Forgiven (Matthew 9:1-13)

It’s one of the most wonderful words you can hear isn’t it? You’ve well and truly messed up this time.  You’ve allowed something to catch fire in the microwave and whilst attending to that, you’ve allowed the sink upstairs to overflow so that water has rained through the ceiling into your front room. Then in an attempt to dry out the carpet with a hair dryer you’ve managed to scorch it.[1] Then the moment you were dreading arrives. Your wife walks in the house from work and you are braced for her disappointment. Instead, she comes across and hugs you.

“I’m sorry” you say

“I forgive you” she responds

There they are, are those beautiful, essential, healing words “I forgive you.”  These are the words that each one of us needs to hear.  Now, it might be that you need to hear them from another person, a parent, spouse or child you’ve let down, someone in the church you’ve hurt, a friend you’ve failed. That feeling of being unforgiven, in someone’s debt, knowing that you are judged sticks with you and now it hurts you as you experience ongoing guilt and shame.

This is particularly true in church life and perhaps for some of us, the COVID-19 lockdown has been a form of blessing.  It would just be too hard to see the person you let down face to face. Dare I say it, for some of us, COVID is giving us a reason to stay away but really it’s because we can sit in the safety of Facebook  invisibility. It’s not the virus we are afraid of. It’s the things that were happening before the virus kicked in.

And if we are holding back from fellowship and gathering with God’s people, then perhaps this is the reminder that above all, it is God’s forgiveness we need.

Today’s message is very simple.

You need to come to Jesus for forgiveness.

I want you to see in the reading the connection between the two events.  Both events, the healing of a paralytic and Christ’s association with tax collectors are about his ability to forgive. In the first. The question is over his authority to forgive, in the second it is the types of people he forgives that is questioned.

Who can forgive sins? (Matthew 9:1-8)

This is perhaps one of the most familiar stories in the Bible. We often use it as part of our First Look Course. Here, the message is really driven home as Matthew strips the narrative back to remove some of the additional details. Jesus is back in Capernaum which had become his home town or base. Matthew doesn’t tell us about the house he is in or the need for the paralytic’s friends to clamber onto the roof and rip it up. Instead he gets straight to the encounter with Jesus and the saviour’s words.

“Be encouraged, my child! Your sins are forgiven.”[2]

The religious leaders are disturbed by this. In their mind, it is blasphemy because only God can truly forgive sin. You see, whilst on one level, I can forgive someone their debt to me, the ability to completely absolve all sin belongs to God alone. Jesus isn’t saying “Hey mate, I know you upset me last Wednesday but just to let you know, we’re all good now.” No, Jesus is saying “Everything you have ever said, thought or done that was wrong, that caused hurt, that you feel ashamed and guilty of, even the things no-one else knows about, it is all forgiven.” Only God can do that. David sums this up in Psalm 51 when he says “Against you only have I sinned.”

Jesus knows their hearts and asks the famous question about whether it is easier to heal or to forgive. Then he heals the man to demonstrate that he has the authority to forgive sin. Now, notice at this point, that whilst apologetically we want to make the link to God’s authority to forgive and Christ’s action in order to show that Christ must be God, this is not the direct logical move that the crowd make. They are amazed that God has given this authority to men.

What I would say at this stage is that the authority is specifically given not to men in general but to one man, to Jesus. Whilst we will have the authority to pronounce forgiveness, it is he only that can give God’s absolute and complete forgiveness. Furthermore, this then does have to be because he is fully God and fully man.  The important thing to learn though is not that Jesus is God, that point is well made throughout Scripture. This is not an intellectual exercise about Christ’s metaphysical identity. Rather, the point we need to grasp is that he is the one who is able to forgive our sin. Jesus is the one who can forgive you.

Who can be forgiven? (v9-13)

Jesus then comes to a tax booth. There is Matthew, one of the tax collectors waiting to catch people as they passed by and charge the relevant toll. Of course, this is the author of the Gospel giving his own testimony. Tax collectors were hated. They were outsiders, unclean and unwanted like the leper we met at the start of chapter 8.  They were seen as traitors, collaborators with Rome and they were seen as fraudsters who cheated in order to make as much money as possible.  These were your loan sharks and your internet scam artists. Today, Matthew would be ringing you up and saying “Good afternoon, it seems you have a virus on your computer” or “Have you been sold PPI.”

You didn’t have anything to do with tax collectors if you were righteous.  Yet, here is Jesus stopping to talk to Matthew and inviting him to join the team.  Then, there is Jesus having dinner with more tax collectors. Do you get how shocking this was? Imagine that you are looking on, perhaps you have been fleeced out of money by these guys leading to great hardship. Perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of an unhappy encounter with them as they sent in the heavies to get you to cough up. Now here is Jesus, the one who has also been there healing your son or daughter and he’s mixing with them. He’s accepting their hospitality and breaking bread with them.

The religious leaders are scandalised most of all. Of course, beinfd their religious respectability, we know with hindsight that they were as bas as the tax collectors, they were as compromised politically and as corrupt ethically. Yet they stand in judgement. Jesus is mixing with sinners.  Now, we get this today don’t we. We understand that nasty dangerous, viral stuff spreads and contaminates, so it is important to keep your social distance from those spreading death. Well, just as much as for viruses, so spiritual uncleanness was seen to transfer that way. Yet here is Jesus, walking into the pub, taking off his mask and hugging people. 

Again, Jesus challenges them. He says two things, first of all that the sick are the ones who need doctors. Jesus is the healer, saviour. This means it is for people exactly like these tax collectors that he has come. If the religious leaders don’t think they need forgiving, cleansing and healing, well then, they don’t need Jesus. Then he reminds them that God in the Old Testament says that he isn’t interested in their sacrifices but in their mercy. The sting is that they are not as righteous as they think. God has already rejected their religiosity and instead required changed hearts. They do need a saviour after all.

Here is the point. It is the very people that even religious leaders look at as beyond redemption that Jesus came to forgive. One of my lecturers at Oak Hill, Kirsten Birkett used to lecture on pastoral care. She asked once “What would you do if a young man came to your study, troubled, awkward obviously nervous about fessing up to his problem?” Her own answer was that she would ask him “Is it pornography?” Why? Well by naming the most awkward, shameful subject possible she has given him permission to speak. If it is porn, then she has named it, if it is something less embarrassing to talk about than that, then the bar of what will shock her has been set suitably high.

I want you to get this. Jesus was able to welcome and forgive traitors and con artists, prostitutes, thieves and terrorists. Jesus can forgive you too.  Who can be forgiven? I can be forgiven.

Conclusion

What will your response be?  It should be for each of us to say that we will come to Jesus, that we will ask him for forgiveness. For those of us who know him already, there is that daily forgiveness of sin. If you don’t know Jesus yet, then come to him now and pray. Ask him to forgive you, to cleanse you and to come to live within your life.

“I take comfort in the hope
Of the thief upon the cross
For I am worthy of as little love as he.
Like this man, I won’t despair
For life’s ahead, what joy we’ll share
Now there is grace awaiting me, awaiting me!”


[1] This scenario is in fact a composite of a number of actual events from the last year.

[2] Matthew 9:2.

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