MARK 1:16 – 3:6. THE CONTEXT
1:16 – 2:12 is roughly parallel to 2:13 – 3:6. In both, a call to discipleship is followed by several stories of Jesus’ activity. However, the stories in 1:16 – 2:12 are generally positive, ending with the crowd’s response, “We never saw anything like this” (2:12), while the stories in 2:13 – 3:6 are generally negative, ending with the Pharisees and Herodians conspiring to kill Jesus (3:6) (Jensen).
The overriding issue of 1:16—3:6 is Jesus’ authority (Greek: exousia) and the conflict that Jesus provokes with religious leaders (who consider themselves religious authorities) as he exercises his authority:
• Jesus said, “Come after me,” and “Immediately (Simon and Andrew) left their nets and followed him” (1:17-18). Jesus’ word has authority to compel obedience.
• Jesus “taught them as having authority, and not as the scribes” (1:22).
• They were all amazed, and said, “What is this? A new teaching? For with with authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (1:27).
• Jesus demonstrates his authority over illness and demons (1:29-34).
• Jesus demonstrates his “authority on earth to forgive sins” by healing the paralytic (2:10-12).
Faced with the overwhelming evidence of Jesus’ Godly authority, the Pharisees and Herodians will not embrace Jesus but will conspire to destroy him (3:6).
2:1-12 is the first in a series of five controversy stories that show, in these very early chapters of Mark, how Jesus’ authority is superior to that of the Jewish authorities—and how they reject Jesus’ authority. It is unlikely that these five stories happened in exactly the sequence that Mark reports them. It is more likely that he gathered these stories from various places and grouped them together at the beginning of his account of Jesus’ ministry. The five stories are arranged in a chiastic structure as follows:
A: The healing of the paralytic (2:1-12)
—B: The call of a the tax collector and eating with tax collectors and sinners (2:13-17)
——C: The question about fasting (2:18-22)
—B’: Jesus’ defense of the disciples for a Sabbath harvest (2:23-28)
A’: The healing of the man with a withered hand (3:1-6)
In that structure, the healing of the paralytic (A) is parallel to the healing of the man with a withered hand (A’). The other three stories “have to do with food, or abstinence from food” (Witherington, 110).
So at the beginning of Jesus ministry Mark recounts five controversy stories. Toward the end of Jesus’ ministry, Mark will recount five additional controversy stories (11:27-33; 12:1-12, 13-17, 18-27, 38-34).
The story of the healing of the paralytic (2:1-12)—our Gospel lesson—is the story of Jesus in miniature—healing and teaching—opposition—vindication (Wright, 17).
MARK 2:1-2. THERE WAS NO MORE ROOM
1When he entered again into Capernaum after some days, it was heard that he was in the house. 2Immediately many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even around the door; and he spoke (Greek: elalei—from laleo—speaking or preaching) the word (Greek: ho logos) to them.
“When he entered again into Capernaum after some days, it was heard that he was in the house” (v. 1). Capernaum is Jesus’ home (Matthew 4:13; Mark 2:1) and the center of his early ministry. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus opens his ministry in the vicinity of Capernaum by calling four disciples (1:16-20) and performing a number of healing miracles in the city (1:21-34). Then he goes on a preaching tour of Galilee (1:35ff). Now he returns to Capernaum, where this story finds him at home. It is not clear whether he has his own house or lives with Peter, Andrew, and their families (1:29), but the latter seems likely. It is difficult to imagine Jesus maintaining a house from which he would be so frequently absent.
“Immediately many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even around the door” (v. 2a). A crowd of people gathers in front of the house, blocking the door. In this Gospel, crowds often gather around Jesus but, while they might respond with wonder to his miracles, they do not respond by becoming disciples. They are passive and fickle.
“and he spoke the word (logos) to them” (v 2b). Speaking the word is central to Jesus’ ministry. He began his public ministry by teaching the word with authority in the Capernaum synagogue, where he then exorcised a demon (1:21-28), and left Capernaum so that he might “proclaim the message” elsewhere (1:38). Preaching the word will also be central to the ministry of the church (Acts 6:4; 8:4; 17:11; Galatians 6:6; Colossians 4:3). Jesus both speaks the word and is the Word (John 1:1).
MARK 2:3-5. SON, YOUR SINS ARE FORGIVEN
3Four people came, carrying a paralytic to him. 4When they could not come near to him for the crowd, they removed the roof where he was. When they had broken it up, they let down the mat (Greek: krabatton—a mat that a poor person might use for a bed and which would serve as a litter) that the paralytic was lying on.5Jesus, seeing their faith, said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.”
“Four people came, carrying a paralytic to him” (v. 3). We don’t know how large this group is. Four of them bear the litter, but there are others as well.
