(St. Matt. ix. 1-8; St. Mark ii. 1-12; St. Luke v. 17-26.)
It is a remarkable instance of the reserve of the Gospel-narratives, that of the second journey of Jesus in Galilee no other special event is recorded than the healing of the leper. And it seems also to indicate, that this one miracle had been so selected for a special purpose. But if, as we have suggested, after the 'Unknown Feast,' the activity of Jesus assumed a new and what, for want of a better name, may be called an anti-Judaic character, we can perceive the reason of it. The healing of leprosy was recorded as typical. With this agrees also what immediately follows. For, as Rabbinism stood confessedly powerless in face of the living death of leprosy, so it had no word of forgiveness to speak to the conscience burdened with sin, nor yet word of welcome to the sinner. But this was the inmost meaning of the two events which the Gospel-history places next to the healing of the leper: the forgiveness of sins in the case of the paralytic, and the welcome to the chief of sinners in the call of Levi-Matthew.
We are still mainly following the lead of St. Mark,1
alike as regards the succession of events and their details. And here it is
noteworthy, how the account in St. Mark confirms that by St. John2
of what had occurred at the Unknown Feast. Not that either Evangelist could
have derived it from the other. But if we establish the trustworthiness of the
narrative in St. John v., which is unconfirmed by any of the Synoptists, we
strengthen not only the evidence in favour of the Fourth Gospel generally, but
that in one of its points of chief difficulty, since such advanced teaching on
the part of Jesus, and such developed hostility from the Jewish authorities,
might scarcely have been looked for at so early a stage. But when we compare
the language of St. Mark with the narrative in the fifth chapter of St. John's
Gospel, at least four points of contact prominently appear. For, first, the
unspoken charge of the Scribes,3
that in forgiving sins Jesus blasphemed by making Himself equal with God, has
its exact counterpart in the similar charge against Him in St. John v. 18,
which kindled in them the wish to kill Jesus. Secondly, as in that case the
final reply of Jesus pointed to 'the authority' (
In another manner, also, the succession of events, as we have traced it, seems confirmed by the account of the healing of the paralytic. The second journey of Jesus through Galilee had commenced in autumn; the return to Capernaum was 'after days,' which, in common Jewish phraseology,11 meant a considerable interval. As we reckon, it was winter, which would equally account for Christ's return to Capernaum, and for His teaching in the house. For, no sooner 'was it heard that He was in the house,' or, as some have rendered it, 'that He was at home,' than so many flocked to the dwelling of Peter, which at that period may have been 'the house' or temporary 'home' of the Saviour, as to fill its limited space to over flowing, and even to crowd out to the door and beyond it. The general impression on our minds is, that this audience was rather in a state of indecision than of sympathy with Jesus. It included 'Pharisees and doctors of the Law,' who had come on purpose from the towns of Galilee, from JudŠa, and from Jerusalem. These occupied the 'uppermost rooms,' sitting, no doubt, near to Jesus. Their influence must have been felt by the people. Although irresistibly attracted by Jesus, an element of curiosity, if not of doubt, would mingle with their feelings, as they looked at their leaders, to whom long habit attached the most superstitious veneration. If one might so say, it was like the gathering of Israel on Mount Carmel, to witness the issue as between Elijah and the priests of Baal.
