The next in a series on the red-letters of the Bible by Daniel Harrell
The story of Jesus healing a paralytic lowered from the roof is so vivid, and for many so familiar, that it’s not only easy to imagine the scene but easy to imagine yourself as one of the characters in it. Perhaps you imagine yourself as the paralytic: sick, desperate for a cure but having long given up hope. Had you ever walked? Or was your disability the result of an injury or an accident? I’m reminded of a good friend whose slip in a shower 13 years ago has left her disabled ever since. She prayed and prayed for many of those years to be healed, but received instead the grace to accept what she calls her “new normal.” Not that her acceptance has always been free from bitterness. What frustrates her most is whenever someone suggests some new treatment, as if she hasn’t tried everything already. Why get your hopes up only to have them dashed again?
Maybe you imagine yourself as the faithful friends. The ones who refuse to give up on the paralytic. You’ve been praying too, long after your paralyzed friend stopped praying for himself. You carry his hope for him. Rather than dishing out platitudes that mostly just alleviate your own discomfort, you’re the kind of friend who does something. You take off work to carry him to the doctor, you remember the important steps of his suffering and sympathize with his disappointments. You’re the kind of friend who isn’t put off by his limitations or annoyed by his complaining. You love him even at his most unlovable and have the faith to do anything to get him back on his feet. Including strapping him to a stretcher, most likely against his will, and hauling him downtown to see the miracle-worker everybody’s talking about, doing the very thing he hates most. Of course once you get there, you find the place is packed—with that no way for you and three others and your friend on a stretcher to squeeze by—another dashed hope. Still, you remain determined to get in. How about the roof? The roof! Are you crazy? You climb up, dragging your screaming paralytic friend behind, eyeball it just right, and start to dig a hole through which you lower the stretcher. (I always wonder who thought to bring the shovel and rope. And I always wonder what Jesus’ face looked like once the dust and the chunks of dirt fell on his head.)
I bet he looked up, along with everybody else. Maybe that’s where you imagine yourself. Looking up from the massive throng. Already in Mark, Jesus has drawn huge crowds with his jaw-dropping preaching and healing performances. Oppressed under the brutal thumb of Roman rule, the people hungered for a clear word from the Lord, a prophetic preacher who’d renew God’s salvation promises. Things had been mighty quiet for the past 400 years. God was giving his people the silent treatment. Time was when the Lord would speak openly with his people. Yet due to their duplicity, he wrote down his word and holed his glory up in the Temple so as not to destroy them. But in time, God vacated the Temple too, and took his glory with him. He did at least keep communication lines open through the prophets. But for the same reasons, that line was eventually shut off too. He left the law, but once the scribes and Pharisees got a hold of it, it was hardly recognizable any more. Could this unemployed, homeless carpenter be a new prophet? The demons he cast out called him the holy one of God! He did do things that the scribes never did. And he preached better sermons than they did. Shorter too.
Naturally the scribes and the Pharisees were skeptical. They’d been minding the store during God’s absence. With the boss away for so long, it was easy to start thinking they were the boss. So much so that when the boss returned looking like Jesus, they were skeptical. Sure, they’d heard the rumors and seen the crowds, but crowds are like sheep, you know, ignorant. They scribes do come off as arrogant know-it-alls sometimes, but as we might say around this university-laden town, educated arrogance beats ignorance any day. Besides, the scribes devoted their careers to learning about God, I really don’t think they were necessarily bad guys. Though maybe that’s because they’re the ones in the story I most identify with. I like to think I have my theology worked out. I have a Master of Divinity, after all. If Jesus ever showed up in person, wouldn’t I know it?
This past Thursday night on the Common, I met a homeless guy who looked a lot like Jesus does in the pictures. Long hair. Beard. Blue eyes. He said that God told him to make his way across America spreading the good news of God’s love. On his bicycle. He said he was doing it because anybody else would think God crazy to make such a request. He was being obedient. As I listened to him, I didn’t think that God was crazy. I did wonder whether James had both feet on the pedals. And I’m sure the scribes wondered the same thing about Jesus.
