We know that the Gospels report a large number of cures of the sick by our Lord, and even a few resurrections from the dead. This morning's Gospel is significant in that when a sick man was brought to Him -- a paralytic, in this case -- instead of saying something like "be healed of thine illness," He says, "thy sins are forgiven thee." To the Jewish people of our Lord's time, it was a familiar concept that sickness is one of the consequences of sin. But, of course, to those who did not recognize, or would not admit, our Lord's divinity, anyone claiming to grant the forgiveness of sins was guilty of the unpardonable sin of pretending to be God Himself -- the sin of blasphemy. All three of the synoptics, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, report our Lord's words and the reaction of the Scribes with virtually identical language, so we can be sure that our Lord said what we heard this morning.2
We know, what the Scribes did not know, that Jesus Christ is God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who had entered this world precisely for the purpose of bring redemption and forgiveness of sin. But let us spend a few minutes considering the idea that sickness is a consequence of sin.
Does this Gospel assert that the man in question committed some serious sin and that God consequently struck him with paralysis? That is a possibility, but not a certainty by any means. Quite innocent people, including babies and children are sometimes stricken with serious illness. Sometimes great holiness develops out of grave illness -- for illness often keeps people from doing evil, and sometimes develops personalities quite patient and compassionate for the sufferings of others. But we do know (and the Scribes knew) that when God created Adam and Eve, He gave them special virtues (preternatural virtues) which would have kept them well for all of their natural lives -- most likely, they would also have enjoyed the privilege of the Blessed Virgin to one day fall into a peaceful sleep and to be taken body and soul into heaven. We know (as the Scribes knew) that the sin of Adam reduced mankind to the purely natural state, in which he was vulnerable to all of the limitations of material beings -- the chief among them being toil, sickness, suffering, and death.
Yet one might respond that while we, theoretically, might have been free from sickness and death ourselves if Adam had a little bit more foresight -- the reality is that Adam did, in fact, sin and lose all of those preternatural gifts -- and the reality is that even after our redemption and our Baptism, we did not recover those gifts. We are still subject to toil, sickness, suffering, and death. The Blessed Mother was unique, having been created like Adam and Eve, in the state of original justice, but never having fallen from that state.
Still, there does seem to be some. correlation, useful to know, between sin and illness. The synoptics unanimously record the connection, at least in the case of this paralytic. And, often enough, we find that people who dedicate their lives to holiness live to ripe old age, statistically beyond the ages of the general population, on the average. The monasteries and the convents are usually a good example of a correlation between holiness and long life. The skeptics will probably be quick to attribute that long life to physical causes, rather than spiritual ones, but in doing so they are missing the point. God expects us to use our natural abilities to do for ourselves what we can. The moderation and temperance and self denial may be quite natural ways to achieve good health, but isn't it laudable to marshal our physical desires in accordance with God's will, while doing something good for ourselves as well. Certainly, the over-arching motive for the monastic life is to gain the eternal happiness of Heaven -- and without that motive, the monks and the nuns would have no reason to practice all those virtues of moderation. They would just go out an join a health club if all they were concerned about was good health and long life.
But even beyond the merely natural benefits of living a holy life -- many of which can be gained by those of us outside of monasteries, by the way -- there is an apparent correlation between the spiritual life and the preservation of the physical life. Ask any man who has been a parish priest for a few years, and he will surely recount a few cases where he has anointed sick people, who were beyond the medical expectation of life, who made surprising recoveries. "Is anyone among you sick? Call in the priests of the Church," Saint James writes, " let them pray over him, anointing him with oil ... and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he be in sins they shall be forgiven him."3 (Notice, agin, the connection between sickness and sin.) Even without the Sacramental ministry, we occasionally hear of people making unexplainable recoveries when others are praying for them.
Finally, we ought to recognize in today's Gospel the reality that our Lord was able to forgive sins. Even if no physical healing had taken place, this man would have received a benefit so great that the Scribes thought it blasphemy for a seemingly mortal man to claim the awesome power of God Himself. The penitent woman (who may have been Mary Magdalen) had no apparent illness when she washed the feet of Jesus with her tears, but after saying to her "Thy sins are forgiven," He added, " thy faith has saved thee."4 She was saved from no illness, but rather from the fires of Hell.
And here, we find ourselves face to face with the reality that this forgiveness of sins was not something unique, reserved to the Blessed Mother or to few men and women in the Bible. In communicating His priesthood to the Apostles on Holy Thursday, our Lord gave them, radically, the power to forgive sins, but to make sure there was no doubt about it in their minds, He came to them in the upper room on the night of Easter Sunday: "Receive the Holy Ghost; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them."5 In the traditional Roman Rite, the Church does the same for all of her newly ordained priests, laying the hands of the bishop on their heads a second time and having him pronounce those very words: "Receive the Holy Ghost; whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them."
Together with today's unnamed paralytic; and together with that repentant Publican we heard about a few weeks ago, who could say only "Lord be merciful to me the sinner";6 and together with Mary Magdalen, we too can confess our sins and receive God's forgiveness. The confessional always awaits us -- a place where the power of God is worked through mortal men, who can say together with Jesus Christ, "I forgive thee all thy sins" -- a place where, if we are very quiet we can hear the echo of the words to the penitent woman, " thy faith has saved thee, go in peace."