It would be easy for me to stand here and say your sins are forgiven. After all, how could anyone prove it one way or another? For that matter, how do we know when we’re forgiven? It’s not like telling a paralytic man he can get up and walk. In that case it would be obvious if it were true, because we could all see the man get up and walk.
In the gospel story today there seems to be some questions about what the experience of the forgiveness of sin is like and by what authority this is possible. The common thread in both questions is one of faith, a trusting in God’s truth.
Unlike the paralytic man and his four friends, the scribes don’t have faith in Jesus, and so they accuse him of blasphemy, claiming that the power to forgive sin rests in God alone. In the days of Jesus this recognition of the forgiveness of sins by God was normally demonstrated once a year in a communal act of burning a sacrificial bull and goat, while driving a live goat, a scapegoat bearing the people’s sins, out of the town. By earnestly appealing to God’s mercy and offering sacrifice, God would forgive them and absolve them of their sins.
Jesus’ words and actions offered a new perspective on sin, and challenged the belief that appeasing God with ritual sacrifice under the auspices of the high priests was necessary for forgiveness. He claims that the “Son of Man” has authority on earth to forgive sins. Scholars debate the precise meaning of the phrase “Son of Man.” It could be a reference to being a typical human being on earth or it could be a reference to the messiah, especially in the role of suffering and dying to save us. We don’t need to pick an interpretation, though, since we can learn about three ways of seeing God’s mercy and forgiveness from looking at both.
In Jesus’ role as the suffering and dying messiah he becomes the only sacrifice needed for our sin to be forgiven. His authority and power come from the part he plays in our salvation as God’s beloved Son, and the only thing left for us to do is to have faith in Jesus as our Savior, suffering, dying, and living anew for us.
In Jesus’ other role as an ordinary human being he shares his authority and power with us, as we learn that the responsibility for, and the experience of, being forgiven ultimately rests in us. Our identity as beloved children of an all-merciful and all-loving God means that God doesn’t choose to forgive so much as offering forgiveness is part of God’s nature. We can compare God’s forgiveness with the shade of a tree. If I were to walk up to a tree one very hot and sunny day, and, standing just out of its shade, ask “tree, please shade me,” the tree might reply that the shade has been here all along, and all I have to do is let myself be with it.
There’s also another level of God’s truth here that we find if we combine both interpretations of “Son of Man,” Jesus as the divine messiah and simply human. In this case, Jesus’ power and authority come from living in union with God, serving as a reminder to us that we are all heirs to this way of being in the world. Living in union with God, there’s really no such thing as forgiveness, or punishment for that matter. As Julian of Norwich writes: “Our soul is oned to God, unchangeable goodness, and therefore between God and our soul there is neither wrath nor forgiveness because there is no between.”
So it turns out I can stand here and say “your sins are forgiven,” because either Jesus has done all the work already, or God’s forgiveness, like the shade of a tree, is simply always available to us, or we realize there’s no need of forgiveness, because the separation between us and God is an illusion. In any case, the only thing we need to do to experience God’s mercy, love, and compassion is follow the way of Jesus and let ourselves surrender to the Truth of Christ in our hearts. And the proof, if anyone asks, is the feeling of being restored in closeness, trust, and intimacy with the Holy One.
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