Isaiah 43:18-19, 21-22, 24b-25
II Corinthians 1:18-22
We ministers of God’s word would render a great service to our people if, over the door through which they leave church, we’d emblazon the first lines of today’s Deutero-Isaiah oracle. “Thus says Yahweh: ‘Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
Proclaiming God’s word during the Babylonian Exile’s darkest days, Deutero-Isaiah constantly assures his people that they’re on the verge of returning to Israel. Yet because he often employs Exodus imagery when he refers to that return, some of his listeners find themselves trapped in the details of that glorious event which happened 700 years before. Though the prophet is convinced Yahweh is going to free them just as surely as Yahweh had freed their ancestors, this freeing would differ from the first. There’ll be no splitting of the Red Sea, no plagues to trigger their departure, and, perhaps most difficult to swallow, their new Moses won’t even be a Jew. This time Yahweh will act through a pagan, uncircumcised Gentile: Cyrus, the king of Persia. Those lost in the details of the original Exodus might not even notice the new Exodus in which they’re participating. It’s always easier to have faith in God’s past actions than in God’s present actions.
More than 500 years after Deutero-Isaiah’s ministry, Jesus fined himself in a similar situation. Many of the people he daily encounters are also locked into past ideas and experiences of faith. They’re simply not prepared for the kind of God Jesus is preaching. For mainstream Jews, Jesus isn’t just new, he’s radical.
We hear an example of this in today’s gospel pericope Jesus creates a conflict, not by curing the paralytic, but by stating, “Child, your sins are forgiven!”
This is the first of five consecutive Marcan conflict stories; narratives in which Jesus or his disciples say or do something which runs counter to popular religion. In each case their words or actions set up a conflict with the “good folk;” a conflict Jesus quickly resolves by saying or doing one more thing. Here, he solves the tension created by his forgiveness by healing the paralyzed man.
Just as we normally restrict God’s forgiveness to the sacrament of reconciliation, so Jesus’ contemporaries restrict it to specific steps in their sacrificial system. People can’t just walk up to someone and declare, “Your sins are forgiven!” Yet Jesus’ followers quickly discover when they give themselves over to him, they’re able to cut through lots of “religious nonsense” and directly connect with a forgiving God.
Paul writes about this amazing connection in our II Corinthians passage. “For however many are the promises of God, their ‘Yes’ is in (Jesus); the ‘Amen’ from us also goes through him to God for glory.”
This insight seems to be behind Mark’s joining forgiveness with a release from paralysis at the beginning of his gospel. Only those who fall back on God’s forgiveness are free enough to carry on Jesus’ work.
For many of us Christians, some of Deutero-Isaiah’s newness could actually be a return to the earliest levels of our faith, levels we’ve forgotten and replaced with other “things.” We forget, for instance, that when the 13th century theologian Thomas Aquinas treated the question of forgiveness in his Summa Theologica, he stated that, against the background of sacramental confession, our sins are forgiven the instant we’re sorry for them, even before we confess or perform our penance.
For those brought up with the necessity of sacramental confession, that teaching is brand new, though it goes back to our earliest faith. Makes us wonder how many other “new things” still lie hidden back there.