Sunday, April 09, 2006

“Who Can Forgive Sins?”[1]

Mark 2:1-12

No matter how “Christian” we may profess to be, we all tend to operate by “schoolyard ball” rules. Whatever our personal experience may be with being chosen first or last, when it’s our turn to choose, we always pick the best players first.

A Rebel With a Cause. One reason why I like the story of Patch Adams is that it turns the way we operate upside-down. You may remember the 1998 film starring Robin Williams as a medical student who “breaks all the rules” designed to turn physicians into “supermen” who dispense medical “knowledge” without stooping to get their hands dirty. Adams discovers that healing people is a lot more satisfying and successful than trying to heal diseases. [2]

What you may not know is that the movie is based on the real-life experience of Hunter “Patch” Adams. Adams founded the Gesundheit! Institute, a community in West Virginia based on the idea that the health of an individual cannot be separated from the health of the family, community and the world. Patch Adams’ brand of medicine combines “clowning” with medicine and social action in a way that promotes care and compassion that seeks to change society as a whole! His slogan is, “Please join me in working for peace, justice and care for all people on the planet!”

Patch Adams isn’t your normal, everyday sort of doctor. In fact, you might say that he has turned the world of medicine upside-down at the Gesundheit! Institute. Instead of medical training being a path to privilege and wealth, it is the basis for a lifetime of service—offered at no charge!

Turning God Upside-Down. Our Gospel text for today gives us a hint that what Patch Adams did to the medical community, Jesus the Christ did to the religious community of his day. He turned it upside-down. Instead of viewing faith and piety as boundary markers that separated the “clean” from the “unclean,” the “holy” from the “unholy,” the “righteous” from the “sinners,” Jesus offered God’s grace to anyone. And as the Gospels demonstrate, he offered grace particularly to those who were outcast as “unclean,” “unholy” and “sinners.”

In order to understand how this scandalized the religious people of his day, you have to know that the terms “unclean,” “unholy,” and “sinner” did not necessarily refer to a person’s moral character. Rather, in Jesus’ day the average people were “unclean” due to their work, or they were “unholy” due to their health, or they were “sinners” simply because they could not afford the luxury of devoting themselves full time to the study and practice of the Law![3]

But the real scandal behind the way Jesus offered God’s grace to all is that it turns one’s view of God upside-down. Instead of a vindictive God who refuses to get involved with outcasts, or a vengeful God who condemns “sinners,” Jesus presents a God who prefers lawbreakers to the so-called “righteous”, who offers grace and mercy to the “godless.”[4]

Schoolyard Rules? We see this reflected in the interchange over healing the paralytic. When he offers forgiveness to the paralyzed man, the “righteous” object that Jesus has blasphemed. They insist, “who can forgive sins but God alone?” It seems that they would rather leave the man paralyzed and exclude him from forgiveness and healing than to risk God’s image by dragging him into something as messy as a real human life!

Or perhaps their real concern was to preserve their position as privileged insiders, the chosen ones, regardless of the cost for those whom they excluded from God, like this paralyzed man.

But Jesus will have none of their safe, selfish, so-called “righteousness”; he not only pronounces the man’s sins forgiven, he also heals him. Jesus grants him free access to God’s mercy apart from any prerequisites, conditions, or qualifications. This encounter is one of many illustrations of the way in which Jesus proclaimed in word and deed the good news that “anyone may freely receive the grace of God”![5]

So instead of picking the best players first, those of us who follow Jesus the Christ are called to pick the left out players first, those who are normally passed over, the rejects. The object is not to have put ourselves in a position to “win” and make others “lose,” but rather to build a community based on grace, mercy, and compassion. It seems to me that if we claim to follow Christ, we can do no less!

[1] A sermon preached 2/19/06 at First Westminster Presbyterian Church, Baytown, TX.

[2] A review of Patch Adams by Cinema In Focus, accessed at

[3] Cf. Joel Green, The Theology of the Gospel of Luke, 84-88.

[4] Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge, 189; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Crucified God, 142-43.

[5] Green, Theology of Luke, 82.

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