Scripture: Matthew 9:1-8
Labor Day is the unofficial end of summer. It is also the end of hot dog season. According to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, hot dogs are consumed most often between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
I had no idea there was such a thing as the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council, so I visited their website. There I learned the answer to a question that has vexed me for nearly all my life: Why do they sell hot dogs ten to the package but hot dog buns eight to the package?
It turns out, hot dog buns are baked in clusters of four in pans designed to hold eight rolls. In 1940, however, when hot dog manufacturers began packaging their product as they do now, they chose the ten–pack formula. Why the hot dog makers and hot dog bun makers cannot collaborate on this is beyond me.
By the way, the council estimates that Americans eat twenty billion hot dogs a year, averaging around seventy per person.
Labor Day is known for more than hot dogs, of course. It’s the annual day for us to honor the 160 million people who are either full or part-time workers in our nation. We celebrate their labor by giving them a day free from labor.
Here’s the good news: The God whom we worship today never needs a Labor Day off. Scripture promises: “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4).
When we go back to work on Tuesday, we can ignore the fact that he is working in the world, separating Sunday from Monday and “religion” from the “real world.” Or we can resist his work in the world, rebelling against the King of the universe as he works to extend his kingdom on earth. The best option, of course, is to join him at work. How do we partner with the God of the world in the work of our days?
Use your influence for God’s glory
Matthew 9 finds Jesus on his way back to Capernaum from Gadara, a region on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum is his adopted home town, where he lives in the home of Simon Peter.
This was never a large city, numbering 1,500 inhabitants at most. But it was one of the most significant towns in Galilee, for five reasons.
First, it was a thriving business center. The town stood astride the Via Maris, the international trade route connecting Damascus and Mesopotamia to the north with Caesarea Maritime (the major seaport in Israel) and Egypt to the south. Caravans made their way through its streets daily. A large number of coins and imported vessels from Syria, Phoenicia, Asia Minor, and Cyprus have been found here.
Second, Capernaum was home to a thriving fishing business. Nearby springs and the Upper Jordan River feed into the Sea of Galilee, making this part of the lake especially vibrant for fish even today. There was a large fish market here, exporting dried fish across the country. Peter’s home, the largest yet discovered in Capernaum, attests to the financial significance of this industry.
Third, Capernaum was a major agricultural center. Standing on the plain of Gennesaret, it enjoys abundant rainfall and a warm climate. Olives, dates, and citrus were grown here in abundance. Giant millstones and olive presses found in the area attest to its agricultural vitality.
Fourth, the city was an important political center. It was a major port of entry into the region of Galilee from the north, serving as a customs station and military outpost. A military garrison included a centurion and detachment of troops (Matthew 8:5–9) as well as a Roman bath with caladium, frigidarium, and tepidarium.
Fifth, Capernaum was an important religious center. The largest synagogue yet discovered in Israel was located on the highest point of the town. It served as Jesus’ “home church,” where he taught regularly and performed miracles.
Jesus grew up in Nazareth, forty miles to the west. He could have based his ministry in Jerusalem, the religious capital of Israel. But he chose Capernaum, one of the most influential cities in all of Galilee. He chose a place where he could reach Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, slaves and free.
Paul did the same thing, choosing to begin his ministry in the West in Philippi, a Roman colony and the leading city of the district. He spent the most time in Ephesus and Corinth, two of the cultural centers of the Roman Empire. He spent several years in Rome itself.
In the same way, God has given us a Kingdom assignment that includes a place and a time for our lives. He wants us to use our influence for his glory. What resources, gifts, and abilities has he entrusted to you? How are you using them for his glory and our good?
Bring hurting people to the Great Physician
Our story continues: “And behold, some people brought to him a paralytic, lying on a bed” (v. 2a). Luke gives us a clue as to the location of the house: “Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem” (Luke 5:17). This must have been a big house.
Since Simon Peter’s home is the largest yet discovered in the city, it seems likely that this miracle occurred there. Luke continues: “Some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus” (vv. 18–19).
