The Power to Heal

Service on March 28, 2021
by Stacey Simpson Duke

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The Power to Heal

Matthew 9:1-13

Palm Sunday

28 March 2021

 

Every year, we hear again the story of Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem as the crowds shout Hosanna, and we are so familiar with our annual celebration of palms and processions and praise, that it’s easy to forget that what happened that day did not have the easy, familiar feel of an annual celebration but was, in fact, a disruption.

 

This was a people living under occupation, oppressed and exploited by the Roman rulers and representatives. In the days leading up to the festival of Passover each year, the Roman army would have a military parade through the streets, with soldiers and horses and weaponry on display, a show of power and intimidation. They would compel the people to call out, “Hail, Caesar!” The colonizers’ show of force would fuel enough fear to keep the people from even considering insurrection. Their (imperial) supremacy remained intact. Year after year, the military parades of the authoritarian regime reminded the people who they were: the colonized, the occupied, the overruled. 

 

Year after year, pomp, parade, power. But then this time, something else, too. Jesus rides in on a donkey, unarmed and undefended, no army, no pomp, now power – at least not the visible kind. A large crowd gathers, spreads their cloaks on the road before him. They wave palm branches and they run ahead of him and follow after him, and all of them are shouting, “Hosanna!” which means, Save us.

 

Save us. A plea for help. A plea for liberation. 

 

By the time Jesus gets all the way into Jerusalem, the whole city is in turmoil. And no wonder. This is an anti-imperial procession. It is in direct contrast to the supremacy of the Roman powers – and a challenge to the fear and force such supremacy relies on. Jesus climbs onto a humble donkey – and disrupts everything.

This morning, we heard another story from Matthew, our final healing story this season. It also involves a kind of procession. It is also a story of disruption. It’s a healing story that feels like a threat to the powers-that-be.

 

Jesus comes to his own hometown, and just then some people come towards him, carrying a paralyzed man lying on a pallet. A procession of sorts. And when Jesus sees their faith, he heals the paralyzed man. It wasn’t the man’s faith. It was theirs. A reminder that sometimes we are so desperate, so despairing, so paralyzed by the circumstances of our lives, that we can’t even manage to ask for help. Prayer may be beyond us. Faith may seem out of reach. But faith is not the individual enterprise we mistake it for. Sometimes, faith means just letting yourself be carried. Sometimes, faith means carrying someone who can’t carry themselves. And we see in this story that faith doesn’t even have to come up with words. Sometimes faith just takes the form of action, the simple choice to help someone at the moment they most need it. 

 

Matthew says that Jesus saw their faith. He looked at their actions and could see their hearts. And when he sees their faith, he responds with assurance and acceptance (Walter T. Wilson. Healing in the Gospel of Matthew: Reflections on Method and Ministry. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. 144.) “Take courage,” he says. “Take heart.” 

 

And all of this is so beautiful, and so good. This is the healing we need. We need it when we can’t ask for it. We need it for those we are moved to carry and to help. We need the encouragement that our actions can be enough, that they are sufficient signs of our faith, even when our faith itself doesn’t feel like enough. We need the healing that comes with assurance and affirmation and acceptance. The healing that comes with those words, “Take heart.” This is good. This feels like good news. 

 

But it’s what Jesus says next that upends everything. “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” 

 

Your sins are forgiven. Well, that’s not what people were looking for. The point of bringing the paralyzed man to Jesus was for the paralyzed man to walk again. Who said anything about sin? Who said anything about forgiveness?

 

Jesus did. And the scribes were outraged. God is the only one who can forgive sin. Who does this man think he is? 

 

It’s the first time in Matthew that the scribes criticize him – and after this, their accusation and opposition to him will become frequent and loud. Here, they just whisper it to each other. But just as Jesus can see the faith of the paralyzed man’s friends, he can see the evil thoughts the scribes are harboring against him. “Which is easier,” he asks them, “to say ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’?” And of course, judging only by externals, it’s easier to say “your sins are forgiven,” because no one can verify a spiritual reality like that. But Jesus’ point is that it’s easier to cure paralysis than to forgive sins, because curing physical illness falls within the scope of human ability, whereas the forgiveness of guilt happens by the power of God. (Wilson, 145-146.)

