Authority on Earth
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
February 19, 2006
Scriptures: 2 Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2: 1-12
“…the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” –Mark 2:10
By now you know that I preach what the lectionary tells me to preach, and so at present am following the Gospel of Mark. I say this because I am dismayed to discover that my current preaching seems more and more like a sustained tirade against organized religion. I ask myself why, since I have served organized religion all my life and continue to do so. The answer is that there is within Biblical religion a similarly constant tirade against Temple, Priests, and Kings, from the Hebrew prophets to the Christian Messiah, from Amos to Jesus and beyond. I hope I stand in that tradition of witness to the reality of God beyond religion and state.
Mark’s gospel is radical because it is an account of how Jesus was murdered by the church and the state working together in the service of institutional power. The gospel has been called a” a passion narrative with a long introduction.” Of its 16 chapters five are directly about the last week of Jesus’ life, when the conflict with the religious and civil authorities became acute, and the other 11 chapters are full of what in the trade are called “conflict stories.” Today’s story is one of them.
Yesterday at Lillian’s memorial service I spoke of friends as those whom we need no longer impress because they are in any case on our side. In today’s story Mark shows us how friends act. They carry the lame man to Jesus and do not give up before they have achieved their goal. Crowds? No problem! We haul him up to the roof, clamber over the uncertain tiles and at the right place tear them off to lower our maimed friend on his roped stretcher to the very feet of Jesus. What does Jesus do? “And seeing their faith, Jesus says to the paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven you.'”
What is this faith that Mark tells us is the thing that motivates Jesus to heal the man even as he crashes the line? It could be translated “faithfulness,” and then it would mean the faithfulness and loyalty of friendship. I think Mark intends us to read it that way; he says in effect, “…Jesus seeing their faithfulness to their friend, says to the patient ‘Your sins are forgiven.'” The other nuance here is the confidence they all have in Jesus’ ability to heal him. So faith is loyalty to a friend and faith is confidence in Jesus. Thus the human and divine come together, the human love of friends for one another and the divine power even on earth to heal those who call out in faith. Jesus sees the faith in him and their faithfulness to their stricken friend, and a miracle happens.
But friendship and faith are not enough for the representatives of organized religion. How dare a layperson forgive sins! And who will pay for the damage to the roof? And it’s intolerable that people are allowed to crash the line. Jesus should play fair and make them go to the back of the line and wait their turn. These are just some of the objections I remember from my time of servitude in the salt mines of church committees. There is nothing they worked harder to prevent than that Jesus should heal and save someone without their authorization and in contravention of the constitution and byelaws.
Notice, the man is paralyzed. We know well how anxiety can physically paralyze a person beyond the emotional and mental paralysis it so evidently brings. This physical phenomenon used to be called hysterical paralysis, because it was believed to be the exclusive province of those who had hysteras, that is wombs, that is woman, that was Freud. Of course it afflicts everyone, and more pertinently, it is rampantly connected with guilt, which in turn, is the stock in trade of organized religion. Last time I said organized religion makes people sick; now I say it paralyses them emotionally and in extreme cases physically as well, and breeds a sick power lust that poisons the bearer and all his/her relationships.
So when Jesus heals the paralyzed man he says, “Your sins are forgiven.” The man did not ask to have his sins forgiven; neither did his friends. They wanted Jesus to alleviate the symptom, physical paralysis; Jesus struck at the cause, namely, religiously created guilt. The man went home not merely cured but saved, saved from organized religion and its satanic power to hold us motionless by guilt and to cow us by threats of punishment, to bind us in webs of hypocritical love, and put us in the way of empty people seeking to fill their void with the substance of our life and time.
The representatives of organized religion want to preserve their prerogative power “to bind and loose,” as the Bible puts it. This system is the structure of their power. “You cannot be freed form the burden of your sin excepting through us, therefore you cannot go to heaven excepting through us, therefore kneel down and pay up!”
Jesus says, “The Son of Man has power even on earth to forgive sins.” There goes the monopoly! “Son of Man” is the Aramaic idiom for “Human being,” as “Sons of Israel” means Israelites. So we might read the text, “The Human Being has authority in the human world to forgive sins,” or “Friends can forgive each other and it is the same as divine forgiveness.” The Lord’s Prayer says as much, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” And Matthew goes on immediately to comment on that clause in the prayer, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive you ( Matt 6:14). What a far cry this is from my experience of organized religion where hardly anyone forgave you, but rather slandered and betrayed while smiling and giving signs of a murderously false “goodwill,” and spoke of love with as much conviction as a whore speaks of chastity.
The representatives of organized religion in our story were in fact disappointed that a sufferer had been relieved of his sufferings. They wanted him to die rather than live. You might say I should qualify this with some qualification like, “…if his healing meant the loss of some of their power,” but I shall not. I wish intentionally to maintain that the purpose of organized religion is death and not life. From the micro level of a tiny church committee in the leafy suburbs or the conspirators’ cave in a windswept mountain, to the mad street fights over things said, and the constant, rumbling resentment of powerlessness, religious people plot violence and death in the name of God, which is another name for their own pathetic lust for a scrap of the really real to fill the great hole of negation at the center of their beings. Organized religion is the invention of the devil, who is, in turn, the invention of organized religion, and the “heart and secret soul of the Sacred is Violence” (Rene Girard), the violent reciprocity of the nothing and the nothing that comes from nothing (Lear).
“And the healed man rose up and picking up his stretcher hastily went out from their presence, and everyone was astonished and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this! (Vs. 12).” We know why he left in a hurry, don’t we? To put as much distance between him and the religious authorities, before the enforcers can figure out which way he went
And the ordinary folk like you and me? We say, “Thank God for this new authority! The great human being, Jesus, forgives sin here and now, authorizes us to forgive sin too, and thus frees us from the power of the devil, which is organized religion’s myth of guilt and retribution, the great paralyser of all human goodness and the poisoner of the wells of life.