Theological Themes Ii
A Lutheran minister told about a member of his congregation. He swore a blue streak. Profanity was as natural to his vocabulary as a squirrel to a tree. He taught one of the adult Sunday School classes. He was a passionate and exciting teacher. One of his class members remarked: "I can't tell his `Jesus Christ' from his `Jesus Christ."'
Our Western culture has little sense of reverence for deity. As a result, many even in our churches may have little sense of concern when they read this lection. Blasphemy may not even appear on their list of concerns. And before we condemn only lay members, we should check the preaching schedules for the topic.
Jesus was accused of blasphemy. The lection does not hide the reason for the charge. Jesus forgave sins. Forgiving sins today likely will get little notice, much less the charge of blasphemy.
Many people today are aware of the matter of blasphemy solely because of an English author. On February 14, 1999, the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa (a religious decree) condemning the British author Salman Rushdie and his publishers to death because he said Rushdie blasphemed Islam in his novel, The Satanic Verses. Khordad 15, an Iranian religious foundation offered a bounty of $1 million for the killing of Rushdie.
In an earlier time in our society, profanity was considered blasphemy. Now, like the Sunday School Class member, we may not be able to tell profanity from ordinary conversation. What is it today that blasphemes God? Is it specific words, what we say? Or does it include specific actions that violate God?
In Jesus' day, blasphemy against people meant abusive speech, personal mockery. Toward God, it meant mistaking the true nature of God, violating or doubting God's power, or assuming God's prerogatives. Perhaps this lection today calls us to identify those ideas, attitudes, and actions that mistake God's true nature or doubt the power of God.
Ironically, the effort to impeach and remove President Clinton from office raised one of the issues of this lection. Sharing God's forgiveness does not please all. The impeachment debate revealed a distinct division in our nation and the church about how to deal with wrongdoing. Church sociologists described two strongly different approaches. One group emphasized punishment; the other forgiveness. Indeed, one sociologist described the different approaches as generational related.
When Jesus forgave the paralytic's sin, one could have expected all to be glad. Not so. Today, there are some who rejoice that a person has been forgiven. They expect the person can now exercise a new beginning in life. Others emphasize the need to take wrongdoing seriously and believe society is best helped if such wrongdoing is appropriately punished. The church does not need to ignore the legitimate concerns about taking wrongdoing seriously. But there really is no question about the approach of Jesus. He forgave. Forgiveness was his "method of choice" for dealing with the sins of people. Still is.
Years ago, Coach Joe Paterno and his Penn State football team were playing for the national championship against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. They probably would have won, but they had a touchdown called back because there was a twelfth man on the field. After the game, Paterno was asked to identify the player. "It's only a game," he said. "I have no intention of ever identifying the boy. He just made a mistake."
When faced with a man paralyzed and unable to walk, Jesus acted. He gave the man freedom. Often in discussions about freedom, the emphasis is on individual rights. Jesus acted to make genuine freedom possible. He gave what was needed: forgiveness, healing, encouragement, strength.
Jesus told the man to get up, pick up his stretcher, and walk. With an intriguing double meaning, Jesus used the word, "walk." On the one hand, it does mean to walk, to move about. Jesus made it possible for the man to move beyond the mobility limitation of his paralysis. But the word also means "walk of life," conduct, behavior, life style. Jesus was also giving the man a new life. The man's lifestyle now would be one of freedom—free from paralysis, free from the burden of his past sin.
Brian A. Nelson