This man obviously could not make his way to see Jesus, so his friends brought him. They climbed up to the roof, most likely a flat structure, and set aside the “tiles” there to make an opening. Then they lowered their friend down on ropes and set him before Jesus.
Our text continues: “And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven'” (Matthew 9:2b). Does this mean all sickness is associated with sin? Absolutely not. In fact, this is the only time in all the Gospels when Jesus associates sickness with sin.
The response from the crowd was disappointing: “And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, ‘This man is blaspheming'” (v. 3). The paralytic most likely had not sinned directly against Jesus. For him to forgive the man’s sins was therefore something only God could do. The scribes considered Jesus’ claim to be blasphemous in the extreme.
So our Lord responded: “But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Rise and walk?” But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he then said to the paralytic—’Rise, pick up your bed, and go home'” (vv. 4–6). He proved his divine status by his divine omnipotence.
With this result: “And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men” (vv. 7–8).
We are not surprised by Jesus’ power to forgive sins or heal bodies. We are not surprised by the religious authorities’ reaction and rejection of our Lord. But we should take note of the surprising initiative of the friends who brought the paralytic to Jesus.
They are the unsung heroes of our narrative. Without their work on behalf of their friend, the paralytic would not have been laid before Jesus. They did what they could, and God did what he could.
This is the divine-human partnership in a single text. Noah builds the ark, then God closes the door. Moses extends his staff, then God parts the Red Sea. Joshua and the priests step into the Jordan River, then God stops the flood. The people march around Jericho, then God destroys the city.
Peter preaches at Pentecost, then the Spirit falls and three thousand are saved. Paul follows God to Philippi, then the Lord brings the gospel to the Western world. John worships Jesus on “the Lord’s Day” while imprisoned on Patmos, then Jesus gives him the Revelation.
As we work, God works. If we seek to lead people to Christ in all we do, God will use all we do.
We can bring paralytics to Jesus in all kinds of practical ways. I know a CEO who has a Bible present on his desk where people can see it and who is known for praying before making decisions. I know a business owner who leaves Christian literature on tables where people wait for service.
One of our ministry’s board members uses his conference room for early morning Bible studies to which all are invited but none are required. Another member of our board uses his leadership position in a significant service club in Dallas to bring ministers before the group to pray before events and to speak when appropriate.
I once served on the board of a secular business that tithed its income to ministries. Not only did the leaders tithe from their personal income—the company itself tithed. From the gross, not the net. This was a powerful witness to employees, customers, and the community.
God has paralytics for us to bring to Jesus. If we will ask, he will direct us and use us for eternal good.
Where is God working on this Labor Day weekend?
Philip Yancey: “I have observed a pattern, a strange historical phenomenon of God moving geographically from the Middle East, to Europe, to North America to the developing world. My theory is this: God goes where he’s wanted.”
Do you want him to work as you work? Then ask him to use your influence for his glory. Look for ways you can make your faith public and your compassion clear. God has entrusted paralytics to you. Now he wants you to entrust them to your Lord.
One last point from our story: if you’re a paralytic, Jesus is ready to heal you. He’s ready to forgive your sins, to meet your needs, to redeem your suffering and show you his love. You can come to him today, knowing that he will never turn you away.
Last weekend, I got to be with all of my grandchildren. One had a birthday party (he’s now two years old), and the other two were invited. It was one of the great days of life. It’s been well said that being a grandparent is the only thing in life that’s not overrated.
We spent much of the day at a public park. And we spent every minute of that day watching our grandchildren. We were never more than a few feet from them. They never left our sight. We did all we possibly could not to let anyone hurt them or anything happen to them.
As I was playing with my granddaughter, loving her and loving every moment with her, the thought occurred to me: my Father in heaven loves me even more than this.
He loves you the same way. Bring your paralysis to him and your paralytic friends to him as well. As you work, he works. This is the invitation, and the promise, of God.