I have read the gospel accounts dozens of times. Many of the stories are familiar, so much so that I sometimes catch myself skimming them instead of reading, nodding to myself and thinking, “Oh yeah, this is THAT story!”
Matthew 9 begins with such a story, the account of Jesus returning to his home town of Nazareth. Matthew recounts how he was greeted by Nazarenes carrying a paralyzed man on a mat, bringing the man to Jesus in the belief that Jesus could heal him. Moved by their faith, Jesus did heal the man, but not before first telling the man that his sins were forgiven. This claim by Jesus of the authority to forgive sins was profound, an implicit claim to an authority that resides only with God. The subsequent act of healing was intended as confirmation of that authority.
There is a lot to unpack in the tale, about Jesus’ nature, mission and authority, but it was not until this last week that I became aware of another aspect of the story that had previously evaded me. In preparation for discussing this passage in my weekly men’s Bible study, a question came to mind about Jesus’ return home, “How many people lived in Nazareth?”
The answer is not in the Bible, so I did what any modern-day Bible scholar would do, I googled it. Lo and behold I found an answer. Scholars think the town was very small, so small as to be insignificant to people of the day. According to one article I found, the population might have totaled only 400 people.
This fact dramatically changed my understanding of the passage. In towns of 400 people, everybody in town knows everybody else in town. They know your family, your parents, your skills and abilities. They knew who you were as a child, and watched you grow up. There are no strangers in a small town.
Which means that there is a very good chance that the people who brought the paralyzed man to Jesus knew Jesus. They remembered him as a child, as a carpenter, and probably as a friend. They knew the Jesus who for 30 years had done no miracles, and who had perhaps not even taught in the synagogue. They knew Jesus before he was Jesus the Messiah.
Which means that their faith was different. The other towns Jesus visited were encountering him for the first time. Their first experience with the Messiah was of witnessing a profound spiritual lesson or miraculous healing. For them to believe in Jesus as the Messiah they had nothing to forget, no previous experiences to overcome. For the people in Nazareth the challenge was greater. The Jesus they knew, the man displaying such power, had not manifested that power in their presence before. This man, who could heal the sick and make lame men walk had for some unknown reason not healed anyone, including the paralyzed man, during the time Jesus lived in their town. This knowledge and experience with Jesus meant that for them to believe their faith had to be greater than the faith of those in other towns. I wonder if this is the reason Jesus was so moved by the faith they displayed.
Not only did they remember Jesus, Jesus remembered them. They may have been childhood friends. There is a good chance that he had firsthand knowledge of why the man was paralyzed, including any potential family guilt, remorse or sadness at his plight. When Jesus said, “Your sins are forgiven,” it may not have been a generic, non-specific act of forgiveness. Jesus likely knew specific things that the man had done, perhaps even some things the man considered unforgivable.
Jesus also understood the obstacles they faced in having faith. He knew that they needed to be able to see him as Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God. With this in mind, he prefaced his act of healing with a statement of forgiveness, a statement of Godlike authority that was blasphemous (unless it was true!) In so doing he made it possible for them to understand who Jesus truly was.
Wow! The passage wasn’t as familiar as I thought it was!
I have not made a habit of religious blog posts over the last few years, as I know there are many who subscribe to the blog who may not be interested. Nevertheless, I have been leading a men’s bible study each week and the insights shared by the men in the group have been too remarkable to not share. For the near future I plan on increasing my posts to twice a week. My typical weekend posts will continue, but I am adding a midweek post that will focus on something gleaned from the men’s group. Feel free to read, share or ignore at your leisure!