follow him, they have to follow him into deep water. Being a disciple involves risk and release, but also reward.
This week in a story about healing and forgiveness, we will meet Jesus as the Son of Man & Human One. You may remember when we first started studying the book of Luke, way back at Christmas, I told you that Christmas is political and Christmas is spiritual. That’s hard for us because we like to keep the political and the spiritual in separate areas. Most of us, including me, are either/or people. When I’m feeling stressed or pressured, my default position is either/or thinking. Good or bad. Right or wrong. Yes or no. We are most comfortable in an either/or world.
But as the gospel of Luke shows us again and again through these stories, Jesus does not fit into our either/or categories. Christmas is both political and spiritual. Jesus can both judge us and affirm us. Jesus releases both the insiders and the outsiders. God who is infinitely wise and creative, sent a Both/And Savior to our either/or world. This morning’s story is designed to challenge our either/or categories and open our minds to a both/and Jesus.
After last week’s story of Peter, James and John releasing everything to follow Jesus there’s one little story where Jesus is approached by a man with a skin disease. The point of the story is that not only CAN Jesus heal this man, Jesus WANTS to heal this man. And he does. Then we pick right up, still in Luke chapter 5, this time verses 17 through 26. I’m reading mostly from the Common English Bible.
One day when Jesus was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting nearby. They had come from every village in Galilee and Judea, and from Jerusalem. Now the power of the Lord was with Jesus to heal. Some men were bringing a man who was paralyzed, lying on a cot. They wanted to carry him in and place him before Jesus, but they couldn’t reach him because of the crowd. So they took him up on the roof and lowered him—cot and all—through the roof tiles into the crowded room in front of Jesus.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
The teachers of the law and Pharisees began to mutter among themselves, “Who is this who speaks blasphemy? Who is able to forgive sins but God alone?”
Jesus recognized what they were discussing and responded, “Why do you fill your minds with these questions? Which is easier—to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?
But so that you will know that the Human One (Son of Man) has authority on the earth to forgive sins” —Jesus now spoke to the man who was paralyzed, “I say to you, get up, take your cot, and go home.” Right away, the man stood before them, picked up his cot, and went home, glorifying God.
All the people were beside themselves with wonder. Filled with awe, they glorified God, saying, “We’ve seen unimaginable things today.”Luke 5:17-26, CEB
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
See what I meant when I said this story will challenge our categories? Jesus is a both/and savior for an either/or world. Let’s think together about some of the categories in this story and how Jesus transcends them.
The first category is the problem: either sin or sickness. Which one is the “real” problem of the man who is paralyzed? We are most comfortable with the idea that there is only one real problem. Or at least that one of the problems is more important than the other, that one of the problems is causing the other. But Jesus transcends that. Let me be very clear: the Bible contains multiple perspectives on whether we earn and deserve what happens to us. But here and in a few other places, Jesus specifically rejects the idea that sickness is a result of sin. That was a common belief in the ancient world but Jesus does not endorse it.
However. We are whole people. One of the most tragic separations in our modern Western worldview is the separation between the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Those things are connected in us. When Jesus meets this man who is paralyzed, the first thing he does is proclaim forgiveness. Sometimes there’s something going on internally that is affecting what’s going on externally. Sometimes what’s inside needs to be addressed first. And we trust that Jesus can see that. Jesus knows what our needs are, and the story right before this one affirms that Jesus does want to heal. If we allow this story to speak to us also on the level of imagery and metaphor, we could wonder if this man’s need for forgiveness, if his sense of shame and lack of worth, was truly “paralyzing” for him. Maybe you know what that feels like. When your certainty about your awfulness keeps you from living abundantly. Jesus knows this man needs to be released, in his spirit and in his body. It’s not an either/or problem. It’s not sin or sickness. It’s both/and.
Opening our minds about the problem then opens our mind about the solution. It’s not forgiveness or healing. It’s both/and. This man needed both the release of forgiveness and the release of physical healing. Sounds good. But the way we respond to this solution still says a lot about the categories we hold. Some people feel upset that Jesus forgives this man first. Why doesn’t he heal the man first? Why does he make this man wait? The story even sounds like maybe Jesus only heals the man to prove a point.
