Matthew 9: Encountering the true human being

In Matthew 9 Jesus has an exchange with a group of men carrying a paralyzed man, as well as some skeptical teachers of the law who are convinced Jesus, in the process of engaging the man, is ‘blaspheming’ (v3) for daring to say to the man that his sins are forgiven (v2). This accusatory thought receives this response from Jesus as the story unfolds,

Which is easier—to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But so you will know that the Human One [or Son of Man] has authority on the earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“Get up, take your cot, and go home.” The man got up and went home. When the crowds saw what had happened, they were afraid and praised God, who had given such authority to human beings. (Matt. 9:5-8, CEB, emphasis added)

The contentious issue involves and transcends questions of (or questioning of) role and authority. Jesus has adopted an apocalyptic title and role, Human One, which resonates deeply embedded Jewish expectations (Daniel 7) of a figure who given power and authority by God. This figure was commonly understood as Israel itself not a singular person. Jesus has indeed claimed something remarkable.

However, Jesus has gone further – Jesus has forgiven sins. Authority and power are one thing, doing a job that God alone can do is quite another. Yet Jesus is communicating that this singular Human One is embodying the very life and activity of God in a distinct way. A way that couldn’t be expected. A way that would have to be encountered (v6-7). And it would be in this distinct encounter that Jesus would be seen as the Human One – this specific God-anointed and commissioned human – who could take up and exercise the Divine prerogative to forgive sins.

Out of all of this Stanley Hauerwas has a fascinating reflection on this encounter.

Jesus cures the paralytic because he is the Son of Man [or Human One], the suffering servant that heralds the new age, and, therefore, he has the “authority on earth to forgive sins.” “On earth” binds heaven and earth. The heavenly Son of Man [or Human One] is on earth. The crowds are appropriately filled with awe, but they fail to understand what they have seen. The glorify God for having given such authority to human beings. They fail to understand that Jesus is not exercising the authority possible for human beings, but rather he is exercising the authority that only he can exercise because he is the human being.

There is such a things as Christian humanism, but too often celebration of the humanism of the incarnation underwrites the assumption that Jesus exemplifies a general human possibility. But Jesus is not the exemplification of humanity. He is this man and no other. Indeed he is the only true human being. (Matthew: SCM Theological Commentary, 99-100)

This is what we reckon with when we encounter the Human One – the true human being, the human being. As we read of Jesus moving, acting and speaking we encounter the one who embodies life as it is to be lived in all directions – toward God, self, others and the world – and who centres a community around himself charged to do the same, by his power and in his distinct way. Jesus begins the restitution of our world as the only true human being in the world.

Jesus, in this encounter in Matt. 9, reveals the kind of authority by which he does this very thing. In this encounter we see that true humanity is found, practised and realised ‘in Christ’, in undergoing the freely chosen anthropo-geographical relocation that repentance and baptism denote. It is in undergoing them one becomes a member of the kingdom that Jesus was establishing. It is in relocating ourselves there, ‘in Christ’ and his kingdom, that we learn to be human – it is here, and only here, that we are drawn into, and learn to live, the life of the God of life.

If we are to learn how to live on this planet we call home, the claim those ‘in Christ’ make is that there is nowhere else because we have encountered a new way in the human being who has the authority to forgive sins and tells the paralyzed to walk.