This is the sermon I gave this past Sunday on Mark’s story about Jesus and the paralytic.
When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, Son, your sins are forgiven. Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone? At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, Your sins are forgiven, or to say, Stand up and take your mat and walk? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sinshe said to the paralytic I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home. And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, We have never seen anything like this! (Mark 2:1-12 NRSV).
The story of Jesus healing the paralytic is a rich narrative with many layers to it. I want to focus on how it describes established institutions, represented by the grumbling scribes, come under attack through Jesus actions that proclaim a new moment, a new time and new way of being the people of God. The unexpected intrusion of a paralyzed person being lowered through a roof that had been dug up is a perfect image for the great lengths God goes to, to get outsiders into our churches. Jesus challenged these institutions at the points where they became roadblocks and invited people into a new work of God.
When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them (Mark 2:1-2).
Jesus: Celebrity in Capernaum
Mark tells us that Jesus just arrived home in Capernaum [Ka-Per-Knee-Umm]. Capernaum was a village with some 1500 residents, who typically lived in small individual quarters that housed large families (Green DJG 1992, 39). These homes were only one story and had a flat roof, accessible by a staircase on the outside of the home. Because of the tight quarters, the roofs were used for work as well as sleep. They were thatched with rush, held together by mud, and wood beams or branches made the structural part of the roof (France 123). This is why, in our story, the protagonists literally had to dig up the roof.
Mark doesnt tell us whether this is Jesus actual house or someone elses, but in either case he has obviously become a local celebrity. The word that he was home got out, and people crammed into small quarters to hear Jesus teach the word to them (which probably means he was teaching what became known as the Christian Message). People were obviously interested in what was going on because even the front door was blocked.
There is something noteworthy about the particular word Mark uses for crowd (in verse 3). Originally, it meant something like a, confused majority, or ordinary soldiers in a combat unit but who are not officers. It also refers to non-combat people who follow the army and perform menial duties (Luke 2 and John — carry 2 miles). One commentator says, these were the people of the land who are differentiated from those in the ruling class. Rabbis taught that Jews should not share meals or travel with this group. Therefore it is unique to see both these groups represented at this gathering with Jesus.
It is in this setting that we see the birth pangs of Jesus new moment clash with the institutions and establishments of the old. Jesus was up to something new that these old wine skins couldnt (its probably a good thing he didnt call them that).
NT Wright says: The main issue between Jesus and his Jewish contemporaries was his claim that the moment had come, that their god was even now inaugurating his kingdom, and that this – this praxis, these stories, this person – was the mode and means of its inauguration (NT Wright, 383).
In his interaction with the paralytic Jesus showed what this new moment looked like. The kind of kingdom he announced was one that was centered on hospitality and healing of the outsider.
Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay (Mark 2:3-4).
This is a kingdom where the intrusion of the other, such as the paralytic, does not disrupt the work of God but rather gives new opportunities to proclaim it. The unexpected visitation quite literally shows that God works to dig up the institutions and obstacles that stand in the way of people being made whole. This episode shows us that to create space for a new thing, sometimes we need to start digging.
The Disruption of the Paralytic
Once the man is lowered down through the hole, Jesus confronts the injustice that this man faced. Being disabled, the paralytic would have most likely been in extreme poverty. For instance, there was no access to any kind of healthcare system and being paralyzed meant he was not able to work. So he probably was a beggar or dependent on the generosity of family and friends, who may or may not have had resources to help him.
There is some evidence too that to be a full member of the Jewish community one had to be physically whole (not blind, lame, a leper, etc). This is because, whether through sickness, sin or something else, he would have been thought of as ritually unclean. NT Wright points out, when it comes to Jesus healing the paralytic he offers him the gift of shalom. Not only was Jesus restoring his physical health but also giving him a renewed membership in the people of YHWH.
In fact, most of the people Jesus healed were a part of these banned categories. You will remember that Jesus healed people like Bartimaeus who was blind, many who were lame, lepers, a woman who bled profusely, a woman who was crippled, not to mention many others (Wright 192). He didnt just give them the restoration of physical infirmities rather he reconstituted those healed as members of the people of Israels god (Ibid).
Given this background: I really wish I could have watched this scene unfold. Were not told much about this man at all: what was his back-story? How did he ended up being paralyzed? Was he this way from birth? Did it really have something to do with sin?
And who were these four guys lowering him through the ceiling? Were they family members, members of the local synagogue in Capernaum, people from Jesus gathering who knew his story and went back to get him? Whoever they were, they must have been beautiful and creative people, carrying the dead weight of a paralyzed man down who-knows-how-many streets and when they get there they dig up a roof that stood between him & Jesus.
I can imagine the disappointment these men must have felt after arriving too late to get close enough to hear or see Jesus. The house was packed and it seemed like their effort was in vain. But the obstacles proved to give way to opportunity.
These four men carrying a paralyzed guy on a bed-mat do the absurd and clamber to the roof of someones house and dig a hole big enough to lower a person through it.
I love how totally unexpected and weird this scene is.
[ILL] Think about it, have you ever been sitting in someones living room, all crowded around a famous teacher, and then all of a sudden you hear pounding on the roof. The teacher, with a strange look in his eye, looks up and dusts his head off as if some debris just fell from the ceiling. The next thing you know, there are a bunch of guys peering down from above lowering a man through a hole in the roof! This was quite a seen!
The paralytics arrival is a very dramatic intrusion into this scene. And the intruder, who disrupts this lovely evening lecture, isnt a popular celebrity, but an outsider who is crippled. As we see with how the Scribes act, unexpected and unwanted visitors can often be treated as an inconvenience rather than with hospitality and opportunity.
But Jesus did not miss a beat, it was no intrusion to him. He said, Son, your sins are forgiven. Almost as if to say, Son, no worries about the roof to our house here, I forgive you. Instead, the forgiveness he offered generated a serious controversy.
(Mark 2:5-12) Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone? At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, Your sins are forgiven, or to say, Stand up and take your mat and walk? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sinshe said to the paralytic I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home. And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, We have never seen anything like this!
Challenging The Old Ways (of the Debt)
The Scribes are actually right: only God can forgive sins. They knew the laws better than most, and what Jesus was doing really was blasphemous from their perspective. However, they refused to accept, or understand, that Jesus may have the God-given authority to forgive sins and cancel debts (Luke 4, The year of Jubilee). In fact, we might say that Mark 2:1-12 is ultimately about who has the authority to offer new interpretations and practices within an older tradition.
Through forgiveness and healing Jesus challenged the debt system, which held people outside the community. Ched Myers argues that Jesus introducing this language of the debt code, forgiving sins, challenged a system that had grown oppressive. He says, The mans lack of bodily wholeness would have been attributed to either his own sin, or, if a birth defect, inherited sin; he was thus denied full status in the body politic (Myers 155). Jesus, as we see here, releases him from all debt and places him squarely back into the community.
This is where the rub is. If Jesus simply cured these people, refraining from forgiving debts and restoring their whole selves, there would have been little clash with those in power. But Jesus, as the healer-prophet, took it much further. By offering forgiveness and healing to those who wanted it, he redrew the boundaries. In effect, he said, all those you have been keeping at arms length through your institutionalized religion are the ones who are truly the insiders, and you who have thought you were on the inside have been wrong all along. You have misinterpreted the tradition.
NT Wright says Jesus challenge to the Scribes was to:
give up the interpretation of your tradition [not the tradition] which has so gripped you, which is driving you towards the cliff-edge of ruin. Embrace instead a different interpretation of your tradition, one which, though it looks like the way of loss, is in fact the way to true victory (Wright 383).
This is what makes Jesus unique in his ministry and met with so much hostility. The debt code effectively became a Jewish institution that drew heavy boundaries between insiders and outsiders. Jesus removed these boundaries and disrupted the flow of the hierarchical order these religious elites were trying to maintain.
He exposed the underlying commitments and worldview of the Scribes, and showed them that Gods kingdom cannot be contained within these boundaries.
This was a dramatic clash between the symbolic institutions and a new event God was bringing about. [An event is something that has already happened but is still arriving (Caputo 58).] In other words, the old powerful institution clashed with something still on the way, both young and fragile. Yet, Jesus showed that it is in the new and fragile that the kingdom is born.
No wonder this passage ends with the crowds, who though the confused majority, had a moment of clarity and said, We have never seen anything like this! Something new was truly underway. The crowd cant help but see that this is a new moment taking place before them. This statement, their recognition that God was up to something new, is in stark contrast to the attitude the scribes display. One is worried about blasphemy, the codes behind forgiveness and healing, and protecting the institution. The other, our confused majority is open to the new possibilities of Jesus kingdom. The roof was coming down, and Jesus was ushering a new vision for the people of God.
Gods Event Is an Intrusion
This whole scene takes place because a few creative folks dug a big hole in somebodys roof. Because of this, a paralyzed man was made whole, and the Scribes had their theological feathers ruffled. This intrusion of the unexpected other sets the stage for Jesus to challenge the institutions that have gotten out of hand and display the new thing God was doing among them. Sometimes it takes a little digging to make space for something new.
Where do we find ourselves in this story? Are we the paralytic looking for wholeness? Are we the friends who, with a little creative imagination, dig up a roof? Or are we the institutionalized Scribes locked into their ways? I imagine we, the church, are a little like all these folks.
The pressing question from this passage is: How do we act like the scribes? In what ways have we in the church become enslaved to such institutions and traditions? Are we ready to see the new moment take place here?
Unfortunately, as the community of God in our time, we sometimes act like the Scribes in our story. Today, the church can easily find itself on the wrong side of history, drawing the boundaries of who is in and who is out, as though we have the corner market on all things God. Holding people at arms length, usually out of fear and desire to protect our sacred institutions, betrays our lack of faith that God can work in ways we dont understand. Those of us in the church can act as though we have the final answer on all of life. The Scribes had the answers and were closed-off to Jesus message, even the kingdom of God couldnt challenge their ideas.
But this isnt the role the church is to have. I think were to be the diggers in this story who dig up the roof to make an opening for an encounter with God.
Theologian John Caputo, asked in a recent book,
How does Jesus distance from us illuminate what we must say and do in the importantly different situation in which we find ourselves today? The task of the church is to submit itself to this question, rather than using it like a club to punish others. The church, the archive of Jesus, in a very real sense is this question. It has no other duty and no other privilege than to bear this memory of Jesus and ask itself this question. The church is not the answer. The church is the question… (Caputo 2007, 34).
The scribes in our passage represent those who already have the answers, those who base their faith and trust in God with easy, ready-made, prepackaged theological answers. Jesus deconstructed this way of being the people of God and challenged them to remain open to the new and unexpected moment of the Kingdom. We must always remain open to the fact that as the people of God, we are foremost to subject ourselves to whatever Gods work is in our world today.
Unfortunately, our churches can also become obstacles to people being made whole, churches can be a lot like the old roof in our story. The roof represents an obstacle, or impediment, to those on the outside wanting to get in. Steeple-houses, as George Fox called them, have quite the roofs! There will be no rappelling from these: you either come in the front door or you stay out! But as the followers of Jesus, we are to be creative in how we dig up these impeding rhetorical roofs.
As I reflected on this passage again and again it dawned on me that the friends, our diggers, of the paralytic seemed a lot like Quakers! Or at least a first century Jewish version of Quakers. Not only were Early Quakers a bunch of creative folks, who found ways to challenge the status quo and make Christ available to everyone, they actively removed the impediments that stood before people and God, so that all might find Christ and be made whole.
We all know George Foxs constant challenge to Christendom: Christ is here right now, hes teaching the people on his own! Remove these impediments! Let them at Jesus! (My paraphrase). I think the Quaker tradition is, at its best, a purveyor of shovels for dirt roofs. I think Quakers must have liked to dig a lot, because they constantly dug holes in the institutional walls of the church and state. Early Friends saw many things within Christendom that had grown closed off to the radical witness of love, hospitality and compassion of the Jesus we see in Mark 2. This is what got Quakers in so much trouble, just like Jesus. Digging holes made the church vulnerable to the unexpected, often unwelcomed, new moment of Gods kingdom. Through these holes they dug, many left on the outside of the church, woman, slaves, native americans, prisoners, rich and poor, were able to see the light of Gods kingdom shining through.
May you Church be like the paralytics friends, and early Quakers, and start dig up roofs that keep out those who want to find God. May you find those institutions, and obstacles, whether inside these walls or out there in the world, that seek to keep people out and dig holes through them.
May you be like Jesus and accept the unwelcome strangers into your lives and find ways to be true healers. May you be open to the new moments of the kingdom that cannot be contained by walls, codes and institutions.
May you be like the paralytic, whose deep faith, not only opened him up to the great risk of seeking Jesus, but sought to be made whole through a lively encounter with Christ.
May you also be like the confused majority and be open to and recognize the kingdom announcement when as it happens. May you seek to be the question, rather than the answer, open to whatever Gods work is today.
May we all be like the Scribes who care deeply for their tradition, yet may we reject traditionalism, realizing that God brings the new through intrusion of the other.
And hopefully your city will say We have never seen anything like this!
Image from the National Gallery London.