“When they could not come near to him for the crowd, they removed the roof where he was” (v. 4a). They chop a hole in the roof to lower their friend into Jesus’ presence. In the typical house of that day, the roof would be flat, supported by beams laid across the walls, and composed of a mud/thatch mixture. People would sometimes sleep on the roof during hot nights, and the roof would provide a private retreat from a busy household. There would usually be a ladder standing outside to permit access to the roof. Getting a paralyzed man up the ladder would be no small task, and would require courage on the part of the paralyzed man. Chopping a hole in the roof would be a bold means of solving the problem of access to Jesus. Some scholars say that it is easy to repair a mud/thatch roof, but it is difficult to patch any roof so that it doesn’t leak. This damage is not trivial. It involves “a major demolition job” (France, 123).
“When they had broken it up, they let down the mat that the paralytic was lying on” (v. 4b). Just imagine the paralyzed man’s feelings. He would not be securely strapped to a rigid litter—his mat would be a very makeshift carrying device. The friends probably didn’t chop a hole large enough for him to be lowered while perfectly horizontal. Nor would his friends be trained to handle litter patients. It is likely that the paralyzed man experienced a bit of rough handling as his friends lowered him through the roof.
Furthermore, this man was probably accustomed to sick-room quiet and solitude. To be the center of attention in a crowd was probably as uncomfortable for him as his bumpy ride.
But he was a man without hope—except that in this moment he has hope that the healer will do for him what the healer has done for others. This would be a moment of almost unimaginable anticipation—and quite a lot of anxiety.
“Jesus, seeing their faith” (v. 5a). The faith that Jesus sees is not simply intellectual assent or emotional feeling, but is manifested in determined, visible action. Jesus can read people’s hearts (v. 8), but he doesn’t need to do so here. The faith of these men is out in the open for all to see.
Some scholars suggest that it is the litter-bearers who have faith rather than the paralyzed man, but there is nothing in the text to suggest that. Presumably, the paralyzed man is a full participant in this endeavor. Nobody has to take him forcibly to Jesus. Nevertheless, he is the beneficiary of the faith of his litter-bearers. It is their faith as much as his own (perhaps even more than his own) that makes his healing possible. Without their rock-solid confidence that Jesus could help, the man would never have seen Jesus. Without their bold determination to surmount the difficulties imposed by the crowd, the healing would never have taken place.
In this Gospel, Jesus rewards faith that persists in the face of obstacles:
• Jairus will not be dissuaded by neighbors who tell him not to bother Jesus further, because his daughter is dead. Instead, Jairus and his wife go with Jesus to the little girl’s bedside, and Jesus tells the girl to “arise” (Greek: egeire—the same word that he uses in 2:11 to command the paralytic to take up his mat and a word that will be used for Jesus’ resurrection). The girl immediately gets up and walks around—to everyone’s amazement (5:21-24, 35-43),
• Blind Bartimaeus will not be dissuaded by bystanders who order him to be quiet, but cries out even more loudly, “Jesus, you Son of David, have mercy on me.” Jesus heals him, saying, “Go your way. Your faith has made you well” (10:46-52).
• When the father of a convulsive boy says, “If you can do anything,” Jesus responds,
“If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes” (9:23)—and then heals the boy when the father responds in faith.
But Jesus “could do no mighty work” in Nazareth because of their unbelief (6:1-6a). On two occasions, he will rebuke the disciples for their lack of faith (4:40; 16:14)
“said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven you'” (v. 5b). We (and, no doubt, the paralyzed man) expect Jesus to say, “Take up your mat and walk,” but that will come later (v. 9). Instead, Jesus says,“Son, your sins are forgiven you” (v. 5). Note that he does not say that he forgives the man’s sins. The passive voice (“are forgiven”) admits to two possibilities. One is that Jesus is forgiving the man’s sins. The other is that God has forgiven the man’s sins, and Jesus is simply acting as God’s agent in announcing the fact of God’s forgiveness.
In either event (whether Jesus forgives or simply announces God’s forgiveness), his words raise two issues:
• First, what authority does Jesus have to forgive the man’s sins? This is the issue that precipitates the grumbling of the scribes in vv. 6-7.
• Second, what is the relationship between sin and infirmity? The people of that time would answer that infirmity is God’s judgment on sin.
Given our scientific worldview, we disagree. Viruses and bacteria cause illnesses—the remedy is antibiotics. Pinched nerves cause paralysis—the remedy is surgery. While we don’t know the cause of and remedy for every illness, we know a great deal and learn more every day. We must not “blame the victim” by attributing illness to sin. To do so only makes life worse for the person who is already suffering.
