The Sunday of the Paralytic

John 5:1-15; Acts 9:32-42; Micah 4:1-7

St. John Chrysostom, in his 37th Homily on the Gospel of John, reminds us of how the Scriptures speak to us: “GREAT is the profit of the divine Scriptures, and all-sufficient is the aid which comes from them. And Paul declared this when he said, “Whatsoever things were written aforetime, were written aforetime for our admonition upon whom the ends of the world are come, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” For the divine oracles are a treasury of all manner of medicines…”

By this way, the Golden-Mouthed introduces our gospel reading for this Sunday of the Paralytic. This passage from John 5 shows how the Lord fulfills the Old Testament Scriptures, has mercy on our infirmities, and not only our sins, and responds particularly to the needs of all whom he enlightens. His question to the disabled man is luminous: “Do you want to be well?” and interrogates us, as well. Thirty-eight years is a long time to wait for healing; our lifetime is a long time to wait, without knowledge concerning the mercy of God.

For this story is certainly about mercy. The very name of the pool of Bethesda means “house of mercy” or “house of compassion,” and includes within it a reference to the incredible hesed or compassion of the Lord. As frequently happens in languages, some bizarre twist occurred in Hebrew so that the same word hesed means not only mercy/compassion, but can be used to evoke “disgrace” (as in, for example Leviticus 20:17). This dual meaning is surely apt for our story—these poor invalids were considered a disgrace, blighted by the Lord, in their day, but presented themselves at the pool, in hope that they would be supernaturally healed. Though the verse concerning an angel “troubling the waters” is not found in all manuscripts, it is an ancient tradition, and explains why the man responds to Jesus that he has no one to immerse him, and others get in first, so he has not been healed. Scholars used to think that the pool with five colonnades was merely a literary construction, perhaps symbolic of the five books of the Law, which show God’s mercy to Israel. It may well be that the fourth evangelist intends to evoke the Law by reference to the pool, but we know now that its “symbolic” nature is not exclusive of history! A pool discovered in the nineteenth century, and claimed to be this site, was further unearthed in the 1960s to reveal a double pool—four colonnades around the pools, and a fifth separating the pools.

The ancient Hebrew Scriptures, of course, gave hope for healing, and evidence of God’s mercy in our disgrace. Much in the Torah pointed forward to Christ, and was given, as St. Paul reminds us, for our instruction. And in the prophet Micah, we read:

It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore, but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.
For all the peoples walk each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever.
In that day, says the LORD, I will assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away, and those whom I have afflicted; and the lame I will make the remnant; and those who were cast off, a strong nation; and the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and for evermore. (Micah 4:1-7 RSV)

WE walk in the name of the LORD our God—and the paralytic will walk in the name, in the strength of that same God. This is, the prophet tells us, the God who sends for his word from Jerusalem, who attracts all to his holy hill, who teaches justice and peace, who gathers the infirm and the exiled, and who numbers those who have had no physical strength with the strong remnant called to glorify the true God! This is the God who cares for everyone, not simply for Israel, and who cares for all that it is to be human—not just our spiritual infirmities, but our physical needs as well.

Indeed, a comparison of this healing with that of the other paralyzed man, the one let down through the roof, is instructive. In that story, Jesus’ first word to the paralytic was “your sins are forgiven.” Only then does he go on to heal him. But in this story, he asks if the man wants to be well. The man alone and the Lord know why that question needed to be asked. However, in a day and age when those who are physically challenged are insisting on their rights to remain so, and indeed to keep their children infirm—as with some disabled who are refusing the means of modern medicine to give them, or their children, hearing—we perhaps have an analogy. And if we search our hearts, we also must admit that we can understand. Sometimes it is easier to be infirm, or weak: if we have been so for a long time, it is a malady with which we have come to terms, and that we understand. Perhaps we are anxious about what might be expected were we well! But it is probably a mistake to read Jesus’ question as a reproach: though the man does not directly answer him at this point, as soon as Jesus tells him to stand, he does so, without question!

When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?”
The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.”
Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.”
And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked.

