6th Sun. after Pentecost: July 31, 2021, Matt 9:1-8
Our Gospel reading today starts where we left off last Sunday. Christ has just returned from the wilderness side of the Sea of Galilea where immediately upon landing on shore he was confronted with the demoniac. He heals him, allowing the demons to enter the herd of pigs and the whole city comes out, not to marvel that their fellow citizens were clothed and sitting in their right minds, but rather to beg Christ to leave them alone, as they counted the commerce from the lost pigs as worth far more than the lives of the demoniacs. Then comes perhaps the saddest line in the Gospel’s (Matt. 9:1) “So He got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own city.” We have a frightful power given us by God, it is our free will. We can use it to invite Christ to live with us, to never leave us, or we can send Him away. It is always our decision. This has been our reality from the beginning, God tells us, (Duet. 30:19) “I set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore, choose life that both you and your seed may live.”
Immediately upon arriving back on the other side of the sea in Capernaum, the paralytic is brought to Jesus. He needs to be carried by his faithful friends to be brought before the Lord. Once again we have a less than overjoyed reaction to this wonderful healing by the bystanders – the scribes. Christ is messing up their neat view of how reality works and they are not willing to let it go and rejoice that God is with them. The paralytic presents an image of where we end up, if we continually insist on our own way and understanding, staying ridged, ignoring God’s ways and filling ourselves with the paralyzing poison of sin. We end up paralysed and almost incapable of resisting on our own, and need the prayers of our brothers and sisters who bring us before Christ so He can free us if we get to this sad state. However, note the result of these efforts by the paralytic’s dear and precious friends. Once they have successfully taken their friend before Christ, He sees their faith and looks down in compassion and gives the paralytic a brand new start. “Son, be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven you.” He is freed from his paralysis and able to once again in his own power move and choose to come to God. He is given a fresh start. Such is the power of our prayers for each other.
In the Orthodox Church, we have the huge blessing of being able to come to confession and have Christ forgive our sins so we can get a fresh start. When we come to confession, we hear:
“Behold child, Christ stands invisibly here receiving your confession… I am only a witness” – We are receiving a direct encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ.
“Do not be ashamed or afraid and do not conceal anything from me. But doubting none of these things, tell me all that you have done, so you may receive forgiveness from our Lord Jesus Christ.” – It is our Lord Jesus Christ Himself who grants forgiveness.
“Behold His Icon before us! I am only a witness, bearing testimony before Him of all the things which you say to me. If you shall deliberately conceal anything from me, you shall have the greater sin.” – This is an exercise in forgiveness and healing and if you withhold confessing the very thing that is most affecting you, then the whole point of the confession, to be forgiven and healed is greatly compromised.
“Take heed therefore, that having come to the Physician you depart unhealed.” – This is not meant to be some sort of threat. If you go to the doctor with a badly infected toe which you are embarrassed about, perhaps because you infected it when you kicked your neighbour’s car, and so you only tell him about your cough, you will have a pretty hard time getting appropriate treatment. The untreated infection will then spread, and left untreated will eventually kill you! Stupid doctor we mutter, it’s all his fault.
The Fathers talk about the process of sin. All sin starts with a thought, a “logismoi” in Greek. There is no sin in having an initial thought attack you. Many of these unhealthy and disturbing thoughts are directly from the demons. We are all subject to these attacks, even Christ was attacked with these thoughts by the devil – remember Christ’s struggle in the wilderness. No, there is no sin in having these thoughts, no matter how inappropriate or horrible. However, immediately upon having a temptation, we have a choice, which will then determine if the thought or temptation leads us down the road to sin. The advice of the fathers is to immediately choose to ignore the thought and to not engage it. They teach we should just continue on with whatever we are doing. Often these thoughts come as we try to pray. If so, continue praying. They come when we feel someone has not treated us as we deserve. We heard in today’s Epistle (Rom.12:14) “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse.” Nevertheless, although we know better, we often choose to engage and entertain these negative thoughts, to start an interior conversation with them. This is the first stage called “interaction.” While not sinful in itself, it is already very dangerous. We debate, “hmmm, does this idea have any merit, any value? Should I open up that web page? There could be some educational value in it after all? Should I indulge in a bit of self-pity? I mean look at all I’ve done for this person. I really don’t deserve this!” This then often leads to the second stage, to “consent.” Once the decision is made to act upon a bad thought, we have entered into the realm of sin.
The decision is always ours to make. We only really have our free will to offer God. Everything is a gift from Him, but our free will we can then offer back to God, to show our gratefulness. “Thy will be done.” The Fathers teach that once we have decided to consent to a sin, it will very shortly follow that we will enter the third stage where we perform the sin once the opportunity arises. This is called “captivity.” As this pattern becomes repeated, our ability to resist becomes increasingly more difficult, until we are a slave to the sin and we enter the final stage of sin called “passion” or in more modern language “addiction.” Once this stage is arrived at, we continually give way to this activity and become more and more deadened to the horror and reality that we are killing ourselves, and cutting ourselves off from the love that God is always offering to us. We become increasingly less human. Our consciences become deadened, our hearts become hard and calcified, and we end up like the paralytic in today’s Gospel. We need the fervent prayers and actions of our brothers and sisters, bringing us to Christ to heal us from the sin we have chosen to yield to. I could sum up this ancient and valuable advice from the fathers with a little saying from a wise and dear sister in Christ. She says “You can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but you don’t have to let them make a nest in your hair.” So obvious outwardly visible sin, first starts in our hidden and well disguised thinking, inclinations, motives, and intentions – from the very core of our self-centeredness. Thanks be to God, He knows how susceptible we are to this disease, and His love for us never changes. He is always waiting for us to come to Him and is always (1John 1:9) “faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” To give us a fresh start. Let us turn to God from this very minute, this very hour, and this very day, as St. Herman advised the sailors who claimed to love God. May we repent of whatever habitually sinful ways we have been captured by, asking God to heal us from our paralysis that we may stretch out to receive His loving touch. Christ is ever faithful, calling us to come to Him, to come home to His love and forgiveness!