What about sin? (Matthew 9:2)

Why did Jesus talk about sin much less than we do? Is there something we should learn from him?

Open Matthew 9:2.

As you read the Gospels, are you learning from Jesus? To be a disciple is to become like the Master. Watch what he did that’s different from what we do. Close the gap where our understanding and practice doesn’t match his.

That’s especially important when it comes to the gospel. When people today present the gospel, we tend to start with the problem, identified as sin. We present Jesus as the antidote for sin, and then we ask people to sign up so they can have the benefit — the forgiveness of their sins. Sound familiar? Trouble is: that’s not how Jesus did it.

We’ve spent eight months in the first eight chapters of Matthew. Did you notice that, in all that time, Jesus has not mentioned sin once? Sure, he’s talked about bad stuff like murder and being scandalized and hating your enemies, but he has not used the word sin (ἁμαρτία). He has repeatedly proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom, but he’s done it without labelling people as sinners.

Does that suggest that we have something to learn about how we present the good news of the son of man restoring God’s reign?

In Matthew 9, we finally find Jesus using the word sin, and, oh boy, is this controversial! Presented with a paraplegic on a stretcher, Jesus says, “It’s okay, kid; your sins are gone” (9:2).

Seriously, why would Jesus bring everyone’s attention to this guy’s sins? Is he worse than others? It’s not like he can’t rob a bank or run off with someone’s wife or murder his enemy. He’s rather limited in what he can do, whether good or evil! Out of all the people he’s engaged with, why would Jesus point out this guy’s sins in front of everyone?

In Jesus’ culture, people may have made the assumption that you get what you deserve (since God is running a just world), so, if this guy is paralysed, he must have deserved it. His sins, then, would refer to whatever evil he had done to deserve being crippled. If so, the crowd would have heard Jesus’ comments like this: “I am removing the sins that caused your paralysis, and as a result you can now walk again.”

There’s one other case in the Gospels where that mindset shows up. Jesus’ disciples encountered a man who was born blind, and they wonder if he might be suffering for the sins of his parents (John 9:2). Presumably he hadn’t committed any sins of his own before he was born. So the disciples seem to have found a case where people don’t get what they deserve — where they suffer unfairly (because of someone else’s sins). That raises the issue of whether God is running a just world where people get what they deserve, or not. (The same issue arises in Jewish wisdom literature like Job.)

The Torah is the framework for this way of thinking. After spelling out the stipulations of the covenant, Deuteronomy itemizes the blessings God’s people will experience when they obey him, and the problems they’ll encounter when they disobey. One of the threats is that YHWH will give them over to foreign rulers if they don’t serve him (Deuteronomy 28:36-44). But then he promises to forgive and restore them “when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today” (Deuteronomy 30:2).

It wasn’t an idle threat. 600 years earlier, God shut down his representative kingdom among the nations, handing them over to foreign empires. In Jesus’ time, they were still under foreign rule. To the Pharisees, this showed that God’s people had not met the conditions for restoration and forgiveness, i.e. they were not adequately obeying his Law with all their heart and soul. The agenda of the Pharisees was therefore to point out where people were being disobedient, so they would do better, so God could forgive and restore his nation. That’s why the Pharisees were so focused on pointing out people’s sins.

And that’s why they were so perturbed about Jesus. When he finally does mention the word sin after all these months, it’s to tell this guy his sins are gone. They don’t want Jesus telling people their sins don’t matter! He’s destroying Israel’s hopes! We must use every example of our brokenness to motivate people to recognize and relinquish their sins, or we’ll never be forgiven and re-established as God’s nation.

That’s how they thought, and Jesus knew it. Jesus intended to provoke a response from them. You can see that in how the conversation plays out. Jesus is looking for a reaction, and when they don’t react audibly he goes out of his way to draw them out: “Why are you thinking evil in your hearts?” (9:4) Jesus has a point to make. The point is that the son of man does have authority on earth to release people from their sins (9:6, 8), i.e. to restore the kingdom of God.

Jesus has a radically different agenda from the Pharisees for the restoration of God’s reign. The Pharisees want to get there by pointing out people’s sins, to make it socially unacceptable to behave in sinful ways, so they’ll do better and God can forgive and restore them. Jesus isn’t labelling people as sinners, pointing out their failures, and pressuring them to do better. The king’s agenda is to fulfil all righteousness for his people (3:15; 5:17).

That’s why Jesus is not in the business of accusing people of failure, of labelling them as sinners. He’s in the business of restoring people — healing them, releasing them from the control of evil, calling them to acknowledge him, to find restoration in him.

Take a listen to yourself. What does it sound like when you share the good news? Do you sound like Jesus announcing and enacting liberation from enslavement to evil and decay, the restoration of the earth as God’s good kingdom? Or do you sound like a Pharisee pointing out people’s guilt to shame them into submission?

Like Jesus? Or like a Pharisee? What’s the good news?


What others are saying

R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 345:

While a close connection between sin and physical illness or disability would have been assumed by many people at the time (cf. 1 Cor 11:28–30), the connection is made in only one other gospel healing story, and there it is in order to dismiss the idea of sin as the cause of blindness (John 9:1–3). Here the connection is left unexplained; it is not stated that the paralysis was caused by sin. … Sin and disability are linked in this story in that the curing of the latter will be taken as proof of authority to deal with the former, but this does not in itself require us to regard the paralysis as caused by the sin which Jesus forgives, even though many of those present would probably have so understood it.

N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, (London: SPCK, 1996), 268, 271–273:

Centuries of Christian usage have accustomed readers of the New Testament to think of ‘forgiveness’ as primarily a gift to the individual person …

From the point of view of a first-century Jew, ‘forgiveness of sins’ could never simply be a private blessing, though to be sure it was that as well. …

What Jesus was offering … was a new world order, the end of Israel’s long desolation, the true and final ‘forgiveness of sins’, the inauguration of the kingdom of god.

This, I suggest, was what was implied when Jesus announced ‘forgiveness of sins’ to particular people. … Jesus announces to the paralysed man that his sins are forgiven: the coming kingdom of yhwh has reached out to embrace him as well. It is on this basis that the man can experience his own personal ‘return from exile’, in the form of healing from his paralysis.

[previous: What if people don’t want Jesus as king?]

[next: What is forgiveness?]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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