Words of Healing

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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at the miracles of Jesus – his spectacular displays of supernatural power that are reported in the Gospels.    
Frank Abagnale has made a living telling amazingly improbable stories. 
About himself
The 75-year-old Abagnale claims to have masqueraded as an assistant state attorney general in Louisiana, helping to close 33 cases.  Before reaching the age of 20, he pretended to be a staff pediatrician at Cobb General Hospital in Georgia.  Even though he had no medical training, he supervised seven residents and 42 nurses. 
He further claims to have served as a sociology professor for two semesters at Brigham Young University in Utah, despite the fact he never interviewed for such a position.
Abagnale bought a second-hand pilot’s uniform and began “deadheading” (flying without having cabin responsibilities) with Pan American World Airlines.  He estimates that he traveled more than 2 million miles.  At other times and places he pretended to be a cook, a grocer, and a movie projectionist.  He even visited college campuses to recruit coeds to become Pan Am flight attendants. 
How did Abagnale finance such shenanigans?  He claims to have passed more than 17,000 bad checks, totaling millions of dollars. 
He admits being arrested and doing time in prison, but also boasts of eluding the FBI on multiple occasions, and even escaping from a federal penitentiary.    
His reputation as the world’s greatest charlatan was enhanced by his 1980 autobiography, Catch Me If You Can.  Steven Spielberg was sufficiently impressed to turn it into a box office smash.  If your story ends up on the big screen and you’re being played by Leonardo DiCaprio, in a cast that features Tom Hanks, life is good. 
In recent years Abagnale has been cashing in on his notoriety.  He runs a business that helps organizations detect fraud, and gives speeches for up to $30,000 a pop.  In September 2022 he was granted the Xavier University “Heroes in Ethics Award” (of all things), and delivered the keynote address. 
By that time, however, it was abundantly clear that most of his stories were complete claptrap.  Yes, he did a little pretending from time to time.  But Frank Abagnale, it turns out, is not much more than an amazingly confident liar.
As he put it, “One gentleman said to me, ‘If you didn’t do all those things, and you’ve made all this money in advances, royalties, and speaking engagements, then you are in fact the world’s greatest con man.” Ironically, that suits Frank just fine.  If you can’t be the world’s greatest pretender, at least you can be a superstar liar.   
Which brings us to Jesus.
Was Jesus for real or was he just a charlatan?  For many people, the jury is still out, even after 20 centuries.  Was he God in the flesh or just a skillful pretender – somebody who has somehow managed to fool billions of people?    
Those alternatives are very much up for grabs in his conversation with the paralytic lowered through the roof.  All three of the so-called Synoptic (“see-things-the-same-way”) Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – include a version of this event. 
As we noted yesterday, the man on the mat has an obvious, glaring need.  He cannot walk.  His friends have courageously (not to mention creatively) brought him to Jesus.  What will Jesus do?  Strangely, he seems to change the subject.  Let’s return to Mark chapter two:
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that?  He’s blaspheming!  Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things?  Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.”  He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:5-12)
This story has been such a Sunday School favorite for so long that we have to work hard to recover something of the shock it no doubt generated.
Jesus claims he has the authority to forgive sins.  Excuse me? 
Imagine that you just discovered your driver’s license has expired.  You need to get to the BMV as soon as possible.  “Oh, don’t worry,” I say, “I can take care of that for you,” and I hand you what I insist is a valid replacement card.  Or maybe you’re wrestling with your mortgage payment this month.  “No need to fret,” I say, reassuringly.  “I’ve instructed the bank to erase your debt.”
The odds are good that in the near future I would have the opportunity to converse with a psychiatrist, local law enforcement, and Homeland Security – although perhaps not in that order.  I have absolutely no authority to act on behalf of the government or your favorite bank. 
That’s the affect of Jesus’ outrageous claim to forgive sins.  Sin is a debt we’ve incurred against God and/or other people.  No one can credibly claim to do what only God can do.
Unless, of course, Jesus can provide evidence that he does indeed have such authority.    
The Jewish law experts who are squeezed into the house along with the crowd – think of them as the Heresy Detection Squad – can’t believe what they’ve just heard.  Their theological smoke detectors are shrieking.  By putting himself in God’s place, Jesus has uttered blasphemy. 
And blasphemy is no small potatoes.  According to the Torah, it is a capital crime.  It’s as if Jesus has just said, “Catch me if you can.”  They have every intention of doing just that. 
Jesus reads the room.  Then he doubles down on his claim to have divine authority.  “So which is easier, to say ‘Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Get up, pick up your mat and walk?”  The answer to that question is obvious.  It is infinitely easier to say “Your sins are forgiven.”  You might be executed in Israel for saying such a thing, but no one (technically) can prove that you’re a spiritual fraud.
But if you say to a physically disabled man, “Pick up your mat and start walking; you may have come in through that brand new skylight, but you’re going home through the front door,” then your reputation is totally on the line.  If nothing happens, everyone will know you’re a charlatan.  A phony.  Someone who raises false hopes.
But if that man stands up on two strong legs and starts walking, there’s a chance – a real chance – that you’re a major player in the forgiveness business after all.
Incredibly, it happens. 
Luke reports, “And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, ‘We have seen extraordinary things today’” (Luke 5:26).  The Greek word translated “extraordinary things” is paradoxa, from which we get our word “paradox.” 
A paradox compels us to hold together two apparently conflicting realities.  Jesus seems to be a regular human being.  Yet he claims to have the authority to forgive sins, and has the power to resolve hopeless medical cases.  Who in the world is this man? 
The crowd is amazed.  They glorify God. The law experts are furious.  They see Jesus as a first century Frank Abagnale, a spiritual con artist, and they intend to take him down.
Here’s how the TV series The Chosen portrays this famous scene: Healing the Paralytic at Capernaum – The Chosen (youtube.com)
Something else might be happening here.
What would be the most transforming words a paralytic in Bible times could ever hope to hear?  “Your sins are forgiven.”  It was widely assumed that anyone with a crippling injury or defective body was under the curse of God.  Somebody had sinned – either you or your parents.  
Spiritually, this was unimaginably cruel.  Imagine waking up, morning after morning, knowing that God is not in your court.  You can’t get well because of some Horrible Thing you have done.  You live, move, and breathe every day inside a body that reminds you that you are not forgiven.
But now imagine hearing that the judgment hanging over your head has been rescinded.
It’s possible that the first essential step in this dramatic healing is a transformation in the paralytic’s mind.  It dawns on him: He is not a hopeless case.  Suddenly, as never before, he can genuinely receive what Jesus is able and willing to give.    
Maybe you’ve been there.  Because of something you’ve done or something you think you are, you feel undeserving of God’s love, joy, and mercy.  You don’t deserve God’s grace. 
So let’s clear something up:  You’re absolutely right.  Just like everyone else, you most certainly don’t deserve God’s grace. 
But that’s why it’s amazing.  Whoever comes to Jesus with open hands and an open heart will hear the same words the paralytic heard:
Your sins are forgiven.   
Those are the ultimate words of healing.