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Needless to say, young Branden's parents were extremely proud of their little man. As the reporter interviewed them about the incident, Karen sat on the couch hugging her boy and saying, "He was calm as could be."
Then there was this from Branden to Mom: "Did you feel someone bounce on you?" Mom says she didn't feel anything. "It was me," answers Branden. How many times? "Ten or fifteen times." Ah, yes, the kindergarten version of CPR - bounce...over and over and over again. What a hoot! As we say, the good news is that everything is now all right.
Our gospel lesson is another medical story that turns out all right. The account is probably one of the best known in all of scripture, this wonderfully appealing story about friends who are so anxious to get one of their number who needs healing to Jesus that they will go to incredible lengths to make it happen. No, it does not say that anyone bounced on him, but we do have history's first recorded elevator ride.
By way of background, Mark's gospel lets us know that there have already been a number of healings and exorcisms in Jesus' ministry - the man in the Capernaum synagogue with the unclean spirit, Peter's mother-in-law. That sort of news spreads quickly, so, as the record has it, "That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons..."(2) In fact, the hoopla wore Jesus out to such an extent that he needed to get away for some quiet time. It was to be short-lived - Peter and his friends found him, but instead of returning to Capernaum, Jesus suggested, "Let us go somewhere else--to the nearby villages--so I can preach there also. That is why I have come."(3) There was more to his ministry than miracles, not that anyone was willing to listen to that. He cleansed a leper, told the man to show himself to the priest for reinstatement into the community, and sternly instructed the fellow to keep quiet otherwise. Forget about it - the man could not shut up. And who could blame him? More healings would soon follow, more demons cast out. Jesus' celebrity was increasing. It became bad enough that, as Mark has it, "Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere."(4) Wow!
Finally, he is back in Capernaum, his adopted home town. The word is out. People come. They jam the house (which, by the way, is one of those code words in Mark's gospel for church - the church is where Jesus is to be found). The place is packed... every preacher's fondest dream. And packed to such an extent that the people who need to get to Jesus cannot. Too crowded. It is an interesting image of the church: a place so jammed with onlookers that they keep out those who desperately need to be there. But, finally, through the persistence of those who care about their friend, a way is found to bring the man to Jesus.
The roof. It was regularly used as a place of rest and of quiet, and so there was an outside stairway or a ladder of some sort which ascended to it. With arms no doubt weary from bearing the weight of a man's paralyzed body, they made their way up. The construction of the roof lent itself to what these ingenious friends proposed to do. The roof consisted of flat beams laid across from wall to wall, some three feet apart. The space in between the beams was filled with brushwood packed tight with clay. The top was then marled over. Very largely the roof was of earth and often a flourishing crop of grass grew. It was the easiest thing in the world to dig out the filling between beams; it did not even damage the house very much, and it was relatively easy to repair the breach again. So the four men dug out the filling between two of the cross-ties and let their friend down at Jesus' feet.(5) As the lesson has it, "When Jesus saw their faith" - their willingness to overcome any obstacle and persevere in pursuit of the goal - "he said to the paralytic, 'Son, your sins are forgiven.'"
I wonder if they were taken aback by what Jesus said. They had heard about all the healings. This would be one more. After lugging their friend across town, up to the roof, then down their primitive, precarious elevator, you know they were expecting Jesus to, BINGO, cure his paralysis. But, no. Jesus says, "Son, your sins are forgiven." WHAT? Does that mean we have to carry him all the way home again?
Suddenly we meet more players in this drama. "6 Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, "Why does this fellow talk like that? He's blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" For what it is worth, modern "teachers of the law" might have objections too: what about some word of penitence or promise to do better? Is there no Prayer of Confession before the Assurance of Pardon? But there was nothing. This cannot be right. If, as we have already noted, Mark's use of the word "house" is a euphemism for "church," we should not be surprised at what we encounter - in greater or lesser numbers we find the same folks represented then as we have had throughout history: there are spectators (the crowd), there are workers (the friends), and there are complainers (the teachers). Fortunately, there is one more - Jesus. Despite the difficulty those who need help might have in getting to him through the spectators and complainers (like our paralytic friend), Jesus is here...and ready to heal.
So, why did Jesus say what he did? In those other healings the gospel reports, there is no indication of words of forgiveness offered as part of the prescription. Perhaps Jesus was more familiar with this case than we know. After all, Capernaum was not that large a place - only a small lakeside village - and this fellow likely had spent his life there. Remember too that, more than once, Jesus was confronted with questions concerning the relationship between sin and suffering. Jewish tradition argued that if a man was suffering he must have sinned. Remember the story of Job? His friends asked the rhetorical question, "Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?"(6) Perhaps Jesus knew that this case needed a word of absolution before any healing could take place.
That wonderful New Testament scholar William Barclay recalls the case of a girl who played the piano in a movie theatre in the days of the silent films. Normally she was quite well, but once the lights went out and cigarette smoke filled the auditorium she began to be paralyzed. She fought against it as long as she could, but at last the paralysis became permanent and something had to be done. Examination revealed no physical cause whatever. Under hypnosis it was discovered that when she was very young, only a few weeks old, she had been lying in one of those elaborate old-fashioned cribs with an arch of lace over it. Her mother had bent over her smoking a cigarette. The lace had caught fire. It was immediately extinguished and no physical harm had come to her but her sub-conscious mind was remembering the terror. The dark plus the smell of the cigarette smoke in the cinema acted on the unconscious mind and paralyzed her body - and she did not know why.(7) The Fear Factor is more than a television show.
The man in this story may well have been paralyzed because consciously or unconsciously he agreed that he was a sinner, and the thought of being a sinner brought the illness which he believed was the inevitable consequence of sin. The first thing that Jesus said to him was, "Child, God is not angry with you. It is all right." We who have the benefit of modern medicine know there are any number of factors that contribute to healing. Jesus knew that this one needed the "Forgiveness Factor," and that paved the way for the cure. Karl Menninger, the famed psychiatrist, once said that if he could convince the patients in psychiatric hospitals that their sins were forgiven, 75 percent of them could walk out the next day!(8)
The story moves on. Jesus knew what was rumbling around in the complainers' minds. He asks, "Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up, take your mat and walk'?"
They sit quietly in front of him without responding.
Jesus continues. "That you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins..." He said to the paralytic, "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home."
We know the story. He does precisely that. Amazing. Terrific story. We have loved it since the first time we heard it.
Have you ever put yourself IN it? That is a wonderful way to get something new from it. If you were to identify with any of the characters in this divine drama, who would you be?
Would you be one of the crowd, a spectator? Probably. At least sometimes. We are here from week to week because we can find ourselves as fascinated with Jesus as anyone else. Sometimes it might be curiosity, sometimes something more. Are you one of the crowd?
Or are you one of the teachers of the law? And be careful before you quickly say NO, because the teachers were folks who took their religion very seriously. They wanted things done right, all the theological "I's" dotted and "T's" crossed. They cared very deeply about matters of faith. Sometimes, they overstepped the bounds, as the gospel record makes clear, but they were ready to do battle in defense of the faith. Are you one of the teachers?
Or might you be one of the friends? Good! The world needs all of them it can get. If you read the story closely you will note that this miracle of healing was based on faith, but not the faith of the paralyzed man. He was healed because of the faith of these friends. Are you a friend with deep enough faith to do whatever it takes to bring someone in need to Jesus for healing?
Or are you the paralytic? Something in your life has you stuck. It might be a hurt so deeply felt that you cannot even express it. It might be a need to profound to break free from our respectable exterior. It might be the haunting memory of a past sin that is too painful even to ask forgiveness for. Then, listen to me. And listen to Jesus. Child, your sins are forgiven.
Which one are you? The spectator? The teacher? The friend? The paralytic? If you are like me, you are probably all of them at one time or another, in greater or lesser measure.
The Forgiveness Factor. In our most ancient creed, one we will repeat in a few moments, we say "I believe in the forgiveness of sins." Forgiveness is part and parcel of life. In the Lord's Prayer, we affirm the necessity of a forgiving spirit for ourselves just to begin to experience the forgiveness of God. "Forgive us our debts...our trespasses, our sins...as we forgive those who sin against us."
A story. This from in a little village in Spain. Father and son argue, and say things they should never have said. The son, a boy named Paco, runs away to the big city of Madrid. Weeks go by, then months, and the father comes to regret his anger. He rehearses, over and over again in his mind, the apology he will offer to his son when he returns. Yet Paco does not come back. The father begins to fear he has lost his son forever. Finally, the father devises a plan. He travels to the city, armed with posters that he puts up on every wall and tree. He takes out a classified ad in the newspaper. Everywhere the message is the same:
Dear Paco,Now, "Paco" is a very common name in Spain - like "John" or "Jim" in our country. Remember too that the father did not sign his posters, or his classified ad, with anything except "Your father."
By twelve o'clock the next day, as the story goes, Paco is waiting outside the newspaper building; he and his father have a joyful reunion. Yet along with the son, there are 800 other men named Paco, gathered there, every last one of them hoping it was his father who took out the ad and nailed up the posters.(9)
The Forgiveness Factor. When we gather together from week to week for worship, often paralyzed in different ways and needing to be borne up by the faith of others, we are summoned to hear again those words of Jesus. Listen to them once more: "My child, your sins are forgiven...Rise up and walk."
1. Warren Times-Observer, 2/13/03, A-1
2. Mark 1:32-34a
3. Mark 1:38
4. Mark 1:45b
5. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press
6. Job 4:7
7. Barclay, ibid.
8. From Today in the Word, March 1989, p. 8 quoted by Bible Illustrator for Windows, diskette, (Hiawatha, IO: Parsons Technology, 1994).
9. James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988) p. 218