It would be interesting for us, as Disciples who are beginning the journey of following the Lord Jesus Christ, or taking up the journey again, to look at the words of Jesus in this passage and listen carefully to them. When we are about to have the reading of the Gospel in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria the priest prays out loud, and among his words are those of Jesus himself who said, “Blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear.” In a very real sense the Gospels allow us to see and to hear as if we were there, if we pay close attention.
The Lord Jesus says, “Son, cheer up! Your sins are forgiven you.” This astonished and horrified some of those who were there and could not see in a right way. They just saw a man saying things that no man could or should ever say. Indeed, others might have wondered what Jesus was talking about since the man was paralysed and had nothing to be cheerful about. But if the Lord Jesus Christ is truly God, as Orthodox Christians believe, then he alone has authority to say such things, and he alone saw things the right way around. The man’s real problem was not his paralysis, but his being separated from God, and when this was dealt with he had every reason to find peace and joy – to cheer up! For ourselves, often in our journey through life we come across obstacles and assume that these are the great problems we need God to fix, and he will in many cases. But really our problem is always that we are separated from God. If we do not have the problem of ur relationship with God addressed them even if every earthly problem was resolved there would always be a reason why we could not – cheer up! Nor was it possible for the man to cheer up before Christ had spoken to him. On his own he certainly had no reason to be cheerful.
It is hard to see these inward changes, and Christ knew the hearts and minds and questions and doubts and criticisms that were being said quietly. So he asks, “What is easier to say? Your sins are forgiven or get up and walk?” If we think about it, it is much easier to say, your sins are forgiven. How would we know whether it had worked our not right there and then. Jesus Christ could say it and no-one would be able to see anything concrete. But to say get up and walk! That requires an immediate result. The practical word of healing demonstrates the authority of Christ to offer forgiveness of sins. He says just these words, “Get up, and take up your mat, and go to your house” and the man did just that.
The words of Jesus Christ have power. In the Orthodox Church this authority to forgive sins, and to restore a relationship with God, has been given by Jesus to his Apostles, Bishops and Priests. In the services of the Church and in the sacrament of Confession, the Priest speaks on behalf of Jesus Christ and his words have the same effect. The most important thing we need is to always and often be reconciled with God, to have our relationship with God renewed and restored. Our other problems and difficulties are known to God, but to know God himself changes everything already.
Scripture – Matthew 9
1 He entered into a boat and crossed over, and came into his own city. 2 Behold, they brought to him a man who was paralysed, lying on a bed. Jesus, seeing their faith, said to the paralytic, “Son, cheer up! Your sins are forgiven you.” 3 Behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man blasphemes.” 4 Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? 5 For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven;’ or to say, ‘Get up, and walk?’ 6 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins—” (then he said to the paralytic), “Get up, and take up your mat, and go to your house.” 7 He arose and departed to his house. 8 But when the multitudes saw it, they marvelled and glorified God, who had given such authority to men. 9 As Jesus passed by from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax collection office. He said to him, “Follow me.” He got up and followed him. 10 As he sat in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw it, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 When Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are healthy have no need for a physician, but those who are sick do. 13 But you go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ for I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” 14 Then John’s disciples came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples don’t fast?” 15 Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch would tear away from the garment, and a worse hole is made. 17 Neither do people put new wine into old wine skins, or else the skins would burst, and the wine be spilled, and the skins ruined. No, they put new wine into fresh wine skins, and both are preserved.” 18 While he told these things to them, behold, a ruler came and worshipped him, saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” 19 Jesus got up and followed him, as did his disciples. 20 Behold, a woman who had a discharge of blood for twelve years came behind him, and touched the fringe of his garment; 21 for she said within herself, “If I just touch his garment, I will be made well.” 22 But Jesus, turning around and seeing her, said, “Daughter, cheer up! Your faith has made you well.” And the woman was made well from that hour. 23 When Jesus came into the ruler’s house and saw the flute players and the crowd in noisy disorder, 24 he said to them, “Make room, because the girl isn’t dead, but sleeping.” They were ridiculing him. 25 But when the crowd was sent out, he entered in, took her by the hand, and the girl arose. 26 The report of this went out into all that land. 27 As Jesus passed by from there, two blind men followed him, calling out and saying, “Have mercy on us, son of David!” 28 When he had come into the house, the blind men came to him. Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They told him, “Yes, Lord.” 29 Then he touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith be it done to you.” 30 Then their eyes were opened. Jesus strictly commanded them, saying, “See that no one knows about this.” 31 But they went out and spread abroad his fame in all that land. 32 As they went out, behold, a mute man who was demon possessed was brought to him. 33 When the demon was cast out, the mute man spoke. The multitudes marvelled, saying, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel!” 34 But the Pharisees said, “By the prince of the demons, he casts out demons.” 35 Jesus went about all the cities and the villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the Good News of the Kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness amongst the people. 36 But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion for them because they were harassed‡ and scattered, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest indeed is plentiful, but the labourers are few. 38 Pray therefore that the Lord of the harvest will send out labourers into his harvest.”
From the Fathers
John Chrysostom (349-407 A.D.)
