Let the exercise of Thy compassion, we beseech Thee, O Lord, direct out hearts: for without Thee we are not able to please Thee.
– From the Collect for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday’s readings demonstrate what the Church Fathers called “divine condescension”—the fact that God will reach down into our lives full of misery and rebellion in order to lift us up to His divine life.
In Sunday’s Epistle, St. Paul demonstrates this condescension in his dealings with the wayward Corinthian church. Reading the entirity of the Epistle makes clear that the Corinthian Christians had many problems, including incest, heresy, factions, drunkenness (at Mass!), and adultery. Yet the Apostle begins his letter by giving thanks for them. He is their spiritual father, and as such, he reflects the view of the Heavenly Father in seeing his wayward children as blessings who need to be corrected out of love.
Like a good father, St. Paul wants his children to repent of their evil deeds, and he understands it is necessary for their ears to be opened to his words. As St. Thomas Aquinas observes, “First, he gives thanks for their blessings, so that they will more easily bear the correction of their faults” (Commentary on 1 Corinthians 11). Yet even in his thanks St. Paul notes that “the testimony of Christ was confirmed to you so that nothing is wanting to you,” thus reminding the Corinthians of the life they are called to live (and which he’ll specify in more detail later in the Epistle). The Apostle is reflecting God’s own condescension: he looks upon his children in love, and intervenes in order to turn their lives around for good.
Jesus demonstrates divine condescension even more clearly in Sunday’s Gospel. Some men bring him “one sick of the palsy.” This poor man was paralyzed in a society that had no accommodations for the disabled, yet it was his fortune to have devoted friends. Our Lord, however, doesn’t address the man’s physical issues; he goes directly to something more important: “Be of good heart, son, thy sins are forgiven thee.” Jesus, as the divine physician, sees the depths of the man’s misery, and his real problems are not physical, but spiritual. So he reaches down, so to speak, and lifts the man, not off his bed, but out of the pit of sin he is wallowing in. St. Jerome also notes that it is likely that, due to the man’s disease, the priests of the day were not willing to stoop to touch him (cf. Commentary on Matthew 1.9.2). The paralytic was desperately lost, and only God could save him.
Christ’s divine condescension is revealed in another aspect of this episode. The scribes are scandalized that the Lord has forgiven the man’s sins, believing only God can forgive sins. And who can blame them? They are right, after all: only God can forgive sins. Jesus could just ignore their distress and leave them be. But instead he wants to guide them to the truth about his Person: that he is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. So he also heals the man of his physical infirmity, thus demonstrating his divine power over all things. Christ doesn’t want people to be turned from him, so he reaches out to bring them closer to him.
One interesting note at the end of the Gospel passage: Matthew tells us that the crowds “glorified God who had given such power to men”—not a single man, but men. It is likely that Matthew included this as a reminder to his audience that the power to forgive sins has been given by Christ to his apostles in the Sacrament of Confession, which is the sign of divine condescension par excellence.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications.