This gospel story is a wonderful one. If you grew up going to Sunday school, or have attended worship over the years, you have probably heard it read, and studied it, or heard it preached on many times. In fact, we are prone, I think, to fall asleep during this little story because it is very familiar to us. Yet, it is a charming and amazing story. According to the story, Jesus returns to Capernaum after some time out and about, and he goes into his home and his home is crowded with people who want to hear his teachings. Not only is the house full, but the doorway, if I can use some "poetic license," the front porch, the steps, the front yard, and half the street is jammed full of folks who want to hear what Jesus is teaching. As it happens, five men appear on the scene, one of them is crippled, paralyzed in some fashion, unable to walk. The other four are carrying the fifth on some sort of crude stretcher. It is their intention to take the crippled man to Jesus so that he might be healed. But they discover that Jesus is in a house, packed tight with people. It is packed so tightly that a fire marshal would never approve, and the steps and the front yard are also filled up. There is no way they can get this stretcher near Jesus.
So being creative, and being people with little regard for private property, they find a way to get up on the roof of the house. Homes in those days had flat roofs that were thatched—made with mud, grass and sticks and things of that nature. So they get up on the roof and begin to make a hole so they can lower the paralyzed man down, sort of like a first century Truman coming down into the Heames Center before a Tiger basketball game. Can't you imagine the situation? Here are these people destroying the roof! If you are inside, you will begin to get dirt, twigs, sticks, grass, and little clods falling on your head. They're making noise up there. Pretty soon they break through the roof and a shaft of sunlight comes into the rather darkened interior of that first century dwelling. The hole gets bigger and bigger. The dust and the dirt keep falling down in greater quantities on the heads of the people inside the house. Then here comes the guy down on his pallet, lowered by ropes. It's really quite a scene when you think about it.
I am always somewhat amused at Jesus' reaction to the paralyzed man. Jesus' first words to the man are, "Son, your sins are forgiven." Well, maybe Jesus had particular insight into just how wicked this guy had been. That's a possibility. There is also the possibility that because of the normal first century attitudes, that everybody in the community just assumed this man was a terrible sinner because he was now paralyzed, and that was God's punishment because he had been such a terrible sinner. Therefore, since he was paralyzed, he needed to be forgiven. That's the way they thought of it. I have a slightly irreverent way of thinking about it. Here's this guy that's just torn a hole in the roof and interrupted a Sunday school class! There's enough sin right there to be forgiven! There doesn't have to be anything else necessarily that proceeds it
But whatever the motivation for this forgiveness, Jesus not only forgives the man but also heals him. In fact, commands him to stand up, pick up his pallet, and walk. And he does! He does! I always wonder who is going to be left behind to settle up the insurance cost of the roof and things of that nature. We are not told all of these things that we might be curious about in this story. But when we read this story, we would do well to identify with the crippled man. Now, partly, we should read this story and see it as a teaching about the compassion that God and Christ have for those with physical ailments. You should never forget that dimension of this story. The story is about the way in which Jesus' care and concern for this paralyzed man greatly exceeded the concern about the roof, or any of the other things that might have been an issue. Jesus focused on the health needs. That ought to tell us more about how we are to live.
But today I don't want us to pursue that dimension of the story, as valid and as important as it is. Today, I want us to consider how we are the fellows on the mat. For, though we may be healthy and prosperous, everyone is crippled in some way. Everyone has broken ness in his or her life. Everyone has some chronic hurt or pain of some sort in his or her life. In that sense, we are all the paralytic.
Not terribly long ago I read a wonderful little book by a man named Lewis Snedes. It's called Shame and Grace. In it he talks about some of the ways in which church folks paralyze themselves. He writes about shame as a significant problem for many Christians. There is a difference between shame and guilt. There is a difference between shame and being ashamed. We feel guilty or are ashamed if we have done something that we know we shouldn't or if we have neglected something that we should have done. Shaine and guilt are generally tied to specific acts of omission or commission. Guilt and feeling ashamed have a certain objective reality, a certain connection to objective facts. Shame, on the other hand, as Snedes talks about it, is a chronic condition of feeling like you don't make the grade. It's not particularly connected with any one event. It's a chronic suspicion that somehow you don't quite measure up. It's a chronic feeling that other folks start the race ahead of you and that you have to run faster and try harder just to stay even. Shame has to do with a person's feelings of self value. Snedes says that shame is crippling to many, many folks. He goes on, in an interesting way, to list a whole long list of behaviors or attitudes that he calls "shame producers," but they are also the product of shame that is already in us. We can't go over the whole list, but I will list a few of them for illustration. See if any of them apply to you.
One of the results of a. shame based culture and psychology is when people become what he calls "over responsible." Now, responsibility is good, important, and healthy. It is healthy to be responsible. But there comes a point at which some people become over functioning. They are "over responsible." A classic example of that is the parent of a fifty year old child who is still living his or her life trying to straighten out and shape this adult child. Haven't you known people like that? People whose selfworth, people whose understanding of their own value in the world, is tied to the fact that their thirty, forty, or fifty year old child isn't exactly what they wanted this child to be. Therefore, as a parent, they area terrible failure. If any of you have children—I'm tempted to say teens, but I'm going to say in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties—whose lives are not what you'd wish and you're still flying to straighten them out, give it up. Just give it up! They aren't going to respond very positively to your efforts to justify your existence by fixing them. That's over responsibility, you see. It's taking responsibility for that which is beyond one's power or capacity or rightful authority in life.
There are other ways it expresses itself Don't you know some people at work who are not only eager to make sure their job description is done properly, but yours also? Don't you know people who just cannot rest until everything is taken care of properly? They are always meddling in other people's stuff because they somehow feel responsible for the outcome of your actions as well as theirs. I know a woman who has a pretty good handle on how this works in her own life, and is pretty aware of the fact that she has a problem with over responsibility. She tends to say that she has never quite gotten over the fact that she is personally responsible for the Viet Nam war. As farfetched as that seems, if you examine your own life or look at others, you will see lots of folks who are spinning their wheels, who are using their energy, somehow, to make something happen that which is beyond their realm.
Now, let's be careful. We are not saying we, somehow, should stop trying to fix the world. We have a responsibility to give our lives and to do what we can to make the world a better place. But there is a difference between using the power, and the authority, and the realm of influence that we have in an appropriate way to make things better. It's another thing to put on our own shoulders 100% responsibility for everything. Do you see the difference between the two? Over responsibility is a common expression of a person who cannot quite accept themselves.
Snedes says another behavior that feeds into the shame culture is what he calls "compulsive comparers." This is the classic "keep up with the Jones's" syndrome—a person who is always comparing himself or herself to others and always finding their self slightly lacking. They are somehow a little behind the curve, somehow starting the race behind everybody. These are people who always look at folks around them and find them more charming, more attractive, smarter, more capable, less mistake-prone, more graceful than they are. Over and over and over again, they look at the world and find themselves somehow lacking, and they begin running faster and faster and faster, often on the psychological treadmill trying to keep up with their imagination that other folks are better than they are.
Another closely related syndrome of this shame mentality is what Snedes calls "approval addicts." If you look at yourself you'll see a measure of it, I expect. "Approval addicts" are people who are never quite at peace until they have met everyone else's expectations. Everyone! Everyone—parents, children, brothers, sisters, bosses, co workers, customers, clients, patients, and students. Everyone with whom they are in contact must be satisfied that they have done everything possible or they can't rest. They are "approval addicts." They have to have everyone's Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval or they just can't seem to cope. There are a lot of "approval addicts" in the pews of this world, a lot of Christians who are "compulsive comparers." A lot of members of the Body of Christ are being "over responsible." All of these things spring out of a kind of self shame that believes that somehow you have to do more than enough, be more than enough, accomplish more than enough, earn more than enough in order to justify your space on the Planet Earth. In that sense, all of us, to some degree or another, are the paralytic. All of us are people whose lives are crippled and in need of the word of Jesus. Son, daughter, your sins are forgiven. Let them go. Take up your bed and walk.
St. Paul said it in another way. He said the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a "yes or no," not a "maybe or a sometimes." Therefore, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is always God's "yes" to us. Now that doesn't mean "yes" to everything we want. That doesn't mean “yes" to all our dreams. But it means "yes" to our essential worth and person hood. A theologian named Edmund Seimle has written, “Not because of your brains, your wit, your good looks, and not for the figure you cut on campus or in a career. Not because your good, certainly, or even because you're better than somebody else, but simply because you're YOU. Irreplaceable. Infinitely worthwhile in the eyes of God. This is the assurance the cross bestows upon those who linger in its shadow."
It costs. It costs suffering, and rejection, and death before we will kneel down and accept the fact that we are accepted, just as we are, as we come and are invited, all of us, just as we are, to the table of Jesus Christ. I invite you to come to Christ's table where the word to you is "Yes." Get up from the place where you are, crippled though you may be, and walk.
Dr. Carl L. Schenck
(1) Quoted in Word and Witness, 7/7/96.