Although in no wise necessary to the understanding of the event, it is helpful to try and realise the scene. We can picture to ourselves the Saviour 'speaking the Word' to that eager, interested crowd, which would soon become forgetful even of the presence of the watchful 'Scribes.' Though we know a good deal of the structure of Jewish houses,12 we feel it difficult to be sure of the exact place which the Saviour occupied on this occasion. Meetings for religious study and discussion were certainly held in the Aliyah or upper chamber.13 But, on many grounds, such a locale seems utterly unsuited to the requirements of the narrative.14 Similar objections attach to the idea, that it was the front room of one of those low houses occupied by the poor.15 Nor is there any reason for supposing that the house occupied by Peter was one of those low buildings, which formed the dwellings of the very poor. It must, at any rate, have contained, besides a large family room, accommodation for Peter and his wife, for Peter's mother-in-law, and for Jesus as the honoured guest. The Mishnah calls a small house one that is 9 feet long by 12 broad, and a large house one that is 12 feet long by 15 broad, and adds that a dining-hall is 15 feet square, the height being always computed at half the length and breadth.16 But these notices seem rather to apply to a single room. They are part of a legal discussion, in which reference is made to a building which might be erected by a man for his son on his marriage, or as a dwelling for his widowed daughter. Another source of information is derived from what we know of the price and rental of houses. We read17 of a house as costing ten (of course, gold) dinars, which would make the price 250 silver dinars, or between 71. and 81. of our money. This must, however, have been 'a small house,' since the rental of such is stated to have been from 7s. to 28s. a year,18 while that of a large house is computed at about 91. a year,19 and that of a courtyard at about 14s. a year.20
All this is so far of present interest as it will help to show, that the house of Peter could not have been a 'small one.' We regard it as one of the better dwellings of the middle classes. In that case all the circumstances fully accord with the narrative in the Gospels. Jesus is speaking the Word, standing in the covered gallery that ran round the courtyard of such houses, and opened into the various apartments. Perhaps He was standing within the entrance of the guest-chamber, while the Scribes were sitting within that apartment, or beside Him in the gallery. The court before Him is thronged, out into the street. All are absorbedly listening to the Master, when of a sudden those appear who are bearing a paralytic on his pallet. It had of late become too common a scene to see the sick thus carried to Jesus to attract special attention. And yet one can scarcely conceive that, if the crowd had merely filled an apartment and gathered around its door, it would not have made way for the sick, or that somehow the bearers could not have come within sight, or been able to attract the attention of Christ. But with a courtyard crowded out into the street, all this would be, of course, out of the question. In such circumstances, what was to be done? Access to Jesus was simply impossible. Shall they wait till the multitude disperses, or for another and more convenient season? Only those would have acted thus who have never felt the preciousness of an opportunity, because they have never known what real need is. Inmost in the hearts of those who bore the paralysed was the belief, that Jesus could, and that he would, heal. They must have heard it from others; they must have witnessed it themselves in other instances. And inmost in the heart of the paralytic was, as we infer from the first words of Jesus to him, not only the same conviction, but with it weighed a terrible fear, born of Jewish belief, lest his sins might hinder his healing. And this would make him doubly anxious not to lose the present opportunity.
And so their resolve was quickly taken. If they cannot approach Jesus with their burden, they can let it down from above at His feet. Outside the house, as well as inside, a stair led up to the roof. They may have ascended it in this wise, or else reached it by what the Rabbis called 'the road of the roofs,'21 passing from roof to roof, if the house adjoined others in the same street. The roof itself, which had hard beaten earth or rubble underneath it, was paved with brick, stone, or any other hard substance, and surrounded by a balustrade which, according to Jewish Law, was at least three feet high. It is scarcely possible to imagine, that the bearers of the paralytic would have attempted to dig through this into a room below, not to speak of the interruption and inconvenience caused to those below by such an operation. But no such objection attaches if we regard it, not as the main roof of the house, but as that of the covered gallery under which we are supposing the Lord to have stood. This could, of course, have been readily reached from above. In such case it would have been comparatively easy to 'unroof' the covering of 'tiles,' and then, 'having dug out' an opening through the lighter framework which supported the tiles, to let down their burden 'into the midst before Jesus.' All this, as done by four strong men, would be but the work of a few minutes. But we can imagine the arresting of the discourse of Jesus, and the breathless surprise of the crowd as this opening through the tiles appeared, and slowly a pallet was let down before them. Busy hands would help to steady it, and bring it safe to the ground. And on that pallet lay one paralysed - his fevered face and glistening eyes upturned to Jesus.
It must have been a marvellous sight, even at a time and in circumstances when the marvellous might be said to have become of every-day occurrence. This energy and determination of faith exceeded aught that had been witnessed before. Jesus saw it, and He spake. For, as yet, the blanched lips of the sufferer had not parted to utter his petition. He believed, indeed, in the power of Jesus to heal, with all the certitude that issued, not only in the determination to be laid at His feet, but at whatever trouble and in any circumstances, however novel or strange. It needed, indeed, faith to overcome all the hindrances in the present instance; and still more faith to be so absorbed and forgetful of all around, as to be let down from the roof through the broken tiling into the midst of such an assembly. And this open outburst of faith shone out the more brightly, from its contrast with the covered darkness and clouds of unbelief within the breast of those Scribes, who had come to watch and ensnare Jesus.
