Commentary: Mark 2:1-12
This text closes the cycle of healing stories that began in 1:21 and introduces a new element—Jesus' ministry now becomes the focus of offense and objection. 1:22 hinted at the difference between Jesus and the scribes. Now the scribes are present, and they do not like what they hear from Jesus (2:6). This is the first of five "controversy stories" (2:1-3:6). Like the last of these five arguments between Jesus and the religious authorities (3:1-6), our text involves a healing and a disagreement about the propriety of Jesus' actions.
2:1-12 seems to be a combination of two different stories. There is a healing story in vv. 1-5a, 10b-12. Into this account, a controversy story has been inserted (vv. 5b-10a). Whether the evangelist himself combined these stories or found them already joined, such an interweaving is typical for Mark (cf. 5:21-43). If one is writing a letter (or preaching a sermon!), one can explain the meaning of events. If one is writing a narrative, one must find other ways to clarify the meaning. In this story, the healing power of Jesus frames a center of forgiveness. This arrangement is meant not only to help us understand this particular event, but to give us a proper perspective on all Jesus' healings. Jesus is not a magician. He has come to declare the coming kingdom of God. In fact, in his ministry that kingdom begins to break into the world. His ministry will not only deal with the outward suffering of people (important though that is); it will also go to the depths of people's estrangement from God. All of Jesus' healing actions are part of God's kingdom drawing near; they cannot be understood apart from this astounding claim.
v. 1-3 After several days, the frenzy caused by the healed leper quiets down enough for Jesus to return to Capernaum, and we find him "at home," though perhaps not at his own home, since Mark has told us Jesus' home is in Nazareth (1:9, 24); perhaps Jesus has returned to Peter's home (1:29). Any respite from the crowd is brief. As soon as the crowd hears where Jesus is, they are at the door (cf. 1:33—at the same door?) while Jesus "speaks the word" to them. Again Jesus' popularity becomes a problem, at least for the paralytic and his friends.
v. 4 The determined and ingenious friends dig through the straw-and-mud roof. Jesus' ministry will not be stopped. Neither crowds nor roofs will stand in the way—nor will the silent objections of the pious.
v. 5 Faith and forgiveness are both experienced in community. Faith has led others to act on behalf of this suffering man. In a way that the text does not clarify, the faith of this small community around the paralytic is a part of his experiencing forgiveness. Forgiveness cannot be truncated to an arrangement "just between Jesus and me."
Jesus' words to the paralytic are outrageous on two levels. On the first level, forgiveness does not seem to be what this man was looking for. Who asked Jesus to do this, anyway? Has Jesus considered those whom this man might have wronged? Has proper restitution been made to them? Has Jesus verified this man's repentance? Quick words of forgiveness seem reckless. On a deeper level, Jesus claims to speak for God. The passive expression "your sins are forgiven" is a circumlocution that means "God forgives your sins." No wonder the scribes react as they do.
vv. 6-7 The scribes are correct: only God can forgive sin (Is 43:25). Because Jesus is claiming the role that belongs to God, the scribes silently accuse him of blasphemy—the same charge on which they will condemn Jesus (14:64).
vv. 8-9 The scribes assumed that a declaration of forgiveness is easily spoken, since there is no visible way to verify it. The words of healing are the more difficult to sustain in the eyes of the world, since their truth or falsehood will be seen immediately. In fact, both declarations are aspects of Jesus' mission against the power of evil. Biblical tradition often joined healing and forgiveness (Ps 41:4, 103:3). One should not assume that this illness must be punishment for particular sins; yet healing is an assault on the dominion of sin and death.
v. 10 It would be no scandal to hold out the hope that God may forgive sins at the End. The scandal comes when forgiveness is declared in the midst of the suffering, weakness, and failure of this world, with no sign to prove that such a startling assertion is true. Jesus claims that because God's kingdom comes near in his ministry, he can declare forgiveness "on earth."
vv. 11-12 "All were amazed and glorified God"—even the scribes? Despite them selves (and without changing their minds about Jesus) they are compelled to recognize God's power at work. Even they must praise God for such deliverance.
Mark's church would have gathered in a home to hear "the word," just as Jesus spoke "the word" to the people in the house at Capernaum. As they read this text, they would have heard Jesus declare the authority to forgive sins on earth. Jesus brings healing forgiveness into the paralysis of sin. In Jesus' name the gathered church has the audacity to make the same declaration. Jesus showed a sign that his absolution was true: the paralytic carried his bed home. The only sign that the church can offer is the cross of Jesus and his empty tomb. The declaration of forgiveness in the present world is dangerous, even scandalous. Will we take the more circumspect approach of the scribes, or will we let the scandal be heard loud and clear?