As usual, the truth lies somewhere between the poles. Some illness, both physical and emotional, is the result of specific behaviors. If we believe in sin at all, we must admit that some illness-producing behaviors are sinful. In some cases, the sinful behavior was that of the person who is ill (people who smoke, abuse drugs, or engage in promiscuous sex are obvious examples). In other cases, one person’s sinful behavior causes illness in others (a child seeing an abusive father beating his/her mother can suffer emotional illness as a result). Other illnesses strike us “out of the blue.” Saintly people die of illness just like the most terrible sinner.
Jesus says, “Son, your sins are forgiven you” as if he knows this paralyzed man’s heart. In the Greek, the word “your” is emphatic, which suggests that Jesus is addressing this man’s personal situation:
• Perhaps the man has led a wanton life that somehow resulted in paralysis.
• Perhaps his paralysis is psychosomatic, resulting from guilt over real or imagined sin.
• Perhaps he is a sinner only in the sense that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
• Perhaps he simply feels guilty because he interprets his illness to be punishment for his sins. Any person who suffers serious illness or loss tends to wonder what he/she has done to deserve such a fate. If that is true for people today, imagine how much truer it would be a person of that day.
“Son, your sins are forgiven you.” This is a pastoral word to a man who is wounded in spirit as well as in body. This word assures him that he need not fear that God is waiting around the corner to strike him down again. The man surely hopes that Jesus will take the next step and heal his body, but it seems possible that, for the moment, he feels overwhelming relief at the healing of his soul.
“Son, your sins are forgiven you.” This might be a “divine passive,” a way of speaking about God’s action without pronouncing God’s name. Jews are careful about using God’s name lest they use it in vain. Perhaps Jesus is not forgiving the man, but is simply acknowledging God’s forgiveness. That would be akin to the actions of a priest, who performs an atoning ritual but acts only as God’s intermediary—God does the forgiving (Leviticus 4:26, 31).
There is only one other story in the Gospels where Jesus pronounces forgiveness of a person’s sins—the story of the woman who washes Jesus feet with her tears (Luke 7:48).
Note that the forgiveness of sins does not cure this man’s paralysis. He is forgiven, but is not yet able to walk. He has received one blessed word from Jesus, but he needs yet another.
MARK 2:6-7. WHY DOES THIS MAN SPEAK BLASPHEMIES?
6But there were some of the scribes sitting there, and reasoning in their hearts, 7“Why does this man speak blasphemies like that? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
“But there were some of the scribes sitting there, and reasoning in their hearts” (v. 6). These scribes are sitting, the position from which they teach. Later, Jesus will accuse them of seeking the best seats in the synagogue (12:39). Their genteel posture seems out of place in this crowded doorway, which is one indication that Mark has combined two stories here—a healing story and a controversy story. This is in character for Mark, who also inserts the story of a woman with a hemorrhage into the story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter (5:21-43)—and the story of the cleansing of the temple into the story of the fig tree (11:12-25).
The scribes are the authorized, ordained interpreters of Torah law. Because we know that they are Jesus’ opponents, we quickly label them bad. In fact, they are anxious to please God and are devoted to God’s law. They study God’s law in meticulous detail so that they might lead people rightly. If they sometimes fail to see the forest for the trees, who among us is fit to judge their failure?
“Why does this man speak blasphemies like that? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (v. 7). The scribes silently judge Jesus for usurping God’s prerogative of forgiving sins. While it is possible for a person to forgive a sin committed against him/herself, every sin is, in the end, a sin against God. David captures that idea perfectly when he writes, “Against you, and you only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4a). He wrote that Psalm after committing adultery with Bathsheba and murdering Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. He had, in fact, sinned mightily against Uriah and Bathsheba and as king, had sinned against all his subjects. Nevertheless, his greatest sin was against God, and only God could forgive such sin (Psalm 51:1-3; 85:2).
Even the priests, responsible for the sacrificial system, would claim to serve only as intermediaries for God, because only God can forgive sins. The priests would argue, however, that God has ordained them to perform the rituals of atonement, so it is through their ministrations that God effects forgiveness of sins. They would see Jesus as assuming, not only God’s prerogatives, but priestly prerogatives as well.
The scribes judge Jesus guilty of blasphemy for assuming God’s prerogative. Blasphemy is the most serious of all sins, and Torah law specifies that the blasphemer be put to death by stoning (Leviticus 24:10-23). Even at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, then, Mark raises the issue of blasphemy. Later, the Sanhedrin will bring formal charges of blasphemy against Jesus, and that becomes the basis for his crucifixion (14:61-64).
MARK 2:8-9. WHICH IS EASIER?
8Immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they so reasoned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you reason these things in your hearts? 9Which is easier, to tell the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven;’ (Greek: aphientai—the passive voice suggests that God does the forgiving, in contrast with v. 10) or to say, ‘Arise, and take up your bed, and walk?'”
“Immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they so reasoned within themselves” (v. 8a). The scribes have not voiced their displeasure but, like God, Jesus knows their hearts.
