When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 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. 3 Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4 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. 5
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 8 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? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? 10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” 12 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!”
This is the third of our four examinations of hope for this Advent season. We have discussed how we need to hear hope, then how we need to see that hope is possible and today we look at how we share hope. I am always a little concerned when we choose thematic topics that we will try to speak to scripture looking for agreement rather than letting scripture speak to us. When I first read the passage, my attentions went to the miracle and Jesus’s conflict with the scribes. However, the point of this passage is not a paralytic walking. If that is the point of the passage, no matter how impressive, it leaves us dangling, hoping for a change in physical circumstance that in real life very rarely occurs. Spiritual healing, however, can occur every day.
Jesus is claiming the authority to make people whole. Forgiveness allows a do over, a second and a hundred and second chance to redirect our lives to what matters. In the narrative, Jesus’ first observation was of the corporate faith of the paralytic’s helpers. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” It is because of their faith that Jesus acts. Only secondarily does he deal with the scribes (and perhaps us) when he asks: “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’?”
All of us can learn about forgiveness, few can make paralytics walk. The scribes were concerned about authority. They had a view of God, that primarily saw God intervening in human affairs on the basis of human goodness or badness. On that basis, the idea that sickness and sinfulness were connected was perfectly natural. Loss, pain and suffering in life were understood as deserved. Likewise, well being and comfort were the indicators of favored status.
We are more ‘sophisticated’ today but we often hold a similar association. We do not use the language of sin but our culture fiercely resists the realities of aging. We do not like dealing with our limitations, and truth be told, we are more likely to patronize than value people with disabilities. I got a call this week from a woman who has been caring for her aging mother. Her mother refused to acknowledge that she now needs help. She has some very expensive hearing aids that she rarely uses because ‘she can manage without them.’ The consequence of her attitude is that she sleeps through morning alarms, frequently misses meals and scheduled medications. Her pride may very well shorten both the quality and length of her life. She wants her life as she knew it—not as it is.
Likewise in our FIRL group we spent a significant amount of our time seemingly off topic. Each of us had stories about increasing forgetfulness and increasing cognitive errors. There was embarrassment and anxiety. We started discussing a variety of compensatory strategies—from making a list, using post it notes, and learning to use a smartphone to help keep track or simply learning to fake it better. People wondered aloud if such strategies were ‘giving in’—taking the lazy way out—-as if we could have our 30 year old bodies back if we worked hard enough. Whether it is ordinary aging, traumatic brain injury that paralyzes or the brain fog that all parents live with as they juggle the new responsibilities of parenthood with the list of responsibilities they already had, we are confronted at every stage of life with what we cannot do.
We typically feel bad about ourselves, apologize, lower our profile and cover up what we can’t do. It is the modern expression of our judgment about ourselves as ordinary creatures and our desire to be ‘above’ our limitations. Such attitudes towards ourselves and others are sinful. Our attitudes reflect our basic distrust in God’s love for us—as we are. Our idea of being the best version of ourselves is a losing battle. You only get to be 30 once. Contrary to popular mythology, no matter how hard we work, the new 40 is not 30—much less the new 70 is 50. It might be a fitter version of 40 but it is not 30. Failure to live in our new reality reflects our self judgment (which is well supported secularly) that we are falling short (we are) and are increasingly less valuable (we aren’t).
When we become self-excluding, we are likely to sacrifice the life we actually have because we cannot have the life we think we should have. When that happens, we live by secular values and we lose life. That is not what God wants for us.
It is important to see how similar our attitudes are to the first century to appreciate what is happening in this story. Otherwise, Jesus’ forgiveness of the paralyitic’s sin makes little sense. It would make it appear that Jesus is reinforcing the connection between disability and sinfulness. Forgive the offending sin and have your body restored. Jesus acts on the basis of the man’s friends’ faith—not on the plight of the man. They, by their actions, treated this man as if he mattered. They did not ignore him because he no longer could contribute to society. He was not an outcast because he was paralyzed. They were living lives of faith—the faith that every person is a child of God. We don’t know how the paralytic felt. We don’t know if he was a grumpy dissatisfied man for whom you could never do enough—or whether he was deeply grateful for the care that was offered on his behalf. Jesus forgave him his sin.
I suggest that the sin that was forgiven was the man’s sense of hopelessness and despair. He had plenty of societal reinforcement to believe he was an imposition and a waste of space. When any of us are given such messages, it is nearly impossible to hold onto the promise that our lives matter. It is nearly impossible to feel loved when by every secular value we are less than. AND, it is very hard to feel loved when we buy into those values and constantly compare ourselves and say ‘yes, but…’ to appreciation and regard. Such responses are not examples of humility as often as they are self-excluding judgments upon ourselves. Jesus’ entire ministry was spent noticing the outcast—whether the disabled, the egregious sinner (tax collectors and adulterers), the alien, the desperately poor, women or children, Jesus noticed and included the excluded. Jesus cared for people period. There was and never has been an entrance exam for inclusion. That is called grace and it is remarkably difficult to receive. In this case he included those of us who say ‘yes, but’…to love.
Notice again that the paralytic’s sin was forgiven because of the faith of his friends. However you understand Jesus’ words: “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” This man was able to rejoin the community. That hope was made possible by people who held onto hope for this man—even as it was likely he could not hold onto that hope for himself. Anyone who has lived through a desperate time knows that others can hold hope for you when you cannot imagine hope for yourself. When other people notice and care for you in such circumstances, they hold the hope that you belong, you have a future, you are loved—no matter how desperate and hopeless you feel. In effect, they lower you through the roof to the place where they hope you will be transformed. And it happens all the time. We may know it only in retrospect, but most of us have been sustained by others. We need people to share their hope for us in order to believe hope is possible.
In FIRL, we started to describe places that welcome the compromised of the world. Barbara Morris described a man with neurological disorders that came to the ToastMasters group. Some wanted the man excluded because of his difficulties. “He was holding the group back.” Most however, encouraged him to stay. He has grown in confidence and capability. We need to be seen and loved. And it should not depend upon our short term memory or decline in physical capability, or even dementia. L’Arche is an organization devoted to the principle that the disabled need to be viewed as teachers not liabilities. Such a perspective holds hope for people who, more often than not, have been ridiculed and marginalized. We have a responsibility to hold hope for one another precisely because it has been so freely offered to us.
In real life, this is a big ask. It is hard to receive and it is hard to offer. Some people are socially awkward, have bad table manners and interrupt the flow of conversation. They can be really annoying. We all know such people. We are all too likely to avoid them. The temptation is to roll our eyes, make side comments and be judgmental. Perhaps we should remember how we have been sustained and seek to hold hope for these children of God. As I have said often, loving always includes inconvenience. If you can’t stand to be inconvenienced, please do not try to be a Christian.
Jesus does not hold our ‘yes buts…’ against us. He simply says to the paralytic he is noticed and loved. Believe it enough to rejoin life. That is something all of us are offered. And that is something that begins to be believable when people hold hope for us.
Grant us the courage to accept who we are as God’s children. Forgive us for saying ‘yes, but…’ to love That was Jesus’ mission in life.
Let it be so.