Why did Jesus not call Matthew at the same time as he called Peter and John and the rest? He came to each one at a particular time when he knew that they would respond to him. He came at a different time to call Matthew when he was assured that Matthew would surrender to his call. Similarly, he called Paul at a different time when he was vulnerable, after the resurrection, something like a hunter going after his quarry. For he who is acquainted with our inmost hearts and knows the secrets of our minds knows when each one of us is ready to respond fully. Therefore he did not call them all together at the beginning, when Matthew was still in a hardened condition. Rather, only after countless miracles, after his fame was spread abroad, did he call Matthew. He knew Matthew had been softened for full responsiveness.
We may admire, incidentally, the self-effacing temperament of Matthew, for we note how he does not disguise his own former life. In his account he freely adds his own name and his own bad profession, while the other Gospel writers had generously protected him under another name. But why did Matthew himself indicate precisely that he was “sitting at the tax office”? To point to the power of the One who called him, underscoring that he was being actively drawn away from the midst of the very evils in which he was presently engaged and that he had not already abandoned his wicked business as a tax gatherer.
[This is a wonderful way of thinking about how God works to call each one of us. He doesn’t treat us all the same, but works patiently and personally with every person. So we can see that St Matthew was not called at the same time as the fishermen. And he had not even been a follower of St John the Baptist when he heard and responded to the call. Indeed, as St John Chrysostom points out, he was in the middle of his activity as a tax collector. He was a sinner engaged in deceit, but at the right time, and after he had been prepared as God knew best, he was called and responded.]
In the Orthodox spiritual way, the purpose of all of our Discipleship and effort is always a closer union with God. There are ways we can measure for ourselves if we are truly being transformed, and these are practical to a great extent. In previous days we considered how necessary it is to have a target to be able to judge our progress.
But it is important to stress that the purpose and goal of the spiritual life is not so much growth in virtue, as if this could be considered apart from God. It is rather growth into union with God himself, and an increasing experience of his own power and grace working in us by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
St Seraphim of Sarov, a Russian saint, speaks about the whole purpose of the Christian life, indeed of all human life, is to acquire the divine presence of the Holy Spirit. He says, “Acquiring the Spirit of God is the true aim of our Christian life, while prayer, fasting, almsgiving and other good works done for Christ’s sake are merely means for acquiring the Spirit of God.” When we realise clearly that this is the aim of our life, the purpose and meaning of our life, then we can see that it is possible to place obstacles in the way of obtaining a greater experience of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
This is why we should avoid all selfish thoughts and behaviours, all anger, pride and sinful actions. It is not so much that they count against us, rather they immediately prevent us being transparent to the presence of the Holy Spirit so that we come entirely alive in him, as our own life. They become like a clot in a vein preventing the flow of life blood. We resist temptation and seek the purity of heart and life of which we have already spoken so that the flow of the divine life of the Holy Spirit within us is not restricted or blocked. We engage in the spiritual activities we are considering in this course, or which we already participate in, so that we we might receive more, and to overflowing, of the presence and life and light of the Holy Spirit.
1. We continue to pray the Lord’s Prayer with warmth and attention in the morning and evening.
2. We continue to prayerfully read Psalm 1 in the morning.
3. We continue to pray for each of those in our list of intercessions in the morning and evening, and try to remember some of these during the day.
4. We pray the Jesus Prayer 10 times quietly and slowly, in the morning and evening, and we also try to remember to pray the Jesus Prayer sometimes through the day.
5. Read the Gospel again, slowly and prayerfully, especially considering the words that Jesus Christ himself speaks, and record in your notebook what comes to mind, as a word from God. Reflect on this intuition through the day and do not allow it to easily be lost.
In the 18th century a fragment of a text dating to about 170 A.D. was published which contains a list of the New Testament books considered authoritative by the author. It is sometimes suggested that the New Testament did not develop until very late, even at the time of St Athanasius in the 4th century. But here we have an early list, with no sense that it is not producing something which is not already traditional. The relevant parts say,
… at which however he was present and so he has set it down. The third Gospel book, that according to Luke. … The fourth of the Gospels, that of John, one of the disciples. … the Acts of all Apostles are written in one book. … the blessed apostle Paul himself, following the rule of his predecessor John, writes by name only to seven churches in the following order: to the Corinthians the first epistle, to the Ephesians the second, to the Philippians the third, to the Colossians the fourth, to the Galatians the fifth, to the Thessalonians the sixth, to the Romans the seventh. Although he wrote to the Corinthians and to the Thessalonians once more for their reproof, it is yet clearly recognizable that over the whole earth one church is spread. For John also in the Revelation writes indeed to seven churches, yet speaks to all. But to Philemon one, and to Titus one, and to Timothy two, (written) out of goodwill and love, are yet held sacred to the glory of the catholic Church for the ordering of ecclesiastical discipline. … Further an epistle of Jude and two with the title (or: two of the above mentioned) John are accepted in the catholic Church … Also of the revelations we accept only those of John and Peter, which (latter) some of our people do not want to have read in the Church.
The very beginning of the list is missing and would have mentioned the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. Otherwise, we can see that in this particular list, originally written in Greek and preserved in Latin, all of the books of our own New Testament are already considered authoritative. Only the letters of James, Peter and to the Hebrews are missing. But it is not clear that the manuscript has not been damaged before this copy was made. Certainly we can say that very early in the life of the Church it was already clear which books and letters were considered Scripture in the Apostolic Church.