Homily for 2.19.12
"Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart Be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my rock and my Redeemer.”
The New Testament Lectionary reading for today continues St. Mark's account of Jesus' ministry, now centered in his work at Capernaum, which also initiates a period of ongoing conflict with the religious establishment.
Today's story presents us with such a famous and popular preacher's text, one wonders how we will be able to hear a fresh message from it at all! Still, it is such a pointed word that we must try.
THE CROWDS & THE PARALYTIC
Jesus, having been gone from Capernaum for some time on his earlier preaching mission, finally comes home, probably very quietly. But, after awhile, it is discovered that he is home and the crowds begin to press in on him again, to the point that in our story they have filled his house and spilled into the outside, creating what today we would call standing room only.
As I began to meditate on this story I was drawn to the different characters. Of course, as we said the crowds are present, and because of the hope found especially in Jesus’ healing presence, and also perhaps in his teaching ministry, they throng to him with their sick and their needs.
Jesus knows this popularity is not a good thing, and will eventually shut down his work, but it was unavoidable, so great was the poverty and so powerful was the Spirit's presence on him.
Therefore, Jesus ministers the word to the people and while he is doing so, suddenly, his roof begins to disappear! Perhaps little shards of plaster or bits of tile begin to fall on his head! Not to be denied an audience with the Healer, the friends of a paralytic lower him through the Jesus' roof.
As part of the needy crowd, the paralytic is desperate, of course, and so are his friends. I wonder what the others in the crowd thought of this breech of place and order. Were they miffed that they hadn't thought of it first?
Anyway, the paralytic obviously must have help to both to meet Jesus and to walk again, but we also maybe shocked to lean that his needs are not just physical, they are spiritual as well. For, as the story unfolds, we are led to discover that he also needs forgiveness. Now, there is no reason to align the two needs by saying that the man is a paralytic because he is a sinner. Instead, we should uncover in this account of this helpless man a picture of the entire crowd present before Jesus, and a metaphor for the human condition, including our own.
Like the crowd and the paralytic, we are trapped within the human condition, lost in a foggy confusion that does not allow us to see clearly. We are unable to see a way of escape. Physically, we slow down, become sick and die, and spiritually we are trapped as well, without hope or direction in the world. We carry an emptiness within us that gnaws a hole in our heart. We somehow know things should be different, but we do not know how to overcome this cognitive homelessness. (Peter Berger)
But, as with the paralytic, we suddenly learn there is actually a way of escape, not out of the world, but rather deeper into the world, into the world as it was meant to be. We are offered a life of ultimate healing, where death no longer has dominion, and we are offered a way to live that is true freedom, genuine hope and authentic humanness.
We find this new world as we hear proclaimed to us the message about a new King, a new ruler of the world, and as we hear it our hearts are somehow strangely warmed by this story of the King's death and resurrection, and in the end we believe.
And, in believing, we discover that the most wonderful thing has happened -- we come into possession of new life and a new way to live! We find we can now walk in the world where before we never could.
THE RELIGIOUS LEADERS
Of course, not everyone is thrilled at the prospect of a new King and the ultimate deliverer breaking in on the scene. Not everyone wants the current ways of the human condition, even as pitiful and as desperate as they are, to shift and change. This is especially true of those with vested interests and ongoing authority in the present world.
As a clear case in point in Jesus' day we have the Scribes, those learned men whose understanding of the law was their profession, and their professional occupation and office meant their learning in law-interpretation allowed a place of honor in the community. Who would want to give this up, especially not to one who held no office and one not accomplished in their disciplined ways of learning?
As keepers of the law, therefore, one can understand their point of view, especially with their calling to ensure a fidelity of practice to the long-standing traditions of Torah interpretation. This makes it easy to understand their front row seat in Jesus house. Their position and office demanded it because his popularity with the people demanded a response. Who was this man? What was he teaching? What was his understanding of the law? And how did it align with tradition? And, finally, should the people be encouraged to hear him?
