|Union University Church|
By Reverend Laurie DeMott
January 8, 2012
ministry professor in seminary, Dr. Tom Troeger, said that he can never
read this story of the paralyzed man in the gospel of Mark without remembering
how it once led to an uncomfortable conversation with a church member. He
had been teaching a Bible Study class on the passage and making the sort
of comments that are traditional among preachers interpreting this story;
suggesting, for example, that it is the faith of the friends that allows
the paralyzed man to find healing and so we too, should seek healing opportunities
for those in need. When Tom finished his analysis, he invited questions
and immediately, a woman asked, “What I want to know is who's idea
was it that the paralytic needed healing in the first place?”
Tom was taken aback by her question. It was not only the woman's words and her tone of voice which challenged him but the nature of her situation that suddenly opened his eyes to the danger of his interpretation. The woman was herself a paraplegic. All of her life she had used a wheelchair, and as she sat in that wheelchair staring at Tom standing before the class, her question betrayed her frustration with the world.
“Did the paralyzed man ask to be healed?” she demanded, “or did his supposed friends just feel sorry for him? Did they think that he was less of a human being because he couldn't walk and so out of some sort of misplaced pity they tore open a roof so that Jesus could 'fix' him?”
Tom, of course, couldn't answer the woman's question because the story
doesn't tell us anything about the conversations that took place between
the paralyzed man and his friends, but he realized that her challenge
to our typical assumptions about the story should lead us to deeper thinking
about all of Jesus' healing stories; namely, that we should never assume
that the person with the most physically obvious illness is the one most
in need of healing.1 In this passage in Mark which
we typically call, “the healing of the paralytic”, maybe it
was not the paralyzed man in need of healing. After all, Jesus' attention
is more focused on the man's friends and later, on the scribes with whom
he debates issues of authority, than on the man himself. Maybe, in fact,
it was the man's friends who were most in need of healing because until
that moment they had never dared to do anything quite so outlandish and
courageous on behalf of others as they did when they tore through that
roof. Maybe Jesus rewarded the loss of their apathy and it was their newly
discovered capacity for passion that made them whole. Or maybe it was
the skeptical scribes who needed healing, and in their amazement at Jesus'
power, they let go of their cynicism spontaneously glorifying God and
in so doing, were healed.
There are many ways to be sick. Although we give titles to the healing stories of Jesus that focus on the people with physical disabilities – the healing of the man with the withered hand, the healing of the blind man, the healing of the woman with a flow of blood, the healing of the man possessed by demons – perhaps we should title them “the healing of those who witnessed Jesus' work”. In every story, there is an audience to Jesus' miracle, people challenged to think differently about themselves and their neighbors, and as we watch their struggle to accept this new worldview, we must ask, “Who is the one most in need of healing in this story?” Am I to see myself as the paralyzed man, or am I to see myself as the friend who needs to overcome my apathy and discover a renewed passion for action? Or am I the scribe in need of being cured of my arrogance for those I have deemed morally unworthy? Or am I the sinner who shows up at the table with Jesus not even aware that he is there for me?
The Roman philosopher Cicero said, “Diseases of the soul are more dangerous and more numerous than those of the body.” You may be perfectly sound in body and mind, yet be a writhing cauldron within of arrogance, selfishness, and insecurities; and visa versa, you may be lying in the hospital with so many tubes sticking out of you that you look like a squid but be a vessel of perfect compassion for others and peace with yourself. Most of us are somewhere in-between those two extremes: some days we are just the person Jesus wants us to be, full of kindness for others, patience, and prayerful wisdom, but then on other days we are laid low with an intensive bout of spiritual flu. We grumble and growl, or whine and complain, or slip into a malaise of self-pitying immobility.
There are many ways for us to be sick. What spiritual disease are you most susceptible to? Is pride your bugaboo? Are you too quick to judge others? Some of you are battling addictions or chronic temptations. Some of you are overly reluctant to part with a dime while others of you are single handedly keeping the credit card companies in business. Some of you act without thinking and too often your impulsiveness hurts yourself and those you love. Some of you hold prejudices that you can't admit; some of you have secret hatreds that you are unwilling to give up, old wounds that you love to nurse. Some of you always want to be the center of attention and find it really hard to share the limelight. Some of you are so easily annoyed by the human race that you find it hard to be in the company of others. And if that's what's wrong with all of you, don't even get me started on what's wrong with me!
There are many ways to be sick, and we have frankly experienced an awful lot of those ways, but what all of our spiritual diseases share is the common result that our disease divides us from our neighbor, sets us at war with our selves, and puts us out of communion with God.
Jesus offers us a way to be healed. He offers us forgiveness – forgiveness for the fact that no matter how hard we try, we can't seem to be perfect. Forgiveness that our good intentions to be new people usually fail after just a short time and the old dog-eared moth eaten self reappears. Forgiveness that the person we are isn't acceptable to society's pre-conceived notions of what is proper and what is right. Forgiveness that our spirits are willing but our flesh is so weak.
Jesus says to the paralyzed man, “Your sins are forgiven” and the scribes get themselves all in a tizzy saying, “What right do you have to forgive sins?” which really meant, “I'm okay with your healing muscles and nerves, Jesus, but don't start talking about sins because you're getting just a little too close to my own spiritual disease for comfort.” Jesus knows, however, that there is more than one way to be sick and the sicknesses that most of us most need cured have nothing to do with bones and blood. Our illnesses are of the heart and spirit and the tonic we need to be healed is forgiveness. Forgiveness will allow us to accept that every single one of us is imperfect; maybe my imperfection is not yours and your imperfection is not mine but we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God in one way or another and if you haven't yet (because you are only a few months old), you certainly will one day. And if it were up to us to repair our tattered souls so that we would stop being at war with our neighbors, at war with God, and at war within, we'd never succeed, so Jesus steps into the breach. He reaches out to us with a word of forgiveness before we have even gotten up the courage to ask for it. He calls Levi, the tax collector to come to the table with him – do you hear a word from Levi asking Jesus to come? No, Jesus gets to Levi before Levi opens his mouth. Jesus reaches out to the paralyzed man while the man is still scared speechless because he was sure he was going to crash to the floor as his crazy friends lowered him through the roof. Jesus tells prostitutes that they are worth more than their bodies, brings lepers back into society, and eases the internal turmoil of those possessed by raging anxieties within, not by magically stitching together cells and capillaries but by embracing these people in all of their imperfections and offering them a place in his heart, worthy or not.
Do you know what power love has to heal when you believe you are unloveable?
Rachel Naomi Remen, doctor and author, says, “Healing may not be so much about getting better, as about letting go of everything that isn't you - all of the expectations, all of the beliefs - and becoming who you are.”
Jesus forgives you for being such a flawed vessel and says, “It's okay. I love you and I can use you as my chosen vessel in the world even with all of your shortcomings and failures. I forgive your sins and I love you still.”
Dr. Paul Brand, a well known doctor who has done extensive work on leprosy, was raised in India where his parents were missionaries. The faith of his family made a great impression on him and in a book called In His Image, Brand writes about his mother. When his mother was 75 years old, she was still walking miles every day, visiting the villages in the southern part of India, teaching Bible studies, and bringing Christ's message to the people. One day, however, as she traveled alone to a remote town, she fell and broke her hip. She lay alone and in pain for two days, before some workers found her. They created a makeshift cot and drove 150 miles over deep rutted roads to find a doctor who could set the broken bones, but the drive had damaged her bones so badly that her hip never completely healed.
Brand said, "I visited my mother in her mud covered hut several weeks after all of this happened. I watched as she took two bamboo crutches that she had made herself, and moved from one place to another with her feet just dragging behind because she had lost all feeling in them. At age 75, with a broken hip, unable to stand on her own two legs, I thought that I made a pretty intelligent suggestion. I suggested that she retire. She turned around and looked at me and said, 'Of what value is that? If we try to preserve this body just a few more years and it is not being used for God, of what value is that?'
So, contrary to her son's wishes, she kept on working. She got a donkey and rode it to villages until she was 93 years old. At age 93, she couldn’t stay on her donkey anymore but even that didn't stop her teaching. She enlisted Indian men to carry her in hammocks from one village to another, continuing her work until she died at age 95.
Brand writes, "My most vivid memory of my mother is of her propped up against a stone wall as people are coming to her from their homes, schools, and places of work. I can still see the wrinkles in her face, and her skin so tanned by the weather and the heat. I saw her speaking to those people. I looked at them and saw the sparkle in their eyes, and the smiles on their faces. And I saw them deeply moved by the message of God’s love, spoken by this old woman. I knew what they saw was not an old woman who had passed her prime, but a beautiful person bringing tidings of love straight from heaven." 2
So too, Jesus sees you, not in all of your imperfections, not holding your failures against you or shaking his head in despair over your brokenness, but he sees you in forgiveness and love so that you may know you have a place in his work, and a home in his heart. Be healed and be at peace with your neighbor, with God, and within yourself.
1. Dr. Troeger tells this story in "Good Preacher.com"
2. From an article by Melvin Newland, "Dealing with Adversity"