“Are there ways, other than physical injury, that people become paralyzed?,” I asked the assembled group. “Fear paralyzes,” said one person assertively. There were a number of knowing nods in the room. “So can anger,” said someone else. A multitude of examples poured forth: resentment; guilt; obsession; grief; trauma; depression; judgment; jealousy; self-righteousness; denial; exhaustion; envy; busyness; addiction; sense of worthlessness; codependence; longstanding attitudes and assumptions. Vast personal experience undoubtedly informed the list. Each possibility is deeply thought-provoking as we consider the story of Jesus and the “paralytic” in Mark 2:1-12.
As the second chapter of Mark begins, Jesus re-enters Capernaum, quietly. He returns, under the radar , and is “at home (perhaps in Simon Peter’s house).” But the news gets out and such a huge crowd gathers that there is no room left, not even in front of the door. And Jesus is “preaching the word” to them. This is his purpose (Mark 1:38-39); what he “came out to do.” He is the dynamically embodied word whose power lifts people and sets them free, calling out forces and challenging structures that diminish and marginalize. Jesus’ ministry enlivens and disrupts. Luke’s version of this story specifies: “And the power was with him to heal.”
At any rate, in verse 3 we become witnesses to a far more dramatic entry. Into the existing scene, a “paralytic” is carried toward Jesus by a cadre of determined people. There is, however, no access, “because of the crowd.” All of the space has already been claimed. Rather than being discouraged, or resolving to come back at a more opportune time, the friends act creatively, climbing up onto the roof of the house and lifting the paralyzed man on his pallet up with them. From above, they “unroof the roof,” digging industriously through the branches and mud, making an opening where there has not been one. We can begin to imagine the cries of protest from below, even before the discourse on forgiveness. Having carried the paralyzed man from the margins of the story to the center, they carefully lower him, still on his pallet, into immediacy with Jesus. Theirs is an intercessory prayer of feet and hands, of ingenuity and persistent love. They themselves are not paralyzed by the previous claims made on Jesus’ attention and space, nor by the imposed barriers to intimacy.
There is a wonderfully baptismal flavor as this new scene unfolds, resonating as it does with the account of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. We remember Jesus looking up as he emerged from the waters to see the heavens “torn apart” and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and hearing God’s voice naming him anew: Son; Beloved; God’s Pleasure. No more closed doors between God and God’s people! At Capernaum, it is the faith of those carrying the paralyzed one that is breaking through the ceiling, transforming what had been a barrier into a point of entry for newness of life. Jesus looks up to see a man being spirited into communion.
When Jesus sees their faith, he proclaims the man’s healing, saying, in a sense, “Their faith has made you well.” It is within the practice of community that this power will be revealed, again and again. The proclamation stands in stark contrast to the in-group/out-group politics of the scribes. And it stirs us to carefully consider the distinctions between an emerging community and a crowd.
Jesus’ specific words compel our attention: “Child, your sins are forgiven.” This “giveness” begins with the bestowal of his new name, “Child of God,” dislodging the dehumanizing label of “paralytic.” Opening to him is the full experience of being deeply loved by God and of his life being cause for God’s joy. Jesus’ words also point forward to the man’s place in the new family Jesus is revealing and claiming (Mark 3:31-35). The declaration of his for-given state (aphientai/aphiemi), communicates release, as well as the removal of hindrance. It is made present tense, in the moment, fulfilled in our seeing, so to speak. This is the reality of God joyously breaking anew into human arrangements.
The law teachers are scandalized by Jesus invoking the power to forgive. “Who can forgive sins except God alone?,” they protest, accusing him of blasphemy. Their objection is not just an expression of proper reverence or correct theology. If what Jesus is doing is allowed to continue, or even worse, is undertaken by others, the whole industry of “administrating grace” will crumble! It is worth noting that Jesus sensitively perceives the inner thoughts and condition of the scribes (much as he does at the Pharasaic banquet in Luke Chapter 7). The unburdening power of God’s love holds promise for them, too. “Why are you debating within your hearts?,” Jesus asks. Such disquiet may be a profound sign of hope, thought it will not be understood as such by those protesting, at least for now.
This is a good time for us to freshly consider what the nature of the man’s paralysis has been. We have surmised it to have been physical, the result of injury, illness, or disability from birth. Clearly he has not able to move, or to stand, on his own. Within the brevity of the narrative, he has not spoken. The common assumption would have been that the man had been stricken as punishment for sin. This interpretation would have been consistent with traditional teaching, and the timeless temptation to blame the victim. The reaction of the law teachers seeks to enforce these limitations.
But Jesus’ invoking of the power of forgiveness alters all equations. According to Jesus, the man’s condition is already different than he has been assessed. The boundaries between heaven and earth have already been erased. Divine possibility has been both declared and bestowed. Sin is realized as a manifestation of distance; a condition of isolation that diminishes, distorts, and impoverishes. And it is wrong to consider a state of sin to have been “earned.” In the economy of grace, the language of earning is indeed overcome. I am not suggesting that we, individually and collectively, do not make conscious decisions to resist God’s will. But when someone is crushed or immobilized by sin, might it many times be the “sins” of others that they are suffering from? Or the defined separations and dehumanizing labels that are imposed socially? Does Jesus show us a God who argues such things in his heart? Or is God committed to overcoming all distances, and to healing all people?
Let’s go back and take a look at the compelling list offered by my workshop participants, and consider if there has been room made in the story for each of us as well. Imagine the man being carried to Jesus because he has been paralyzed with fear; that is the kind of paralysis that many of us know well. Or that his friends have been stricken by watching their loved one consumed by bitterness, or distorted with envy. Perhaps they agonize at his being swallowed by addiction; in redefining their own participation, and acknowledging the limits of their particular capacities, they discover new possibilities that encourage his healing and their own. Maybe they belong to a house of worship where there has been no room for the fullness of who their friend is, and vital parts of him have been denied or immobilized in order for him to “fit.” But they are willing carry their buddy across the sinful distance, overcoming it, in the belief that God promises new life for all in and through the journey. If the paralyzed person has perceived his or her own “sinfulness” as the reason for paralysis,then Jesus’ proclamation is indeed a word of freedom. Perhaps we are the one on the mat. What is Jesus declaring when he says to our friends, to us, to our communities, “Your sins are forgiven”? Let’s explore the manifold ways we can become “un-paralyzed!”
Referring to himself as the Son of Man, the “True Human,” * Jesus asks the law-givers, “Which is easier, to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” or to say, “Rise up, take your pallet and walk?” Both communicate a life-giving power which we are quick to assume is unavailable. Continuing, Jesus directly addresses the constrained love of the scribes, “But so you know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”, then turns to the paralyzed man (joining the two together in a common future), ” I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.” Mark writes: “And he rose, and immediately took up the pallet and went out before them all . . .” Three times the verb “egeiro” (rise; risen) is employed. This is the same term Jesus later uses to talk about his resurrection: “But after I am raised, I will go before you to Galilee (14:28).” The same power that will raise the crucified Jesus to new life is the power loose in this story and others like it. It is the authority to begin writing new chapters in life stories that have previously been declared closed.
Forgiveness unparalyzes. So where might its impact manifest? In:
(1) Unparalyzed Communities : Forgiveness unshackles us to become a community. In Chapter One, Jesus changes the dynamics of the social order when he touches the man with leprosy. The very touch itself, the love of God breaching enforced isolation, dramatically impacts everything and everyone. The man is freed, and “spreads the word (1:45),” the power flowing from Jesus now flowing through him to others in ways that don’t need authorization. What is stunningly beautiful in Chapter Two is the embodied word of the friends. They refuse to be paralyzed by existing definitions and expectations; they cause “trouble” for all the right reasons! Their actions give poignant expression to their friend’s identity and worth as Child of God, Beloved, God’s Pleasure. I wonder where they learned such “faith.” Perhaps it will become the common vocation of the emerging community.
(2) Forgiven Institutions: The great outcry over Jesus’ proclamation of forgiveness is not specifically about the forgiven state of the once-labeled man, but about the unsettling power of forgiveness now flowing into and through institutional life. In Mark 1:21-28, Jesus had entered the house of worship in Capernaum and distinguished between the blessed humanity of the agitated man and the fearful power which gripped his life and that of the institution. He called the diminishing power out, making room for blessed transformation. In 2:1-12, Jesus addresses the original sin of measuring the value of our humanity and the condition of our relationship with God over/against others. The scribes would prefer not to be for-given! But the future that is being created is one where the scribe and “risen man” live and love together in the immediacy of Jesus. The threat–and blessing–is that even an institution might be shaped into a community, a new creation! I serve as pastor in a tradition that used to reserve the Lord’s Table for “confirmed members” of the community. Children were baptized as infants, but were not full participants in sacramental life until completing Confirmation as teenagers, until they “understood the sacrament.” It was, at least initially, a well-meaning distortion of 1 Corinthians 11: 23-34. In “safeguarding” the sacrament, we were actually failing to “discern the body,” which clearly includes those whom Jesus insists “not be hindered (Mark 10:13-16)” by adults. For years, we communicated by our actions a distorted realm where grace needed earning and blessing was measured. The transformation from “management” to “embodiment” is an ever-revealed joy.
3) Risen People: The man in our story “is raised up” to new life. He is rising in the realization of intimacy with God; a renewed identity that has truly been “from the beginning”. He is experiencing himself as a cherished member of a new household, a gathered family (2:11; 3:24) whose life and promise he shares fully. And he “goes forth” like Jesus (1:38) and the healed man (1:45) before him, a living word that astonishes everyone and gives glory to God. He, too, will create space, make room, dig deeply on behalf of others, even as he has received.
I am deeply grateful to my friend John Oliff, Bible Scholar and Seminary Professor, with whom I enjoyed a life-giving conversation about Mark’s Gospel this morning.
* Michael Hardin’s translation of “the Son of Man”