This passage from Matthew’s Gospel is a “controversy story”, in which the miracle resolves a dispute, a controversy. The dispute arises over Jesus’s powers: it is one thing to cure an illness, but can this man also forgive sins ?
The scene is a house in Capernaum, a small township by the lake of Galilee, where crowds have gathered to hear Jesus and to have their ailments cured. The sick man, a paralytic, is carried by his four friends and placed before the Master. Strangely, the appearance of the patient and his obvious faith doesn’t prompt a cure from Jesus, but rather a declaration that his sins have been forgiven.
This is not the expected response, and the scribes and Pharisees who are at hand, take immediate offence at the words. “Blasphemy !” they cry. After all, who can forgive sins but God alone ?
And yet, everywhere in the Gospels miracles are described not just in terms of a wonderful and sensational action, but as a response to the faith of the one who asks. To have faith, no matter how imperfect, is to accept Jesus as one’s saviour, and to wish to change one’s life according to his teachings. The Gospels see the afflictions of the human condition as the consequences of sin, so the forgiveness of sins removes the root of the evil. Therefore the miracle is but one symbol of the whole process of salvation which Jesus begins, in individuals as well as in society.
All this escapes the scribes and Pharisees. They are just annoyed that Jesus seems to claim divine rights by forgiving sins.
So Jesus throws them a challenge: Which is easier, to say that sins are forgiven, which cannot be tested by observation — or to bid the sick man rise and walk ? When Jesus heals the paralysed man it proves that he can also save from sin. For unless sin is cured, there is no genuine remedy for human ills.
And as the sick man got up and went home, says Matthew, the crowd was filled with awe, and praised God for the authority to heal and to save, which Jesus had revealed.