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The Healing of the Paralytic
by Richard Chenevix Trench
Chapter 9 from The Miracles of our Lord
Matt ix. 1-8;   Mark ii. 1-12;   Luke v. 17-26
(See original for extensive footnotes.)
THE account of St. Luke would leave us altogether in ignorance where this miracle of healing took place; but from St. Matthew we learn that it was in 'his own city,’ by which we should understand Capernaum, even if St. Mark had not named it, for as Bethlehem was Christ’s birth-place, and Nazareth his nursing-place, so Capernaum his dwelling-place. We have, therefore, here one of the ‘mighty works’ with which at a later day He upbraided that greatly favoured but impenitent city (Matt. xi. 23). ‘And it came to pass on a certain day as He was teaching, that there were Pharisees and doctors of the law sitting by, which were come out of every town of Galilee, and Judaea, and Jerusalem.’ It may have been a conference, more or less friendly upon the part of these, which had brought together as listeners and spectators a multitude so great that all avenues of approach to the house were blocked up; ‘there was no room to receive them, no, not so much as about the door;' and thus for later comers no opportunity, by any ordinary way, of near access to the Lord (cf. Matt. xii. 46, 47). Among these were some ‘bringing one sick of the palsy.’ Only St. Mark records for us that he ‘was borne of four;' he and St. Luke the novel method which they took to bring him whom they bore within that circle of healing which ever encompassed the Lord: ‘When they could not come nigh unto Him for the press, they uncovered the roof where He was; and when they had broken it up, they let down the bed wherein the sick of the palsy lay.’ They first ascended to the roof; for, in Fuller’s words, ‘love will creep, but faith will climb, where it cannot go;’ yet this was not so difficult, because commonly there was a flight of steps on the outside of the house, reaching to the roof; in addition to, or sometimes instead of, an internal communication of the same kind. Such every traveller in those parts of southern Spain which bear a permanent impress of Eastern habits will have seen. Our Lord assumes the existence of such when He gives this counsel, ‘Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take anything out of his house’ (Matt. xxiv. 17), he is to take the nearest and shortest way of escaping into the country: but he could only avoid the necessity of descending through the house by the existence of such steps as these. Some will have it that the bearers here, having thus reached the roof, did no more than let down their sick through the grating or trap-door, already existing there (cf. 2 Kin. i. 2), or at most, enlarged such an aperture, till it would allow the passage of their sick man and his bed. Others, that Jesus was sitting in the open court, round which the houses in the East are commonly built; that to this they got access by the roof, and having broken through the breast-work or battlement (Deut. xxii. 8) made of tiles, which guarded the roof, and withdrawn the linen awning which was stretched over the court, let down their burden in the midst. But all this is without necessity and without warrant. St. Mark can mean nothing else than that a portion of the actual roof was removed, and so the bed on which the palsied man lay let down before the Lord. This will seem less strange, if only we keep in mind that in all likelihood an upper chamber (operwon) was the scene of this miracle. This, as the most retired (2 Kin. iv. 10, LXX; Acts ix. 37), and often the largest room in the house, extending over its whole area, was much used for purposes such as now drew the Lord and his hearers together (Acts i. 13; xx. 8).

He who never takes ill that faith which brings men to Him, but only the unbelief which keeps them from Him, is in nothing offended at this interruption; yea, rather beheld with an eye well pleased the boldness of this act of theirs: ‘Jesus, seeing their faith, said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, be of good cheer; thy sins be forgiven thee;’ or as it is in St. Luke, ‘Man, thy sins are forgiven thee.’ But as He addresses another sorrowful soul ‘Daughter, be of good comfort’ (Matt. ix. 22), probably the tenderer appellation here also found place. Had we only the account of St. Matthew, we might be at a loss to understand wherein their special faith consisted, or why their faith, more than that of many others who brought their sick to Jesus (cf. Mark vi. 56; vii. 32), should have been noted; but the other Evangelists explain what he has left obscure. From them we learn that it was a faith which overcame hindrances, and was not to be turned aside by difficulties. ‘Their faith’ is not, as Jerome and Ambrose understand it, the faith of the bearers only. To them the praise justly was due; but the sick man must have approved what they did, or it would not have been done: and Chrysostom, with more reason, affirms that it was alike their faith and his, and his more eminently even than theirs, which the Lord saw, approved, and rewarded.

