A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, Son, your sins are forgiven.
Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, Whydoes this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?
The big difference between Jesus and the Pharisees was not about morality or even about sin. Both Jesus and the Pharisees called the people to a life of repentance in line with the prophets and leaders from the First Testament. Both Jesus and the Pharisees reminded people that love for God should come before all other loves. Both Jesus and the Pharisees held the Jewish laws in high regard. The difference between them was that Jesus called the people to follow him personally instead of following the law. In Jesus’ teaching, he personally was the fulfillment of the law. To obey the law meant to obey Jesus. That was the real offense to the Pharisees. For them, listening to Jesus would have been the cultural equivalent of listening to some raving nut claim that he was God. The Reverend Sun Myung Moon claimed that, just like Jim Jones. Those guys were whackos. That was the criticism of the Pharisees against Jesus: he was pretending to be God.
This became most clear whenever Christ taught about repentance. For Jesus, repentance did not involve going to the Temple and offering sacrifices. This was something that the Pharisees also had against John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin. John told the people they could get right with God in the Jordan River instead of heading up into Jerusalem and going through the cultic rituals of first century Judaism. This was hugely offensive to devout and practicing Jews of that time. Jesus took it one step further, telling people they didn’t even need to go the Jordan River; they just needed to come to him. Jesus offered forgiveness on his own authority and by his own process.
Jesus’ call “believe in me” was not doctrinal. He wasn’t asking for people to believe in a bunch of abstract propositions or to sign off on some dogma or another. He was asking people to give him their wholehearted allegiance and affiliation. They were to follow him rather than the law. He didn’t even give them much instruction on who he was, precisely, other than to say he was a prophet like his cousin, but greater, sent by God to usher in the Kingdom of God for all eternity. Sure, he called himself the “son of God,” but in Judaism every firstborn son (as well as every good Jew) could legitimately call himself that. It was a colloquialism, and when Jesus used it they didn’t immediately understand that he was employing sonship differently than they were. In contrast to all we now know about Christ—his incarnation, the hypostatic union, his sacrificial atoning death and resurrection, his ascension—they hardly knew anything about him. He had yet to perform any of his more extravagant feats. The miracles he performed were miracles that others had done before him. The things that made him super-special were as-of-yet undone.
Jesus was not just offering the people forgiveness. Forgiveness was what the rabbis had been offering the people, not just some kind of self-help moral code that would keep God from smiting them. Jesus was offering people abundant life, the life of the ages, life the way it was always meant to be enjoyed. Scholars like to point out that for the ancient Hebrew people this would have entailed a sort of homecoming—with inherent promises of a new king, a new dynasty, and an end to their national exile—but all of that stuff rather misses the mark for the average American. The important point for us is that repentance was less about religion and more about putting an end to misery. It was a way of turning your back on the blindness and bondage of sin and accepting instead the offer of eternal life with Christ in God.
Why, again, did Jesus encounter such opposition from his peers?
It wasn’t because he was preaching about love while everyone else was preaching about rules. And it wasn’t because he was pushing a new kind of religion. And it wasn’t because he was hanging around sinners and poor folk (we have no historical record of the Pharisees beating up on people who have crappy friends or who live below the poverty level), or even because Jesus was showing hospitality to outsiders and gentiles.
The Pharisees were angry because Jesus was replacing allegiance to the Temple with allegiance to himself.
This is why his opponents were so frustrated when he claimed to forgive sins, because he was declaring on his own authority that anyone who trusted in him would live the life of the ages forever.
When we accept Christ, believing in his name and in the gospel, we give ourselves to a new government, a new citizenship, and a new authority. It’s not about our beliefs per se, but about our allegiance.
In the strictest sense, what Jesus offered was himself. That is Christianity: Christ. Nothing more, nothing less, than a King and Kingdom.
This post is from Seasons of Christian Spirituality.