However. If we trust that Jesus sees more than we see in this situation, we can let the story play out. Jesus knows both what the man needs and what the Pharisees need. He knows the man needs to walk and the Pharisees need to have their minds opened. And Jesus is wise enough and creative enough to address both of those needs.
By forgiving before healing, Jesus provokes the Pharisees to ask the question they need to ask: Who is this guy? The story says the Pharisees and teachers of the law came from all over the region to hear him teach that day. They are questioning; they are seeking. They want to know who Jesus is, whether he is legit. As yet nobody has a problem with his teaching, and so Jesus does something to provoke them to ask their real question: is he really God’s representative? They have an either/or category for him: either he’s a blasphemer or he’s a prophet.
So let’s review— the problem: either sin or sickness. The solution: either forgiveness or healing. The assumption: Jesus is either blasphemer or prophet. And now Jesus’ response, which he says to both the Pharisees and the paralyzed man: “So that you, Religious People, may know that the Son of Man (or the Human One) has authority on earth to forgive sins— I say to you, Man, stand up, and pick up your stretcher, and return to your home.” Jesus addresses the needs of both.
The big both/and is this title “Son of Man” which can also be more inclusively translated as Human One. Most of you grew up hearing Son of Man and to my ears it’s more poetic. But that phrase literally translated would be Descendant of Humanity, and really smart people who love Jesus disagree about what it means. Jesus is the only one who says it and he only says it about himself. No one else calls him the Son of Man slash Human One and he doesn’t refer to anyone else that way.
We have references in literature from the ancient world before Jesus’ time, where this phrase is used to refer in a poetic general sense to a regular human person. AND it also occurs in one place in the Old Testament book of Daniel in a section that sounds very much like the book of Revelation. Let me walk you through that for a minute. Daniel has a vision of hybrid animals that is most definitely political in that it has to do with kingdoms and rulers. It’s a vision of judgment leading to the renewal of creation. In the vision Daniel also sees one who is called the “Ancient of Days” or the “Ancient One” on a throne with wheels of fire. And then there appears, “One like a Human Being that is ‘son of man’, as in NOT an animal, coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient of Days and was given everlasting dominion that shall not pass away and a kingship that shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:1-15) Now really smart people who love Jesus disagree about what all that means, but the Son of Man/Human One clearly receives divine authority to rule.
I give you all that Old Testament stuff to help you understand what an ambiguous title this is for Jesus. Is he a human one or The Human One? Is he a son of man or The Son of Man? Guess what? It’s both/and. Sometimes he uses this title about himself in situations where it seems clear that he’s numbering himself among humanity in general and sometimes he uses it in situations where he seems to want to highlight his particular mission from God. We are most comfortable with Jesus being either human or divine. But he’s both/and.
Which is where faith comes in. And before you groan and say that I’m asking you to mentally agree to the hypostatic union of divinity and humanity, let me remind you again what faith means. In fact, let this story remind you what faith means. Because this story is the first time in Luke that the word faith is used. Remember who it was used about? The people who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus. When Jesus sees their faith he speaks a word of forgiveness to the paralyzed man. This is the perfect example of how faith means trust. Relational trust. These people trusted in who Jesus was as a person, what they had heard about him, what they had probably heard from him as he taught, what they had seen him do. The trusted him and so they brought their friend to him. Trust. Faith.
We are invited to trust this Both/And Savior to restore our either/or world. We are invited to trust as Jesus muddies the waters, messes up our neat categories, addresses the political and the spiritual, releases our bodies and our spirits, heals and forgives, welcomes the insiders and outsiders. We need Jesus to save us from either/or. We need him to release us into the messy freedom of both/and. It’s confusing. We don’t know how to address the political and spiritual without getting ugly about one or the other. We don’t know how to affirm and not judge and also name injustice for what it is. We don’t know how to welcome insiders and outsiders. We struggle to hold the tension of being beloved children created in God’s image and sinners in need of grace. It’s messy. Which is why we need Jesus. Jesus, who is both the Son of Man and Human One can teach us, can lead us, can save us, if we trust him. Amen.