“Why do you reason these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to tell the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven;’ or to say, ‘Arise, and take up your bed, and walk?'” (vv. 8b-9). Jesus answers their unspoken questions with one of his own. He does not ask which is easier to do, but which is easier to say. Is it easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven” or to say, “Arise, and take up your bed, and walk”?
In truth, it is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven” than to say “Arise, and take up your bed, and walk.” Observers have no way to verify whether the man’s sins have been forgiven, but they can easily verify whether he can stand up and take his mat and walk. When Jesus says, “Arise, and take up your bed, and walk,” he is stepping out on the high wire without a net. If the man succeeds in standing and walking, it will become obvious that Jesus is working by Godly power and was therefore within his rights to say “Your sins are forgiven.” However, if the man fails to stand, Jesus’ will be revealed publicly to be a failure and a blasphemer. If convicted of blasphemy, he could be put to death by stoning (Leviticus 24:16). With his question, then, Jesus is proposing a verifiable test of his authority (healing) to authenticate that which cannot otherwise be verified (forgiveness).
MARK 2:10-12. THEY WERE ALL AMAZED, AND GLORIFIED GOD
10“But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive (Greek:aphienai—the active voice suggests that the Son of Man does the forgiving, in contrast with v. 9) sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11“I tell you, arise, take up your mat, and go to your house.” 12He arose, and immediately took up the mat, and went out in front of them all; so that they were all amazed, and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”
“But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (v. 10). The title, Son of Man, comes from the book of Daniel, where God gave the Son of Man “dominion, and glory, and…and everlasting dominion” (Daniel 7:13-14).
(NOTE: The NRSV translates Daniel 7:13 “human being” rather than “Son of Man.” That is unfortunate for two reasons:  the Hebrew in Daniel 7:13 clearly means “son of man” and  what Jesus has to say about the Son of Man is rooted in the Daniel verse).
This title, Son of Man, has the advantage of having none of the militaristic connotations associated with the title, Messiah. People expect the Messiah to raise an army, to drive out the Romans, and to re-establish the great Davidic kingdom. They have no such expectations regarding the Son of Man.
Jesus frequently refers to himself as Son of Man. Only four times in the New Testament (John 12:34; Acts 7:56; Revelation 1:13; 14:14) does anyone other than Jesus use the phrase, and then they use it to refer to Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus refers to himself fourteen times as the Son of Man. Twelve of these take place after Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah (8:27-30), and nine have to do with Jesus’ suffering and death (8:31; 9:9, 12, 31; 10:33, 45; 14:21 twice, 41). Only twice (2:10, 28) does Jesus use the phrase prior to Peter’s confession, both times in connection with challenges to his authority and/or orthodoxy. Because Jesus usually uses the phrase to disclose his passion to the disciples, it seems unlikely that he would use it at this early stage of his ministry in the presence of his enemies. It seems more likely that, in Mark 2, Mark puts the phrase in Jesus’ mouth.
If Jesus does use this title in front of these scribes, it seems significant that they fail to take issue with his use of the title for himself. If they understood it to be a Messianic title, they would surely do so.
There are at least three possible meanings for the title, Son of Man. It might mean (1) humanity in general, (2) “I who speak to you,” or (3) it might be a Messianic title (Guelich, 89-90). In this Mark 2 context, Jesus seems to use it in the sense of, “I who speak to you,” but his frequent use of the title in connection with his passion suggests that he often intends it as a veiled Messianic title. The title obviously has meaning to Jesus, which he will increasingly disclose to his disciples, but it seems not to mean much to anyone but Jesus at this early point in his ministry.
“I tell you, arise, take up your mat, and go to your house” (v. 11). Jesus authenticates his authority by ordering the paralytic to take up his mat and walk (vv. 9-10). The man quickly responds by doing what Jesus commanded. Jesus’ word, like the creative Word of God in Genesis 1, is effective—has power—accomplishes the work that he sets out to accomplish. The result is that all are amazed and glorify God—not Jesus, but God. If Jesus were truly a blasphemer, as the scribes have charged (v. 7), the end result of his efforts would not be the glorification of God.
When Mark says that they were all amazed and glorified God, he surely does not include the scribes. No doubt the scribes are amazed, but Jesus’ success comes at their expense. Their continuing opposition (2:13-17) makes it clear that they do not accept Jesus’ authority and cannot be expected to glorify God for Jesus’ miracles.
“And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!'” (v. 12). The previous day, the whole city gathered to see Jesus heal the sick and cast out demons (1:32-34), “but this time the declaration of the forgiveness of sins, and Jesus’ bold defense of his right to do so, has added a new dimension” (France, 129).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Wright, Tom (N.T.), Mark for Everyone (London: SPCK and Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001, 2004)
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Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan