“With a Little Help from Our Friends”
July 31, 2011
The Rev. Diana Coberly
In this story, forgiveness of sins and healing go hand in hand. Mark portrays the connection as a way to demonstrate that this man Jesus, dead only 60 years, had/has the divine authority to forgive sins. Most of us today would grant that assumption. The story, therefore, seems to have little relevance for us.
We could salvage it by giving it a psychosomatic spin. We then have a paralytic whose condition is psychosomatic but, when relieved of his guilt by Jesus, is able to get up and walk. But, here again, we are left behind in the dust of irrelevancy. Most of us are not disabled by psychosomatic guilt.
Yet, the story deserves further consideration. This paralytic has a support group of at least four friends who think enough of him to carry him around. He is a lucky paralytic. No doubt he is grateful for his friends and depends totally upon them to get him to the city gate each day where he will spend the day begging for alms – his only means of support. Life has become a dull routine, one day pretty much the same as the next. This man knows that beggars can’t be choosers. He’s a “cripple” and he has accepted it. With no delusions of grandeur, he probably suffers from low self-esteem neither hoping for much nor spending much time grieving over his sins.
Yet, Jesus forgives the man. Looking at this from the paralytic’s point of view, can you imagine anything more useless? This guy hasn’t asked for forgiveness; he hasn’t even offered to confess his sins. He is not even concerned about them. He is too busy trying to survive. He has not committed high crimes and misdemeanors, nor has he had much opportunity to do so. He is, after all, a “cripple” and a beggar. Notice, too, there is no atoning sacrifice offered by either the paralytic or Jesus. He is not “washed in the blood of the lamb.” Yet, Jesus dares to say his sins are forgiven.
Blasphemy! Jesus’ proclamation of forgiveness arouses the anger of the scribes because according to Hebrew Scriptures, only God, and not even the Messiah, God’s anointed, can forgive sins. In addition, according to the scribes’ understanding, forgiveness can be obtained only through elaborate rituals of atonement, not merely by hearing a word of assurance. It is not that the scribes and Pharisees are against forgiveness; it is just that they want everyone to know what the sins are. They want the sinner properly humbled so that he can better appreciate the grace of God. For religious authorities, forgiveness is a prescribed ritual. For Jesus, it is a matter of permission to get on with life.
So, Jesus demonstrates the connection between forgiveness and healing. He says, “Take up your mat and go home.” The paralytic’s sins are not indiscretions committed behind closed doors. His sins are the results of “under living” - not “over living.” Jesus’ word of forgiveness to him is a word of permission to take up his life – physical inadequacies, moral failures, and all – and get on with it.
The story does not say the paralytic was cured. Nevertheless, everyone present, including his friends, was amazed at what happened. Mark does not say that his legs were straightened; only that he took up his mat and went out before them all. What astounded them was his new demeanor. The miracle is: that the paralytic suddenly saw the deadly dull routine in which he found himself living day after day, year after year. Though it offered him a kind of security, it had, nevertheless, become a prison. Patterns of behavior that had become so comfortable were a trap. He had accepted his lot in life as an alibi for loving. His healing was his daring to go forth with crooked legs and all, no longer regarding himself as a “cripple!” No more excuses. When Jesus told him to take up his mat and go home, he heard it as a word of permission to get on with his life.
That word of permission is spoken to all of us, and therein lays the story’s relevancy. Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” We need to hear that, not as a command, but as a word of permission to take up our lives and get on with them.
Jesus assumes all of us have a mat or a cross to bear. The miracle of God’s grace is not that we are relieved of either, but that we can, in fact, carry them. “In the world,” says Jesus, “you will have tribulation but be of good cheer. I have overcome the world.”
The thing that makes Jesus our Savior is not that he can forgive our sins, but that he learned how to live with his cross. He lived under its shadow but called life “good.” He was surrounded by his blundering disciples, yet remained joyous. He was beset by doubts and temptations, yet was not overcome by them. He wrestled within himself about the meaning of his ministry and the foolishness of the cross, yet never became self-centered. He was betrayed by his closest friends, yet he never stopped loving others.
In Christ we see the amazing ability to live with the burden of a cross and yet be neither defeated nor destroyed by it. In him we see that though we can’t do anything about the arbitrariness of life, we also see that we don’t need to. We can accept our lives as they are and say, “Yes!” to them.
In her book, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Hannah Green tells the story of a 17-year-old girl who is hospitalized in an insane asylum. It is the story of her courage as she risks leaving the security of her madness and enters the world of reality. Again and again, the voices within overpower her and she is forced to return to the hospital for treatment. She recovers sufficiently to leave the hospital – never to be as strong as those who have never been mentally ill, but with a wisdom that exceeds those who have never lived with demons. She learns that mental health is not the absence of depression or problems; it is the ability to cope with them.
Healing may or may not have anything to do with being cured, but it does have to do with the courage to take up our mats and get on with our lives. No one can do our living for us. God has not given my life to you or your life to someone else. No one but you will be held accountable for it. No alibis will excuse us.
Zusya, an Orthodox rabbi and one of the great Hassidic teachers of the third generation who lived from 1718–1800, gathered his disciples around him shortly before his death and said, “When I die and stand before my heavenly judge, God will not say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Moses?’ No! God will say to me, ‘Zusya, you could at least have been Zusya…so why weren’t you?!!’”
The ruts in which we live become comfortable and provide security. But ruts are simply graves open at both ends. Helen Keller, in speaking of a security that sucks the life out of us, said: “Security is mostly a superstition and does not exist in nature nor do the children of men, as a whole, experience it. Avoiding danger is not safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing.”
For this paralytic the risk was turning his back on an old pattern of existence which, while it was comfortable, had become suffocating. For us, it may be the all-consuming sense of duty behind which we hide because we afraid to face life as a free person. We use an overblown sense of obligation to excuse our failure to fulfill our own potential and avoid risks that might lead to mistakes. It is precisely at that moment of risk that Jesus says, “Take up your mat and get going.”
Living is like driving an automobile down a two-lane highway. We get caught behind a car, letting someone else set the pace of our lives. But we become restless. So, we ease out into the left lane to see if we might get around the care in front of us. Finally, we decide to try it and pull out around the car. The critical moment comes when we get alongside it. Should we go for it or fall back in line? There are risks involved. Always there are risks. There is a hill ahead. A car could be approaching. Have we miscalculated the distance?
For us, as for the paralytic, the moment of healing comes when we commit ourselves to the passing. He decided he had had enough of waiting for others to carry his life for him. He took up his mat in front of all and went home. And, as Mark says, “They were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’” (vs.12). Amen.