Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Matthew 9:1-17) transports me to the narrow strip of grassy turf between the fellowship building and the cemetery – between the life of the church and the death of the saints – at Gashes Creek Baptist, where Joey Osborne and I spent a lot of time competing and perfecting our jart skills. I had discovered in high school P.E. that I was not very good at the javelin throw. I discovered in Boy Scouts that I was lousy at archery. I discovered in my buddy Jeff’s garage that I was terrible at darts. I always missed the mark terribly. I finally found something I was proficient in, though, when Gashes Creek bought a set of jarts (lawn darts) for the kids and youth to play with. Not too smart. As my mom was prone to say about many things, you can put an eye out with that. If you’re familiar with a jart, you know that it is essentially an over-sized metal dart that you toss through the air and try to get to stick in the ground inside a small hoop. It’s sort of a “darts meets horseshoes” game. After news reports from around the country that a few of these sharp projectiles had missed the mark and found themselves sticking into other kids instead of sticking into the ground, the consumer safety activists wisely got it pulled from the shelves, until the game-makers came up with something like a nerf version.
About the same time I was discovering my passion for jarts, I was also discovering a passion for words. I found that I liked figuring out where words come from. The New Testament has several words translated into English as sin, and the Greek word used most frequently is here in this passage, hamartia. The word comes from the poet Homer, who brought us the Iliad and Odyssey and ultimately O Brother Where Art Thou. When Homer used the word hamartia, it referred to a spear or arrow that has been launched but missed its mark. It puts a whole different light on what Jesus and the gospel writers mean by sin. Sinners are like launched jarts that go wide of the target. Likewise, forgive has an interesting word origin. The Greek root of our English word literally means to launch, or to send forth. Hmmm. I see a connection in our passage. Jesus meets a paralyzed man and tells him his sin is forgiven. To put it in Homer’s terms, Jesus meets a man whom life has launched but has terribly missed the target. He is stuck in a tight spot far away from his purposed destination. And Jesus speaks powerful words, I am re-launching you. The local spiritual safety commission people get bent out of shape and start complaining, acting as if Jesus has just landed a jart in the guy’s head, until he asks them, what difference does it make, whether I say, “your sins are forgiven,” or if I say, “take up your bed and walk?” It’s all the same thing. For the first time, I think I understand the connection Jesus is making here. Son, your days of missing the mark are over; I’m re-launching you. Get up and get a move on.
On our narrow strip of turf between the fellowship hall and the cemetery, between life and death, Jesus continues to speak some powerful words to whatever it is that paralyzes us, to wherever we find ourselves stuck, and sends us on our Way. We are launched on a trajectory of grace, of mercy, of radical love. It’s still a dangerous game, and sometimes we miss the mark and injure ourselves or others who are standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sometimes we put an eye out. But sometimes, we land inside the hoop. Through the power of God we sometimes experience reconciliation with someone who has been alienated or estranged; we experience healing of our broken places; we experience grace. We experience the new fabric of faith, the new wine that wows us into a new relationship with the Holy. We take up our beds and we walk. And whenever that happens, all God’s people say, bulls-eye!
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. Each week takes its guiding theme for the daily posts from the gospel reading on Monday, the “Primary Passage.” This week’s theme is “Forgiveness.” As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith