Paralysis and Pride: Sunday of the Paralytic and Fourth of Easter

Wisdom 17:2-18:1, John 5; Acts 9:32-42, Luke 24:1-12

One of the later books of the Old Testament, the Wisdom of Solomon, gives us a wise description of a hidden reality: those who oppose God are often paralyzed by their opposition, though they suppose themselves to be pro-active and practical. Listen to this passage talking about the Gentile rulers who held God’s ancient people captive, thinking themselves to be in control of the situation. In fact, they were in the darkest spiritual night, powerless to act rightly, and with their secret sins exposed to the living God:

For when lawless men supposed that they held the holy nation in their power, they themselves lay as captives of darkness and prisoners of long night, shut in under their roofs, exiles from eternal providence. For thinking that in their secret sins they were unobserved behind a dark curtain of forgetfulness, they were scattered, terribly alarmed, and appalled by specters…. Nothing was shining through to them except a dreadful, self-kindled fire, and in terror they deemed the things which they saw to be worse than that unseen appearance. The delusions of their magic art lay humbled, and their boasted wisdom was scornfully rebuked. For those who promised to drive off the fears and disorders of a sick soul were sick themselves with ridiculous fear. For wickedness is a cowardly thing, condemned by its own testimony; distressed by conscience, it has always exaggerated the difficulties….
But throughout the night, which was really powerless, and which beset [those who opposed God] from the recesses of powerless Hades, they all slept the same sleep, and now were driven by monstrous specters, and now were paralyzed by their souls’ surrender…. For the whole world was illumined with brilliant light, and was engaged in unhindered work, while over those men alone heavy night was spread, an image of the darkness that was destined to receive them; but still heavier than darkness were they to themselves. But for thy holy ones there was very great light. (Wis 17:2-18:1 RSV)

Paralysis, then, comes in different shapes and sizes. Things are not always as they seem. Those who think themselves strong and brave, but who oppose God, are actually imprisoned, languishing in the darkest night, unable to see reality for what it is, and unable to live effectively.

This insight helps us to understand some of the facets of our gospel reading for this fourth Sunday of the Paschal season. Let us remember this remarkable story that takes place at the pool near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. Until the late nineteenth century, many scholars who studied the fourth gospel considered this to be a symbolic tale only: The five porticoes had to be symbolic of the Torah, because it didn’t make sense that there would be a pool actually shaped in this way (Would it be a pentagon-shaped pool, or what?) Then in excavations near the Church of St. Anne, it was found, not shaped like a Pentagon, but like a double pool, with a fifth porch in the center. So those who were ill in the ancient days would wait around the five porches, four around the two pools, and one separating the pools.

Scholarly skepticism about the historical veracity of this event mirrors the skepticism of the Jewish leaders in the first century, those who questioned the man who was lame and healed by Jesus. As with the healing of the blind man, which comes later in the fourth gospel, those who see the man after he has been healed can only focus on the things that they consider to be wrong, and not on the astonishing turn of events: “it’s not lawful for you to carry your mat!” “Who told you to do this?” and later, “Jesus, why did you do this on the Sabbath!” Beyond the passage that we hear this Sunday, we learn that as they continue talking to Jesus, when they hear Jesus call God his Father, they become determined to kill him. All they could see was a Sabbath-breaker and one claiming to be “equal to God”: they were, because of their own spiritual infirmity, unable to see the one who fulfilled the Sabbath, and who was in fact God incarnate.

Their paralysis was, of course, much more deadly than that of the physically paralyzed man. It would seem that this man’s paralysis was somehow connected with his sin, since Jesus finds the man, after he has been healed, in the Temple, and tells him not to sin any more, in case something worse befalls him. But the man is certainly healed, and is prepared to divulge to the authorities who had healed him (once he found out his name), even though it was clear that those in power were hostile to the Teacher—the paralyzed man might well have been cast out, as the blind man is later on in the gospel. We presume, when Jesus goes on in the episode to speak of His own work as being in harmony with the work of the Father, that He is commenting upon the ongoing divine work of healing in this man. The unnamed healed one had been beset by sin and illness for 38 years, has been healed, then went to the Temple (a bit of a walk from the pool!) to give thanks, then testified to the healing, though it was risky to do so. As Jesus comments, “the Son gives life to whom he will” (5:21).

But when the LORD says, “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him,” Jesus is commenting upon the deadly spiritual condition of the leaders who could not see the Light, the Life, in front of them. The time is coming, Jesus comments, when those who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out—but some will come out to judgment, He warns, and not to life, because they refuse to see in the Scriptures the signs that point to Jesus himself! What is hampering them? What is the source of their paralysis? Jesus goes on to say that they are only interested in the glory that human beings give, and that in fact they really don’t believe what Moses told them in the Torah! And so, hungry for their own glory, they are ENVIOUS of Jesus’ power, Jesus’ relationship with God, Jesus’ special identity, and want to be glorious in themselves.

As for the paralyzed man, consider the manner in which Jesus heals him. He is well aware of his predicament, not self-deceived like the rulers, or like the godless men described by the book of Wisdom. Not only can he not move, but he has no one to help him, he says. When Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be healed?” the man, who has been lying there for many years, is, it seems, self-conscious, and explains, “I have no one to help.” It’s not for lack of desire to be healed, but because he is helpless. And then Jesus, amazingly, conscripts the man in his own miraculous recovery: “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” Jesus will do the healing, but the man must act upon it! We are reminded, perhaps, of his call to Lazarus to come forth; this paralyzed man, whose body was next to dead, also hears the voice of the LORD, and responds. He is healed, takes up his mat and walks.

We may be instructed, too by the difference in sequence between this man’s encounter with Jesus and that of the other paralytic, whom Jesus forgave as a first step, and then healed. We do not know the reasons for the differences, but we can speculate—was it because this was a personal interview with Jesus, and Jesus dealt with the first immediate problem, whereas in the other episode there were onlookers who needed to be challenged with Jesus’ divine status, that he could forgive sins? Was it because in this instance the man had no idea who Jesus was, but in the other one, the man was brought by friends to this famous teacher, and so could be challenged to faith by a word about forgiveness? Whatever the reason, we see that healing by God is not a mechanical process, but suited to the circumstances. Unlike the Pharisees and scribes, who (it seems) thought of God as trapped within His own system of Torah, Jesus is the LORD of the Sabbath, the Lord of the paralytic, and the LORD of life. Paralysis does not impede Him—unless it is the paralysis of the individual completely turned in on himself or herself, envious of God’s glory, and unable to see the light when it shines. As Jesus laments over them, “How can you believe, who receive glory from one another, and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” That is utter imprisonment, confining darkness, spiritual paralysis.

But the thing about Jesus’ glory is that it cannot be contained. As He explained to his disciples, even those who believe in Him will have living water that flows out of them to others—the living water of the Holy Spirit. Unlike the first Adam, who died and bequeathed death to all, Jesus, the One upon whom the Holy Spirit rested, became the Life-giver for all who are in Him (1 Cor 15). And so, we should not be amazed to see His power-giving, life-giving quality in his disciples, who do “great things” in his name. The second reading for this fourth Sunday of Easter shows us the apostles enacting these gifts, in a double-narrative concerning healing:

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 9:32-42 RSV)

Compare the arrogance of the censorious Jewish leaders in our gospel story with the humility of Peter. In coming among the Christians at Lydda, the apostle simply says, “Aeneas, Jesus heals you”, and follows the same pattern as Jesus did with the man at the pool—he enlists the action of this paralyzed man, telling him not only to arise, but to make the bed in which he had lain for 8 years. Similarly, and more spectacularly, Peter comes into the room where people were in mourning for a Christian woman named Dorcas, or Tabitha. Here he prays, showing with his body what he is doing so that there is no confusion about the agency of the healing. And then, recalling the voice of Jesus, he commands, “Tabitha, rise!” just as Jesus once called out “Talitha (little girl), cum (arise!)” Certainly the message was clear—though Peter commanded, and though Peter gave his helping hand to her, and though he presented her to the believers, it was to the LORD Jesus that the glory went! One who was paralyzed was re-animated; one who was completely dead was raised. Paralysis comes in different sizes and shapes: presumably Aeneas knew and believed in Jesus, but had not been physically healed at his conversion. But his empowerment served as the catalyst for others to believe—it gave glory to God. Tabitha had lived a life of grace and good deeds—and the enlivening of her dead body made many believe. Indeed, soon the fame of what Jesus was doing through his disciples would spread beyond Joppa to Caesarea, where the first Gentile family waited to be engrafted into the vine of the people of God.

Finally, we circle back to the gospel reading for Sunday Matins, found in Luke:

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices which they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel; and as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise.” And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles; but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. (Luke 24:1-12 RSV)

Here we see two examples of what we could call momentary “paralyses” that were not fatal. The first is the dead fright of the women at the tomb, followed (as we see in Mark’s version of this) by their fear and initial silence regarding the message they heard—“Why do you seek the living among the dead.” But then there is the paralysis of heart of the apostles, who did not initially believe the women’s report. Their minds, no doubt, were straightened by prejudice against the emotional fairer sex, by their practical minds that assumed that death is always final, by their grief and fear in the upper room. But these things God can answer, replacing them with life and joy: Jesus appears to them, as he did to the women, and indeed appears again for the sake of Thomas who was absent, moving their hearts from hardness to life, showing them that He indeed is greater than all they can ask or imagine.

The guards and the Jewish and Roman officials also had the opportunity to see beyond appearances, for they knew that the body was no longer there—but they refused, preferring to put forward a lie (that the body had been stolen), rather than mediating upon the truth. They preferred the darkness to the Light.

But as John’s gospel puts it, “The Word…dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory…to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become the children of God.” There are many kinds of paralysis, the in-turned, envious, selfish types that reject this light and life: those who steadfastly reject the source of all things eventually lose whatever power what originally given to them as a gift, for God will not allow rebellion to be in power forever. But, indeed, there are many other kinds of imprisonment from which God releases us—this we see in the gospel readings and the Acts for this Sunday. Sometimes the healing is instant, but sometimes it comes in stages—forgiveness, a renewed ability to be courageous when speaking the truth, ability to see beyond our prejudices, and even relief from physical confinements (which for all of us is promised when He returns). Sometimes, for reasons known to God alone, we are not entirely liberated as we would like in this world—the wounds or the social confinements linger. Yet, even in such conditions, we are, in the most important sense, free. Consider St. Paul’s imprisonment at the end of Romans—though confined, the gospel, we are told, he continued to spread in a way that was “quite open and unhindered.” (Act 28:31 RSV). And many of us know godly men and women who, in their weakened physical condition, pray and so strengthen their communities, showing that God can work through even broken vessels, for his power is made perfect in our weakness. The only utterly fatal paralysis is that which we impose upon ourselves when we refuse to hear the voice that says to us, “Arise, and walk!” For He is the Resurrection and the Life, calling us into a new creation that we can hardly imagine.

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