Clearly, Jesus’ question and response to the man’s excuse elicited the man’s unwavering faith. And so, the question, “do you want to be healed” is answered by him in the affirmative, as he takes up his bed and WALKS—walks in the name of the Lord. Later, when the Lord finds him, and instructs him to “sin no more,” we see that this man came to be numbered among the remnant, for the Lord has cared both for his physical and spiritual needs. In another homily (the 36th on John), St. John Chrysostom marvels at the man’s perseverance, and calls us to a similar action:

Astonishing was the perseverance of the paralytic. For thirty and eight years he was there, and each year hoping to be freed from his disease, he continued in attendance, and did not withdraw …. Let us be ashamed then, beloved, let us be ashamed, and groan over our excessive sloth. “Thirty and eight years” had that man been waiting without obtaining what he desired, and he didn’t give up. And he had failed not through any carelessness of his own, but through being oppressed and suffering violence from others, and not even then did he grow dull; while we, if we have persisted for ten days to pray for anything and have not obtained it, are too slothful afterwards to employ the same zeal. In contrast, we wait on human leaders for such a long time, going to war, and enduring hardships and performing servile ministrations—and often at the end, they fail us in our expectations. But on our Master, from whom we are sure to obtain a recompense greater than our labors, (for, as the Apostle says, “Hope maketh not ashamed”), on Him we do not keep persistence in waiting, with the diligence from us that he deserves. (Homily 37)

The Incarnate God, then, shows his compassion for our disgrace in matching our condition with the appropriate response—whether this is a question, or a statement that brings healing, or a warning. In the story of the paralytic we see the most perfect representation of the gospel, for the man was helpless, except for his desire to be healed. And it is no mere angel or the moving of creative waters that heals him, but the very Word of God himself, who made both angel and waters. As we remark in our liturgy, “The word of Christ was strength for the paralytic;

And thus this word alone was his healing.” Yet our Lord’s sovereign word calls for a response—“Get up and carry!”—and for the man to be reformed—“sin no more!” All the healing is of God; yet he treats us not as paralytics but as those with bodies and wills to move. He calls us to be sons and daughters, and not merely subservient creatures or servants. The story of the paralytic points forward to the greatest gift of all, Jesus’ death and resurrection for us, his immersion in the depth of the earth, and his resurrection for our new life. The Golden-Mouthed comments:

What manner of cure is this? What mystery does it signify to us? For these things are not written carelessly, or without a purpose, but as by a figure and type they show in outline things to come, in order that what was exceedingly strange might not, by coming unexpectedly, harm the power of faith among many of us. What then is it that these events show, in brief? A Baptism was about to be given, possessing much power, and— the greatest of gifts— a Baptism purging all sins, and making men alive instead of dead. These things then are foreshown as in a picture by the pool, and by many other circumstances. (Homily 36)

The healing, raising, and forgiving power of Jesus was not isolated to a few episodes in his earthly life, was it. For as we are reminded in our second reading for this weekend, the Apostles, in Jesus’ name, also raised the infirm—we see this in the man called Aeneas—and even the dead—we see this in Dorcas. The deep visitation of God the Son into our human realm has left nothing untouched.

Now as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints that lived at Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden for eight years and was paralyzed. And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.” And immediately he rose, and all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord.
Now there was at Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. In those days she fell sick and died; and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him entreating him, “Please come to us without delay.”
So Peter rose and went with them. And when he had come, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping, and showing tunics and other garments which Dorcas made while she was with them.
But Peter put them all outside and knelt down and prayed; then turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, rise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. And he gave her his hand and lifted her up. Then calling the saints and widows he presented her alive. And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. (Act 9:32-43 RSV)

The apostles had been with Jesus, had been commissioned by him, and they were filled with the Spirit of Jesus, who remained with them. In Lydda, the Lord, through Peter’s word, healed Aeneas, and the people there turned to the Lord. In Joppa, by his prayer to Jesus, Tabitha was healed, and many believed in the Lord. For the Lord, once he had visited earth, did not withdraw his presence. There, at the pool where angels visited, was the One whom angels wondered to see as a human being. There, at the sheep gate, was the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. There, speaking to the paralytic, was the One who takes our infirmities and carries our sorrows. Though we may not all see and hear him in the same way, we know that he remains with us forever until he returns. So we remark in wonder, in the Oikos for this feast:

O Thou Who holdest the ends of the earth in the palm of Thy hand, O Jesus our God, Who art co-beginningless with the Father, and Who, together with the Holy Spirit dost rule over all things: Thou didst appear in the flesh, healing infirmities, driving away passions, and giving sight to the blind. And, by a divine word, Thou didst raise up the paralytic, commanding him to walk straightway and to take up upon his shoulders his bed, which had carried him. Wherefore, together with him we all praise Thee and cry: O Compassionate Christ, glory to Thy dominion and might. Amen.

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