"My friend," he said, "your sins are forgiven." The scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, "Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?" Luke 5:20-21. Forgiveness is a concept that Americans take for granted because we live in a christian culture. It is not usually regarded as such a great thing that we should forgive one another. Rather, we are considered mean if we don't. This is especially true of the way that we think of God. God is the ultimate forgiver in our minds. It's God's job to forgive, it's what He does. Truth be told, true forgiveness is just as radical today as it ever was. We probably use the word "forgiveness" to denote various other things besides forgiveness, but that is a thought for another time... It may seem odd to us that the Pharisees would get upset with Jesus for forgiving people's sins. In the Reformed Protestant tradition, we might think that the Pharisees were ticked off with Jesus because they believed in a "works-based righteousness." That is, the Pharisees wanted to earn their place in heaven and didn't want to humbly receive or need mercy. But that is not what the Pharisees are objecting too exactly. There is more at stake than one's theoretical soteriology, that is, one's theory for how people are saved.The scribes and the Pharisees had "come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem" to observe Jesus and to find out what He was doing. (Luke 5:17). This is because the scribes and the Pharisees were not sitting around piously considering how one gets to heaven but rather meditating on and teaching about how the nation must be prepared for God to finally act, within creation, to set the world right again. At least, that is what the best of them were doing, like Peter (Luke 7:39-50) and Nicodemus (John 3:1-2). But like many men in positions of authority, some of them allowed their own ambitions and agendas to be the dominant force behind their efforts for "God's kingdom". The Pharisees were not official rulers in Israel but rather a self-appointed pressure group which sought to purify the nation, maybe similarly to the Hindu nationals in India, or local Mullahs in Muslim mosques. They were the self-appointed purity police over the national identity. So, when Jesus begins to announce the arrival of God's Kingdom, accompanied by healing and a large following, not to mention a powerfully symbolic inner-fellowship of twelve men, the Pharisees feel inclined to go and evaluate what Jesus was doing. And what the Pharisees observe upsets them.
"Who can forgive sins but God alone?" Notice that they do not say that one has to do good works to receive pardon or that one has to earn their way into God's favor. Rather, they say that only God can forgive sins. No Reformed theologian would argue with that. Nor is it the case that the Pharisees didn't believe in forgiveness. Rather, they were saying that they already had a way for sins to be forgiven. The temple was where one would go to receive forgiveness for sins. That is what Moses taught them to do. And yes, a sacrifice was required but it wasn't something that you were unable to do. There were sacrifices that were appropriate according to one's level of income. It was not an over-taxing affair. And as King David notoriously acknowledge and experienced many years earlier in the nation's history, God would even forgive when there was no sacrifice that could be made on one's behalf. When King David had committed murder and adultery, he acknowledge that there was no sacrifice that he could make that would pardon his sin. He simply threw himself on God's mercy (Psalm 51:16-17).
The Pharisees knew about forgiveness. So why were they upset? And why were the people excited? What was new about this forgiveness? Forgiveness is great but there is something better still: the opportunity to be changed and for the world to change. Forgiveness without the hope of avoiding the same mistake in the future is almost a form of torture, like continuing to grant freedom to a prisoner only to slam the door on him time and time again when he attempts to leave. What Jesus was doing was more than forgiving individual private sins, although He was doing that as well, Jesus was signaling that the time had come for God to act to change the world radically and to usher in a new age where God Himself would be King. That is, in fact, what "the Gospel" announcement is. God is becoming King! That is why the forgiveness is accompanied by the healing miracles. This isn't simply a new teaching as though all along God had been forgiving sins but nobody knew it because their teachers didn't tell them. This is a new reality which is bursting in upon the world. After all, humans were not created to do their own thing. They were created with a purpose, a role within God's creation, a job to perform. With forgiveness of sins, there isn't simply the wiping away of wrongs in the past so that one can go one living their life as they please, only now without a guilty conscience. With forgiveness of sins, there is a restoration of vocation. So, with the forgiveness comes healing and with the healing comes restoration of vocation. This was the forgiveness, healing, and restoration that Jesus was bringing, not just to individuals, but to the entire nation. This forgiveness of wrongs committed in the past came with a commission, a calling, and an equipping for how to do things in the future, the very thing with which the Pharisees concerned themselves! This was a rival claim. What upset the Pharisees is that Jesus seemed to be going over their head and their system to accomplish His goal. Jesus was forgiving sins without the temple sacrifice system. Jesus was healing people. Jesus seemed to believe that he was establishing a new Israel community centered around himself, and not the temple in Jerusalem. In short, Jesus was upstaging the system and as a consequence, he was also upsetting the power-base of the Pharisees as well as the Priests.. The Pharisees were upset and understandably so. They have every reason to be upset with Jesus, unless Jesus really is who He says He is. And that is why Jesus is such a divisive person at times. His calling and even His forgiveness is a watershed place, a dividing line that could even get you killed. True forgiveness is powerful and dangerous. Has it ever bothered you when someone received forgiveness? If so, why?