And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold they were bringing to him a paralytic, laid on a bed. And having seen their faith Jesus said to the paralytic, “Have confidence, child, your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man blasphemes.” But having seen their thoughts Jesus said, “Why do you think evil things in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…”—he then says to the paralytic, “Having risen pick up your bed and go to your house. And having risen he went away to his house. And seeing, the crowds were afraid and glorified the God who had given such authority to men.
This is one of the passages that is often put forward as “evidence” that the synoptic Gospel account already presents Jesus as both human and divine. The argument is that i) it is the prerogative of God to forgive sins, ii) in this story Jesus forgives sins, iii) therefore Jesus must be God. Added to this, it is sometimes supposed that Jesus demonstrates exclusive supernatural insight into the inner thoughts of the scribes who were so offended by his pronouncement. Neither of these propositions is correct.
Matthew does not explain why the scribes thought that Jesus’ pronouncement of forgiveness amounted to blasphemy. Mark and Luke, however, have the scribes ask, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Whether or not the rabbis at this time had explicitly formulated the dogma that only God can forgive sins, it is clear enough—if not self-evident—that according to both the sacrificial system and later eschatological narratives it is God alone who forgives Israel’s sin.
Jesus’ response is to claim that the authority (exousian) to forgive sins has been given on earth to the Son of Man. Behind this must be Daniel’s vision of a figure “like a son of man” who, at a time of national religious crisis, is given an “everlasting authority” (exousia aiōnios) (Dan. 7:14 LXX). Jesus certainly identifies himself with this symbolic figure, but what the figure represents is the loyal community of righteous Israel, which resisted pagan pressure to abandon ancestral worship. When Jesus claims to be the Son of Man, therefore, he identifies himself not with God but with a particular group in Israel—with those who will remain faithful during the impending eschatological crisis. What the vision asserts is that, in time, the pagan oppressor will be defeated (7:11), apostate Israel will be judged (cf. 12:2), and the suffering community of the “saints of the Most High” will be given “the authority and the kingdom and the magnitude of all the kingdoms, which are under heaven” (Dan. 7:27).
The reaction of the onlookers is to glorify “the God who had given such authority to men” (Matt. 9:8). Perhaps this reflects a misunderstanding on their part, but there is nothing in the text to suggest that this is the case, and it is completely congruent with Jesus’ claim that the authority to forgive sins has been given to the Son of Man. It is also consistent with the fact that Jesus bestows on his disciples—as the community of the Son of Man—the authority to forgive or to withhold forgiveness, to loose on earth or to bind on earth (Matt. 16:19; 18:18), because the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.
It should be stressed, too, that at issue here is the forgiveness specifically of Israel’s sins—the paralytic is, in effect, a representative figure. The healing of the sick is a sign to Israel that a restoration from the margins, from amongst the dispossessed, is at hand. The forgiveness of the paralytic in defiance of the outraged scribes is a sign to faithful Israel—the Israel represented by the stretcher bearers—that its forgiveness is at hand. The connection between healing and forgiveness is given in Isaiah 53:4, which Matthew cited earlier to explain why Jesus healed the sick and cast out demons (8:17).
Finally, there is no suggestion of divine knowledge in the statement that Jesus “saw their thoughts”. Just as the “faith” of those who carried the paralytic was made visible by their action, so the “thoughts” of the scribes were made visible by the manner of their talking together. The statements are exactly parallel: Jesus saw (idōn) their faith and spoke; Jesus saw (idōn) their thoughts and spoke. Mark speaks of Jesus “knowing in his spirit that they thus questioned among themselves”, but this hardly points to divine knowledge.
This passage says something of central importance about the relationship of Jesus to God. It does not assert an identification of Jesus with God. It does not directly serve the interests of a later developed two-nature christology. What it says is that in a time of eschatological crisis God has exceptionally given to Jesus, as a figure who fulfils the symbolic function of Daniel’s “Son of Man”, the authority to do what otherwise only God himself can do, which is to forgive the sins on account of which the nation has incurred the wrath of God. It is the transfer of authority that is remarkable and a cause of wonder for the onlookers, not any confusion of identities. So the opening argument needs to be restated: i) it is the prerogative of God to forgive the sins of oppressed Israel, ii) in this story Jesus forgives the sins of a man oppressed by sickness, iii) therefore God has given to Jesus authority to forgive sins.
(There was extensive discussion of this passage in an earlier comment thread, which won’t all need to be repeated here.)