As yet no one had spoken, for the silence of expectancy had fallen on them all. Could He, and, if He could, would He help - and what would He do? But He, Who perceived man's unspoken thoughts, knew that there was not only faith, but also fear, in the heart of that man. Hence the first words which the Saviour spake to him were: 'Be of good cheer.'22 He had, indeed, got beyond the coarse Judaic standpoint, from which suffering seemed an expiation of sin. It was argued by the Rabbis, that, if the loss of an eye or a tooth liberated a slave from bondage, much more would the sufferings of the whole body free the soul from guilt; and, again, that Scripture itself indicated this by the use of the word 'covenant,'23 alike in connection with the salt which rendered the sacrifices meet for the altar,24 and sufferings,25 which did the like for the soul by cleansing away sin.26 We can readily believe, as the recorded experience of the Rabbis shows,27 that such sayings brought neither relief to the body, nor comfort to the soul of real sufferers. But this other Jewish idea was even more deeply rooted, had more of underlying truth, and would, especially in presence of the felt holiness of Jesus, have a deep influence on the soul, that recovery would not be granted to the sick unless his sins had first been forgiven him.28 It was this deepest, though, perhaps, as yet only partially conscious, want of the sufferer before Him, which Jesus met when, in words of tenderest kindness, He spoke forgiveness to his soul, and that not as something to come, but as an act already past: 'Child, thy sins have been forgiven.'29 We should almost say, that He needed first to speak these words, before He gave healing: needed, in the psychological order of things; needed, also, if the inward sickness was to be healed, and because the inward stroke, or paralysis, in the consciousness of guilt, must be removed, before the outward could be taken away.
In another sense, also, there was a higher 'need be' for the word which brought forgiveness, before that which gave healing. Although it is not for a moment to be supposed, that, in what Jesus did, He had primary intention in regard to the Scribes, yet here also, as in all Divine acts, the undesigned adaptation and the undesigned sequences are as fitting as what we call the designed. For, with God there is neither past nor future; neither immediate nor mediate; but all is one, the eternally and God-pervaded Present. Let us recall, that Jesus was in the presence of those in whom the Scribes would feign have wrought disbelief, not of His power to cure disease - which was patent to all - but in His Person and authority; that, perhaps, such doubts had already been excited. And here it deserves special notice, that, by first speaking forgiveness, Christ not only presented the deeper moral aspect of His miracles, as against their ascription to magic or Satanic agency, but also established that very claim, as regarded His Person and authority, which it was sought to invalidate. In this forgiveness of sins He presented His Person and authority as Divine, and He proved it such by the miracle of healing which immediately followed. Had the two been inverted, there would have been evidence, indeed, of His power, but not of His Divine Personality, nor of His having authority to forgive sins; and this, not the doing of miracles, was the object of His Teaching and Mission, of which the miracles were only secondary evidence.
Thus the inward reasoning of the Scribes,30 which was open and known to Him Who readeth all thoughts,31 issued in quite the opposite of what they could have expected. Most unwarranted, indeed, was the feeling of contempt which we trace in their unspoken words, whether we read them: 'Why doth this one thus speak blasphemies?' or, according to a more correct transcript of them: 'Why doth this one speak thus? He blasphemeth!' Yet from their point of view they were right, for God alone can forgive sins; nor has that power ever been given or delegated to man. But was He a mere man, like even the most honoured of God's servants? Man, indeed; but 'the Son of Man'32 in the emphatic and well-understood sense of being the Representative Man, who was to bring a new life to humanity; the Second Adam, the Lord from Heaven. It seemed easy to say: 'Thy sins have been forgiven.' But to Him, Who had 'authority' to do so on earth, it was neither more easy nor more difficult than to say: 'Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.' Yet this latter, assuredly, proved the former, and gave it in the sight of all men unquestioned reality. And so it was the thoughts of these Scribes, which, as applied to Christ, were 'evil' - since they imputed to Him blasphemy - that gave occasion for offering real evidence of what they would have impugned and denied. In no other manner could the object alike of miracles and of this special miracle have been so attained as by the 'evil thoughts' of these Scribes, when, miraculously brought to light, they spoke out the inmost possible doubt, and pointed to the highest of all questions concerning the Christ. And so it was once more the wrath of man which praised Him!
'And the remainder of wrath did he restrain.' As the healed man slowly rose, and, still silent, rolled up his pallet, a way was made for him between this multitude which followed him with wondering eyes. Then, as first mingled wonderment and fear fell on Israel on Mount Carmel, when the fire had leaped from heaven, devoured the sacrifice, licked up the water in the trench, and even consumed the stones of the altar, and then all fell prostrate, and the shout rose to heaven: 'Jehovah, He is the Elohim!' so now, in view of this manifestation of the Divine Presence among them. The amazement of fear fell on them in this Presence, and they glorified God, and they said: 'We have never seen it on this wise!'