I am glad to read that Jesus is back in Capernaum. The huge crowds had chased him away for a while. Mark tells us that Jesus had to get away to the desert to pray, which is odd given that the desert is gospel code for temptation. Why go back there? It was in the desert that Satan tried to entice Jesus away from the cross. Yet it was also in the desert where Jesus found strength to resist. Sometimes you have to face your temptations to defeat them. What was tempting Jesus now? The same thing. Bypass the horrors of the cross. How? Through superstardom. Jesus was a rock star now. Rock stars don’t sacrifice their lives to save other people. They do fundraisers or are spokesmen for good causes, but they don’t give up their lifestyles or let the people they help move into their mansions. You can’t sacrifice your life once you become important. Your fans won’ let you. And therefore Jesus needed to get away from the fans. Peter tried to get him to come back to the show, but Jesus knew better. He said, “let’s go somewhere else,” and he did, leaving so many sick to remain in their sicknesses.
Except for one leper who tracked Jesus down and begged for help. We looked at his story last Sunday. The scribes taught that he had to get himself clean to get back into God’s good graces. Something he could not do without God. Angered, Jesus healed the leper and told him to go show himself to the religious officials as an indictment against the way they had twisted God’s word. Bad skin was not a sin, God used skin as an object lesson in moral purity. Cleanliness rituals were not the realities of salvation, but pointers and reminders of the realities. It’d be like saying that the bread and wine you partake tonight are the things that save your soul rather than the body and blood of Jesus they represent. Add to that a restriction against any sick person taking communion (since sick people are clearly sinners) and you’re up against the same barrier as the leper. Only God can heal you but until you’re healed you’re not allowed near God. But since the sick can’t get near God, how can you ever get well? Which is why Jesus preached that God himself had come near. In person. In the flesh. To heal. To clean. To die for sin. To forgive. To save. Things only God could do.
The scribes’ systemic distortion of ritual and reality and their confusion of sickness with sin may explain why Jesus unexpectedly said to the paralytic laid out at his feet, not “be healed” but rather, “Your your sins are forgiven.” At first you think Jesus confirms a causal link between sin and sickness; but if sin actually had caused the man’s paralysis, why didn’t he get up and walk right away? As it was, only the scribes got up—their dander, that is. As referees of the system, they blew the whistle on all blasphemy, and here was a clear violation. They thought to themselves, “What is he saying? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” Who but God can deliver sinners from holy judgment and hell? For a human to extend such divine forgiveness was a subversion of divine prerogative, a capital crime under Jewish law. Doing yet another thing that only God can do, Jesus sees the scribes’ thoughts and asks, “Why are you thinking these things?” which surely scared them a little. Jesus then challenged their skepticism by asking, “Which is easier? To say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, pick up your mat and walk’?”
Which is easier to say? If you’re thinking the answer is “your sins are forgiven” you’re right. Since it’s a statement that evades empirical verification, it is easier to say. But which is harder to do? Forgive sin or cure paralysis? Well, that’s harder to say. Healing a paralytic by verbal fiat is no simple feat. But if only God forgives sins, then that’s impossible too—at least for anybody but God. Given these equivalent degrees of difficulty, the ability to do one would likely infer an ability to do the other. There is a link between sin and sickness. However the link is not causal, but analogous. Jesus answers their question “Who can forgive sins but God?” by turning to the paralytic and saying, “Get up, pick up your mat and go home.” Which the paralytic duly does, paralyzed no more. He got up and went home and the crowd went wild. The kingdom of God was near alright. It was standing right in front of them. Only God can heal and so can Jesus. Therefore Jesus can forgive sins too.
Given the absence of causality between sin and sickness here, would the forgiven paralytic stayed paralyzed if the scribes hadn’t been present to raise their objection? Having had his sins forgiven, would the paralytic still need his friends to carry him home? That’s a scene in the story that’s hard to imagine. Since both forgiveness and healing are within his power, why would Jesus ever forgive but not heal? It’s a question we still ask, isn’t it? Ironically, if given the choice, many would rather have the healing. That’s because we live in a day when modern medicine can treat most sickness, thus rendering untreatable sickness all the more tragic. The lengthening of western life expectancy heightens the horror associated with disease and death beyond anything that the Bible bemoans. Scripture describes earthly life as a vanity, a mere puff of air, grass that grows today and withers tomorrow and not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed. The crowds mobbing Jesus would have been acquainted with the brevity of earthly life. Their life expectancy would have been comparable to those in our day who reside in impoverished, war-torn nations like Angola or Zimbabwe, where most people die long before they reach age 40. Faced with such limits on earthly life, assurances of an afterlife take on greater significance. The Bible teaches that eternal destiny far outweighs earthly health. “What does it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your soul?” Jesus asked, “What can you give in return for your soul?” For the paralytic, to have his sins forgiven meant that his paralysis was not his fault. Now that his soul was safe with God, what did he care about walking? Because he could die in peace, he could live out his life in peace. Unafraid to die and therefore unafraid to live.
Notably, the Revised Standard Version renders Jesus’ command to “Get up” as “Rise!” It’s the identical word that appears elsewhere in the gospels in reference to rising from the dead. Sickness and sin are analogous, as are healing and resurrection. To be healed is to get a taste of resurrection, a glimpse of what it will be like to be new creations in glory. But it is only a glimpse, an appetizer and not the banquet itself. Even Lazarus and the others whom Jesus brought back from the dead eventually died again. Our ultimate hope is for heaven with God, not for a healthy life stuck here. Which may further explain why Jesus doesn’t heal everybody. He doesn’t want us confusing the sign with the reality it points to. He doesn’t want us losing our hunger for heaven. Healing is the grace of God when it happens, but it can be the grace of God when it doesn’t too. Nothing intensifies a hunger for heaven like suffering. Nothing draws us more into solidarity with Christ and Him with us. Nothing increases our prayers more. As much as we all need prayer, few of us ever ask for it until we get sick. Look at the prayer requests that typically fill our bulletin each Sunday. Not that prayer for healing is wrong, of course now, but I am still waiting for any of us to list a prayer request in the bulletin for forgiveness of sin. If Jesus is right, that prayer is just as hard to answer. Impossible for anyone but God.
Healing the paralytic is not the purpose of this passage in Mark. The purpose is to answer the question, “Who can forgive sins?” Only God can forgive as only God can heal. Therefore, since forgiveness defies empirical verification, Jesus heals the paralytic, so that, verse 10, “you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Jesus’ healing power is but a pointer, a preview, a demonstration and proof of his resurrection power.
One last thing: Though Mark identifies Jesus as “the Son of God” in chapter 1, in this gospel Jesus never calls himself that. He uses the designation “son of man,” which, interestingly, nobody else but Jesus ever uses. In Hebrew, “son of man” is a basic way of saying “human being.” Here in chapter 2, Jesus resists any attempt to be seen as anything other than human. However, by tacking on the definite article, Jesus also asserts that he is not any human. He calls himself the Son of Man. The difference is that you and I are only human (a phrase we often use to excuse our screw-ups). Jesus, on the other hand, is truly human, the person like whom we are redeemed to be. Yet even as redeemed sons (and daughters) of men, there remains plenty of distance between us and the Son of Man. Psalm 80 speaks of “the son of man” seated at God’s right hand. The prophet Daniel sees the son of man “who comes with the clouds of heaven and approaches the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.” Indeed the kingdom has come near. God’s word speaks again. His word became flesh in Jesus. A flesh that was broken that the word might speak to you and to me and say the impossible: “your sins are forgiven.”