In what follows we have a beautiful example of the way in which the Giver of all good things gives before we ask, and better than we ask. This poor suppliant had as yet asked nothing; save, indeed, in the dumb asking of that earnest effort to come near to the Lord; and all that in that he dared to ask, certainly all that his friends and bearers sought for him, was that he might be healed of his palsy. Yet in him, no doubt, there was a deep feeling of the root out of which all sickness grows, namely, out of sin; perhaps in his own sickness has recognized the penalty of some especial sin whereof his conscience accused him.  ‘Son, be of good cheer,’ are words addressed to one evidently burdened with a more intolerable weight than that of his bodily infirmities. Some utterance upon his part of a penitent and contrite heart called out these gracious words and those which follow, ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee.’ In other instances the forgiveness of sins follows the outward healing; for we may certainly presume that such a forgiveness was the portion of the thankful Samaritan (Luke xvii. 19), of the impotent man, first healed, and then warned to sin no more (John v. 14); but here the remission of sin takes the precedence: nor is it hard to see the reason of this. In the sufferer’s own conviction there existed so close a connexion between his sin and his sickness, that the outer healing would have been scarcely intelligible to him, would have hardly brought home to him the sense of a benefit, unless in his conscience he had been also set free; per-haps he was incapable even of receiving the benefit, till the message of peace had been spoken to his spirit. The Epistle of St. James supplies an interesting parallel (v. 14, 15), where the same inner connexion is assumed between the raising of the sick and the forgiving of his sin. Those others, with a slighter sense than this man of the relation between their sin and their suffering, were not first forgiven and then healed; but thankfulness for their bodily healing first made them receptive of that better blessing, the ‘grace upon grace,’ which afterwards they obtained.

The absolving words are not optative only, no mere desire that so it might be, but declaratory that so it was; the man’s sins were forgiven. Nor yet were they declaratory only of something which past in the mind and intention of God; but, even as the words were spoken, there was shed abroad in his heart the sense of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. For indeed God’s justification of a sinner is not merely a word spoken about him, but a word spoken to him and in him; not an act of God’s immanent in Himself, but transitive upon the sinner. In it there is the love of God, and so the consciousness of that love, shed abroad in his heart upon whose behalf the absolving decree has been uttered (Rom. v. 5). The murmurers and cavillers understood rightly what the Lord meant by these words; that He, so speaking, did not merely wish and desire that this man’s sins might be forgiven him; that He did not, as the Church does now, in the name of another and wielding a delegated power, but in his own name, forgive him. They also understood rightly of this forgiveness of sins, that it is a divine prerogative; that, as no man can remit a debt save he to whom the debt is due, so no one can forgive sin save He against whom all sin is committed, that is, God; and out of this conviction, most true in itself, but most false in their present application of it, they said within themselves, ‘Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies (cf. John x. 33)? Who can forgive sins but God only ?'

Olshausen would have us to pause here, and note the profound insight into the relations between God and the creature, involved in the scriptural use of the word ‘blasphemy.’ Profane antiquity knew nothing like it. With it ‘to blaspheme’ meant only to speak evil of a person’ (a use not foreign to Scripture, i Cor. iv. 13; Tit. iii. 2; 2 Pet. 2; Jud. 8), and then, to speak something of an evil omen. The monotheistic religion alone included in blasphemy not merely words of cursing and outrage against the name of God, but all snatchings on the part of the creature at honours which of right belonged only to the Creator (Matt. xxvi. 65; John x. 36). Had He who in his own name declared, ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee,’ been less than the only-begotten Son of the Father, the sharer in all prerogatives of the Godhead, He would indeed have spoken blasphemies, as they deemed. Believing Him only a man, they were right in saying He blasphemed. Their sins were not in this, but in that self-chosen blindness of theirs, which would not allow them to recognize any glory in Him higher than man’s; in the pride and the obstinacy which led them, having arrived at a foregone conclusion as to what kind of Saviour they would have, wilfully to close their eyes to all in their own Scriptures which set Him forth as other than they had themselves resolved He should be.’

It is not for nothing that the Lord is said to have ‘perceived in his spirit that they so reasoned within themselves.’  His soul was human, but his ‘spirit’ was divine; and by this divine faculty, He perceived the unspoken counsels and meditations of their hearts (John vi. 61), and perceiving laid them bare: just as in another place He is said to have ‘answered’ the unuttered as though it had been the uttered thought of the Pharisee at whose table He sat (Luke vii. 40) They should be doubly convinced; and first by the proof which He gave that the thoughts and meditations of all hearts were open and manifest to Him, while yet it is God only who searches into these (I Sam. xvi. 7; I Chron. xxvii. 9; 2 Chron. vi. 30; Jer. xvii. 10; Prov. xv. 11); only of the Divine Word could it be affirmed that ‘He is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart’ (Heb. iv. 12).  ‘Why reason ye these things in your hearts?’ this was their first conviction. And the second: ‘Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk?’ He indicates to them here the exact line in which their hard and unrighteous thoughts of Him were at that moment travelling. Something of this sort they were murmuring within themselves, ‘These honours are easily snatched. Any pretender may go about the world, saying to this man and that, “Thy sins be forgiven thee.” But where is the evidence that his word is allowed and ratified in heaven, that this which is spoken on earth is sealed in heaven? The very nature of the power which this man claims secures him from conviction; for this releasing of a man from the condemnation of his sin is an act wrought in the inner spiritual world, attested by no outer and visible sign; therefore it is easily challenged, since any disproof of it is impossible.’ And our Lord’s answer, meeting this evil thought in their hearts, is in fact this: ‘You accuse Me that I am claiming a safe power, since, in the very nature of the benefit bestowed, no sign follows, nothing to testify whether I have challenged it rightly or not. I will therefore put Myself now to a more decisive proof. I will speak a word, I will claim a power, which if I claim falsely, I shall be convinced upon the instant as an impostor and a deceiver. But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins (He saith to the sick of the palsy), I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy bed,” and go thy way into thine house. By the effects, as they follow or do not follow, you may judge whether I have a right to say to him, Thy sins be forgiven thee.'

In our Lord’s argument it must be carefully noted that He does not ask, ‘Which is easiest, to forgive sins, or to raise a sick man?’ for it could not be affirmed that that of forgiving was easier than this of healing; but, ‘Which is easiest to claim this power, or to claim that; to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee, or to say, Arise and walk?’ And He then proceeds: ‘That is easiest, and I will now prove my right to say it, by saying with effect and with an outward consequence setting its seal to my truth, the harder word, Rise up and walk. By doing that which is submitted to the eyes of men, I will attest my right and power to do that which, in its very nature, lies out of the region of visible proof. By these visible tides of God’s grace I will give you to know in what way the great under-currents of his love are setting, and make clear that those and these are alike obedient to my word. Prom this which I will now do openly and before you all, you may conclude that it is no ‘robbery’ (Phil. ii. 6) upon my part to claim also the power of forgiving men their sins.’ Thus, to use a familiar illustration of our Lord’s argument, it would be easier for a man, equally ignorant of French and Chinese, to claim to know the last than the first; not that the language itself is easier; but that, in the one case, multitudes could disprove his claim; and, in the other, hardly a scholar or two in the land.

In ‘power on earth’ there lies a tacit opposition to power in heaven. ‘This power is not exercised, as you deem, only by God in heaven; but also by the Son of man on earth. You rightly assert that it is only exercised by Him whose proper dwelling is in the heavens; but He, who in the person of the Son of man, has descended also upon earth, has brought down this power with Him here. On earth also is One who can speak, and it is done.’ We have at Matt. xvi. 19; xviii. 28, ‘on earth’ and ‘in heaven,’ set over against one another in the same antithesis. The parallels, however, are imperfect, since the Church binds and looses by a committed, and not an inherent, power; as one has beautifully said, Facit in terris opera caelorum, but only in the name and by the might of her heavenly Head. It at first surprises that as ‘Son of man’ He claims this power; for this of forgiving sins being a divine attribute, we might expect that He would now call Himself by his better name, since only as Son of God such prerogative was his Nestorians, pressed these words in proof of the entire communication of all the properties of Christ’s divine nature to his human; so that whatever one had, was so far common to both that it might also be predicted of the other.” Thus far assuredly they have right, namely, that unless the two natures had been indissolubly knit together in a single person, no such language could have been used, yet ‘Son of man’ being the standing title whereby the Lord was well pleased to designate Himself, asserting as it did that He was at once one with humanity, and the crown of humanity, it is simpler to regard the term here as merely equivalent to Messiah, without attempting to extort any dogmatic conclusions from it. All of which our Lord explicitly claimed for Himself in those great discourses recorded John v. 17-23; x. 30-38, he implicitly claims here.

And now this word of his is confirmed and sealed by a sign following. The man did not refuse to answer this appeal: ‘And immediately he arose, took up his bed (cf. John v. 8; Acts ix. 34), and went forth before them all;’ carrying now the bed on which he was lately carried; the couch which was before the sign of his sickness being now the sign of his cure; and they who just before barred and blocked up his path, now making way for him, and allowing free egress from the assembly (cf. Mark x. 48, 49).

Of the effects of this miracle on the Pharisees nothing is told us; probably there was nothing good to tell.  But the people less hardened against the truth, more receptive of divine impressions, ‘were all amazed, and they glorified God, saying, We never saw it on this fashion’ (John xi. 45, 46). The miracle had done its office. The beholders marvelled at the wonderful work done before their eyes; and this their marvel deepened into holy fear, which found its utterance in the ascriptions of glory to God, ‘who has given such power unto men.’ We need not suppose that they very accurately explained to themselves, or could have explained to others, their feeling of holy exultation; but they felt truly that what was given to one man, to the Man Christ Jesus, was given for the sake of all, and given ultimately to all, and therefore it was indeed given ‘unto men.’ They dimly understood that He possessed these powers as the true Head and Representative of the race, and therefore that these gifts to Him were a rightful subject of gladness and thanksgiving for every member of that race.