“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 sins"—He said to the paralytic—"I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home." (Mark 2.9-11)
Through the Roof
Mark’s Gospel tells a great story about a paralyzed man whose friends are so bent on helping him they destroy a house to do it. Many of us first heard this tale during childhood, when climbing on roofs and tearing stuff up sounds really exciting. When we return to the scene as adults, however, we’re not so sure.
Here’s what happens. Jesus returns to Capernaum from a ministry trip and when word leaks that He’s there, people rush the house and spill into the yard. Friends of a paralytic bring the man to Jesus, but they can’t reach the Lord because of the crowd. They get the bright idea to tear open the roof and lower the sick man into the house so Jesus can cure him. Maybe it would be okay if the house belonged to one of the friends. But we assume it doesn’t, since Mark doesn’t comment on who owns the place. So they’re taking a huge risk—and probably breaking the law—when they tear apart a neighbor’s roof. In fact, the whole thing is risky. Ancient Palestinian roofs are flimsy affairs, comprised of reed mats thrown over crossbeams, with a thin layer of mortar applied to protect against rain. That’s why the friends can take the roof apart quickly. But they also risk falling through, hurting themselves and/or Jesus in the process. What’s more, raising their friend to roof-level will require looking to others for help, which most of us would be hesitant to provide, given the liabilities we’d assume by pitching in. But, apparently, people do come to their assistance, because the disabled man makes it from ground level to the roof, and from the roof to Jesus.
Once Jesus Lifts the Stigma
Let’s go into the house for a minute. Jesus is talking and stops when He hears a lot of commotion outside. It sounds like it’s coming from the roof. Big chunks of ceiling start to fall. Everyone scrambles for cover. No doubt a disciple or close friend tries to pull Jesus out of danger. But Jesus sits tight and watches as the paralytic is lowered into the room. He looks up to see the friends who have taken great risks to make this happen and Mark 2.5 says, “When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
A bit of comedy ensues—one reminiscent to Monty Python’s send-up of the Sermon on the Mount in Life of Brian. Everyone settles down and someone asks, “What did He say?” Another replies, “’Your sins are forgiven.’” A nearby group of legalists hisses, “Who does He think He is? Only God can forgive sins!” Jesus senses their alarm and replies, “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 sins"—He said to the paralytic—"I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home." (v9-11) The man steps into the yard to show everyone he’s been cured. Onlookers praise God and say, “We’ve never seen anything like this!” (v12)
Mark ends the story there, as if to say, “The rest you know.” So let’s play with that for a moment. What happens next? In all likelihood the man’s friends gather around. There’s a lot of joyful laughter, pats on the back, possibly even a happy jig from the healed man. Realizing they’ve just disassembled someone’s roof and interrupted Christ’s conversation, they may scoot off to celebrate out of earshot, saying, “We’ll come back and clean up later.” And as they walk off, the healed man stops, taking a moment to absorb everything that’s happened. “Wait a second!” he says. “I’m forgiven! Do you know what that means?”
Of course, they know. In their world, disability is linked to sinfulness. Living in a climate that dreads God’s wrath, it’s automatically assumed anyone felled by disease has angered God. So Jesus not only cures the man’s condition. He frees the man from shame. More than that, He refutes the notion that physical anomalies signify God’s displeasure. If that were the case, Jesus would tell the man what He tells others who subscribe to harmful thoughts and behaviors: “Go and sin no more.” But Jesus doesn’t say that. In two quick steps, He frees the man—from stigma and then disease. And since He addresses the sin question before the curing the illness, He leaves no doubt that erasing condemnation is His first priority. Healing comes once Jesus lifts the stigma.
Everything We Need
I imagine a lot of you, like me, have heard this story plenty of times, preached and taught in many ways. It’s a spectacular example of faith in action, a noble instance of high-risk compassion, and a telling portrayal of how easily we succumb to religious dogma and common myths that impede faith. But for those of us wending our way down Lent’s road there may be something more here that we can reach for.
Whether we come to Jesus on our own—as so many in the Gospels do—or, like the paralytic man, loved ones are instrumental in bringing us to Him, what we experience on arrival is multilayered and complex. What draws us to Him may actually be secondary to a deeper need. It’s unlikely the man or his friends ever consider that, without forgiveness, the healing is incomplete. Yet Jesus recognizes that and He takes care of first things first. In our little post-healing scenario—a midrash based on the story of the cured leper who returns to thank Jesus—the man’s acknowledgement of what’s happened is typical of delayed responses we often have. Repeatedly, awareness that Christ makes us whole sneaks up on us. We have to stop and exclaim, “I’m forgiven! Do you know what that means?” It means the stigmas that paralyze and make us sick have been removed. Misguided opinions of why we are as we are have been dispelled. Not only obvious limitations that cripple us—but also the unspoken ones that bore deep into our psyches—no longer confine us. We are free.
As we travel Lent’s desert, I pray we walk humbly, yet confidently, with songs of praise interrupting our prayers of repentance. May we see our journey to the cross as a return to the source of all that is good in us—the place where our forgiveness, healing, and most of all our freedom from shame and stigma are revealed in a Savior Who understands and provides us with everything we need.
However we come to Christ—whether on our knees or on a stretcher lowered through a torn-up roof—we leave the experience in astonishment that Jesus sees to our every need.
Postscript: Question 8
Can you share an example of delayed reaction in your own faith, when you realized there was more to what you received from Christ than you initially thought?