Strangely, Jesus decides at this moment to become provocative:
"When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, 'Child, your sins are forgiven.'"Now, why did he say that? He had to know that his words would bring the expected, negative response:
"Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves,'Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?'"The Scribes doubted Jesus' statement on theological grounds -- for God alone can forgive sins. This led them to question in their hearts the motivation of Jesus' ministry -- giving them all the ammunition they would need to condemn him, for to their mind he had committed blasphemy -- that disrespectful and insulting speech that damages GOD's majesty.
The Expositors Greek New Testament says that the Scribes' thinking displayed a creeping intensification of a fault-finding mood:
"first a gradual sense of surprise, then a feeling of impropriety, then a final advance to the thought, why this is blasphemy." (pg.351)
It seems clear that Jesus' concern for the crowds in general, and the paralytic man, specifically, overshadowed whatever trouble he would eventually face from the establishment. Presumably, he knew with their presence in his house that any action he would take would eventually lead to confrontation.
What we see at work in Jesus, therefore, is the powerful ongoing and active calling of GOD on his heart, both with his healing and his preaching ministry. He "preached the word to them," reads the text, which meant on offer here is Jesus' presentation of the King and the Kingdom. Or, remember how St. Mark describes this in chapter one:
"Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.'" (Mk.1:14-15)This is the message that proclaimed that GOD was actually at work in and through the ministry of Jesus, fulfilling his promises to his chosen people. Here, through Jesus, Jehovah was calling on the nation to turn from the patterns of practice that included violence and revolution because the time of reconciliation and deliverance -- so long promised -- was now at hand, was now on view and in motion, but would not come with the knife and the sword.
Would they receive this message? Would they accept a different picture of Messiah? Would they allow, for example, the priesthood and the temple to be usurped by a traveling preacher, for as N.T. Wright reminds us, only the priests, speaking in the name of GOD, could declare sins forgiven. This meant, at least in the minds of the Scribes, the paralytic's friends should have taken him to the temple and not to Jesus.
Wright goes on to say,
"The story is a tiny version of the whole gospel: Jesus teaching and healing, Jesus condemned for blasphemy, Jesus vindicated. The paralyzed man's healing points forward to the new life that Jesus himself will have in the resurrection, and will share with everyone who wants it." (from his commentary on Mark's Gospel, pg. 17)And, so, the question Jesus asks:
Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise, pick up your mat and walk?'is a very pertinent question. It speaks to his Kingdom offer; it speaks to his Kingly presence.
Obviously, it is easier to offer forgiveness -- which cannot be seen, than to declare someone able to walk --which most certainly can be seen.
"'But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth' -he said to the paralytic, 'I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home.' He rose, picked up his mat at once, and went away in the sight of everyone."And so Jesus heals the man and presumably forgives his sins as well. As the New Interpreter's Bible reminds us,
"The healing is a sign that the man is forgiven...Jesus insists that if he heals the man, then his enemies must recognize his authority to forgive sins." (vol.viii, pg.550)Through Jesus new wine is bursting the old wineskins:
"No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins." (Mk.2:21-22)The old thought-forms and practices cannot contain the new message of good news, the proclamation of a future and present King.
When Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days,
it became known that he was at home.
Many gathered together so that there was no longer room for them,
not even around the door,
and he preached the word to them.
They came bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.
Unable to get near Jesus because of the crowd,
they opened up the roof above him.
After they had broken through,
they let down the mat on which the paralytic was lying.
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic,
"Child, your sins are forgiven."
Now some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves,
"Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming.
Who but God alone can forgive sins?"
Jesus immediately knew in his mind
what they were thinking to themselves,
so he said, "Why are you thinking such things in your hearts?
Which is easier, to say to the paralytic,
'Your sins are forgiven,'
or to say, 'Rise, pick up your mat and walk?'
But that you may know
that the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth"
-he said to the paralytic,
"I say to you, rise, pick up your mat, and go home."
He rose, picked up his mat at once,
and went away in the sight of everyone.
They were all astounded
and glorified God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this."