It was not an easy thing to do. In fact it was an audacious act of faith when you consider what they did. Imagine cutting an opening in the roof of someone’s home in order to gain access. Think about wanting something so much that you are willing to take extreme measures.
Consider the shock, the outrage, and perhaps the nervous laughter of the onlookers in that crowded room when the paralyzed man was lowered to the floor by his friends. Yet there is more to come. Jesus was deeply moved by the faith of the persons who brought the paralytic into his presence. And, in what is surely an unexpected response, he tells him his sins are forgiven. Jesus did not tell him to get up and walk, at least not at first. We are expecting healing after all; isn’t it so obvious what this paralyzed man needed?
Apparently not - he is offered forgiveness. Forgiveness, when he really needed healing. Yet there is another issue. The scribes, upon hearing the words of forgiveness from Christ, began thinking – not speaking, but thinking – that Jesus has committed blasphemy. When they began openly discussing the merits of their case or calling Jesus a blasphemer, he confronted them by asking why they raised those issues. Jesus continued his assault on their motives by asking them, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,‘ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’?” There is still more. Always the teacher, Jesus explained that he had the authority to forgive sins, and to make that point, he commanded the paralytic to pick up his mat and go home. The man does as he is told and all witnessing these events were amazed and confused.
We need clarity. No one can doubt the outcome from the paralytic’s point of view. He was healed. That much was certain. To those at the scene it was less clear why Jesus chose to offer forgiveness. Yet Jesus, who knew the hearts and the needs of everyone present, chose to see what was needed beyond the moment. He looked deep within the heart of the paralytic and saw the pain that comes from being broken. So Christ offered him forgiveness. And the paralytic took it. It was a moment of grace.
That leaves the issue of healing. Those bringing the paralytic to Jesus believed that he would be physically healed. Those bearing the paralytic into the presence of Christ had faith. No doubt they were stunned by the paradoxical behavior of Jesus. Yet, in a display of his authority to forgive sin, Jesus healed the paralytic.
Perhaps a more modern-day telling of a parallel story might increase our understanding of the relationship between forgiveness and healing. In 1972 a most disturbing wartime photograph was published by every major world newspaper. The image of a naked, severely burned, nine-year-old Vietnamese girl running down the road surrounded by soldiers was seared into our collective memory. The picture was taken after the South Vietnamese Air Force had dropped Napalm on her village. The gasoline-based gel burned her clothes off. The photographer was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The young girl in the photograph was forgotten by most. Or so it seemed. A United States Army pilot and operations officer, John Plummer, coordinated the raid on the girl’s village. Plummer first saw the photo in the United States Armed Services newspaper Stars and Stripes shortly after the bombing and was devastated by the imagery. He would later report that he was knocked to his knees after seeing the picture for the first time. Plummer also believed he could never bring himself to talk about the incident. He was tormented by his complicity in the bombing and reported having nightmares that included the imagery from the photo and the sounds of children screaming. Plummer had a painful secret. And he believed it was his to keep.
The girl in the photo, Pham Thi Kim Phuc, endured seventeen operations to correct the injuries she sustained. She later moved to Toronto and would, on occasion, serve as a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO. In1996 Plummer heard she would be speaking at the Veterans Day observance in Washington, DC. He attended the ceremonies. Kim’s speech emboldened Plummer. In her remarks she said, “If I could talk face to face with the pilot that dropped the bombs, I would tell him we cannot change history, but we should try to do good things for the present….” Upon hearing this, Plummer sent her the following note, “I am that man.” He was escorted into Kim’s presence. Those witnessing their meeting saw Plummer fall into her arms while sobbing and saying repeatedly “I am so sorry. I’m just so sorry.”
Kim comforted him as best she could, telling Plummer “It’s all right…I forgive…I forgive.” A few weeks later, in an Associated Press wire photo, they were standing close enough for their heads to touch, both smiling, as if he had never ordered the bombing that left her scarred and in chronic pain. Kim and Plummer’s relationship continues to this day. This story illustrates the healing power of forgiveness.
Jesus always acts in our best interests even when we misunderstand his motives and our own. He offers both healing and forgiveness. Of these two, which is easier for us to receive?