 

In fact, this is the magnitude of Jesus’ claim – he is acting with the power of God, on behalf of God. His claim is exactly what has the scribes so riled up, accusing him of blasphemy. They’re right – not about the blasphemy, but about what he is claiming. His ministry of healing is total – it is not just a healing of physical realities, but a healing of spiritual realities, of cosmic realities. He has come as a sign that God’s kingdom is breaking into our world. He has come to interrupt our human reality with the reality of God’s power to heal the whole of reality. He has come to heal it all – to overcome everything that would corrupt, distort, or keep us from wholeness. He has come to confront the powers of the world – on every level – and to free us not only from the power of evil, and from its effects. And here in this story of the paralyzed man we see that this confrontation is total. Jesus has confronted illness, rebuked demons, calmed storms, torn down barriers of social isolation, and lifted a dead girl into life. This time he comes to tear down the final greatest wall – the one inside human hearts. 

 

Our name for that barrier is sin, but we have somehow managed to reduce that to issues of private morality, as if by reducing it we could somehow manage it or ignore it. But it is so much more than the microscopic matters we dismiss as issues of individual judgment. Nearly every hard and horrible thing in the whole world has its birthplace right here, in the human heart. And this healer who has claimed power over the forces of illness and isolation and fear and death, now says, “Yes, that’s mine, too. Take heart, child, your sins are forgiven.” Give it to me. You don’t need to keep hanging on to all your old sick patterns and defenses and destructive attitudes. Let it go. Give it to me. Be done with it. 

 

And what he means by this is no little individual self-improvement project. His power to forgive, his power to heal – this is about much more than the personal sin and forgiveness of individuals. This is about the cosmic struggle between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of lies, evil, destruction. This is about the forces that bind us, that twist us up and weigh us down and distort even our best intentions, forces beyond our control or comprehension, forces we are incapable of freeing ourselves from on our own. When Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven,” he is claiming the power of God to defeat everything that corrupts, enslaves, or disables us – everything that keeps us from our God-given wholeness. Jesus came for no less than the salvation of the whole world – not just us as individuals, but us as humanity. 

 

So, yes. Healing a human body is easier than all that. “But,” Jesus tells them, “so you’ll know that I do have the authority to forgive sins…” and he turns to the paralytic and tells him, “Stand up, take your bed and go to your home.” And the man stood up off his pallet, and went home. And the crowds saw it, and were filled with awe, and, Matthew tells us, “they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.”

 

And this is the real shock. This is what ought to have the scribes raging and the empire quaking. The power of God in Jesus is a power that does not stop. It has been unleashed by Jesus. The healing, the forgiveness – this is all just the beginning, not the end. It is an invitation into participation. 

The dynamics of sin and forgiveness are not mere individual matters but part of our fundamental social realities. The grace that is set loose by Jesus gives birth to a new vision of community, one where we share in the power to heal, we share in the power to forgive. The foundation of the new community Jesus creates is this – grace, healing, forgiveness. 

 

He came with the power to heal, but he didn’t keep that power himself. He set it free within us when he set us free. He transforms us into recipients of that power and agents of that power and participants in that power. We have the power to heal. 

Those are big words in the face of what all there is that needs to be healed. Gun violence. Climate disaster. Extreme inequity and wealth polarization. Our public health. The ongoing savagery of white supremacy. And so much more. We are witnesses to destruction and disaster at every level. It would be easier to make a paralyzed person walk than it is to fix all that is broken. The whole world needs healing.

 

Into all this turmoil, there goes Jesus, riding on his little donkey, unarmed, undefended, no fear. Showing us that the answer to destruction is not more destruction but courage, creativity, humility. Showing us that the answer to a world fueled by fear is not more fear but more heart … and more guts. Showing us that the answer to the brokenness of our social and economic and political realities is not the self-protective stance of separation, isolation, defense. The answer is presence. The answer is showing up. The answer is to take heart, stand up and walk, follow him as he rides his little donkey right into the heart of human power – so that he can heal it.

We know how the story goes from there, of course. His unarmed challenge to the power of fear was a threat to the forces of the empire, because the empire always needs the people to be afraid. His willingness to be present with and for the oppressed, his solidarity with the colonized people who treated him like a different kind as they cried out, “Save us!” – this was a threat to the order and stability of the empire, which relied on there being no good alternatives to their rule. 

 

They could not let his power take hold and grow. They had to put him down. We know how this story goes. We know how this kind of story always seems to go.  

 

Jesus knows, too. He knows what lies ahead, and still he goes. The man riding in on the donkey to shouts of praise will be betrayed, arrested, deserted, tortured, mocked, and executed – but he will not be stopped. He will never be stopped. Nor will his truth be. Nor will his power be.

 

The power to heal the world started with one man. But it didn’t stop there. It doesn’t stop there. It’s yours and mine now. So take heart. Stand up. Let’s go.