Let's Remove The Roof
At the northern end of the Sea of Galilee is the ancient town of Capernaum, the place where Jesus performed much of his ministry.
When we were there some years ago, we were shown the ruins of what the tour guide claimed had been the house where the apostle Peter had lived, and some of us wondered if it was the house where the paralytic was healed, as some Biblical scholars surmise.
Let me refresh your memories of that story by setting the scene once again from Mark's gospel:
“And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven.’"
Now that has to be some kind of world record in persistence. Here come these four men carrying a paralytic on a very light cot. (They have heard that Jesus has returned to town.) They've heard that he is a great healer and they want to get their friend to Jesus. But there's a great crowd gathered. They've all come to hear Jesus. His fame has spread far and wide.
Life in Palestine was very public. In the morning the door of the house was opened and anyone who wished to come in was welcomed. The door was never shut unless a person deliberately wished for privacy. An open door meant an open invitation for all to come in.
So, in no time, a crowd had filled the house to capacity and had jammed the porch area around the door, and they were all eagerly listening to what Jesus had to say. We can picture that scene easily.
And here come the four men with the paralytic. How in the world do they get him through that crowd
and into Jesus' presence?
Now if you had been one of those stretcher bearers, would you have thought to suggest that they get the sick man up to the roof, then remove part of the roof, and lower him down on ropes into the room where Jesus was holding forth? That's an incredible idea.
If I had been one of the other bearers and you had suggested that, I probably would love said, "Oh, sure—we'll take him up to the roof. Sure—we'll cut a hole in the roof, we'll lower him down; then we'll lower you down because you need a lot more healing than our friend here. You need some healing in the head."
However, I would have had egg on my face for such derision. The whole project becomes fairly credible when you know that the homes of ancient Palestine were flat roofed and had outside stairways to the roof where people could go for rest and quiet. There were beams laid across from wall to wall, perhaps three feet apart. The space in between was filled with tangled vines of the wood of the underbrush, then filled in with clay. The roof was largely made of earth, and often a flourishing crop of grass grew on the roof of a Palestinian home.
So, as we become more familiar with the situation, we see that it would be quite possible to dig a hole between the beams, which could be fairly easily repaired again.
But all of that information doesn't lessen the idea that these men were persistent in their mission quite beyond common thinking.
And how must the paralytic have felt as he dangled on those ropes? I can visualize the astonishment of the people who filled that room. A few shovelfuls of earth come crashing down, then a man on a stretcher!
The four men had a faith that was sure Jesus could heal their friend. They must have been extremely sure to have gone to such lengths to have persevered, to have thought their way and not given up.
When Jesus saw this faith that laughed at barriers, He must have smiled an understanding smile. He looked at the man on the pallet and said, "My son, your sins are forgiven. "
"Your sins are forgiven?" What has that got to do with healing the man's paralysis? Perhaps everything. Modern psychology has long since known that the guilt we carry around within us can indeed produce physical malady, and when guilt is removed from the mind, physical illness can be relieved. More about that soon.
Whoever of the stretcher-bearers had conceived of the roof caper was using what today we could call "lateral thinking." In problem solving, it means that when you tackle something head on and can find no solution, you go around, you move out laterally in your thinking to get around the problem—to find the solution by methods so unusual that almost nobody thinks of them—like chopping holes in roofs to lower patients down to the doctor.
Illustration: A downtown office building has only two elevator shafts and lots of offices. Every day during rush hour, these elevators are greatly overcrowded, and people have to wait—(it seems interminably)—to get on an elevator either up or down. Many complaints come into the office of the building manager, who realizes he has to do something to provide better elevator service. Some companies are threatening to move elsewhere.
The building manager looks at the obvious solutions. Build another elevator shaft in the old building? Not a chance—too expensive—quite impossible from an engineering standpoint anyway. Get the companies to stagger the working hours of their employees? They had already tried that and it didn't help much—there was too much outside traffic coming in.
So the obvious was no solution. The building manager had to go around the obvious, laterally, and came up with a most workable solution. Unless you know the answer, you probably would never guess it, just as most of us would not have thought to take the paralytic up to the roof.
The building manager simply installed full length mirrors beside the elevator doors on each floor. He knew of the inherent vanity in most people. While waiting for an elevator—if you can study yourself in the mirror, or study someone else, you are quite content to wait for a car, even wait for quite a while. No more complaints. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity, saith Ecclesiastes, the preacher.
The whole Christian story is perfect lateral thinking. Who comes to save the world? A mighty military leader to slay all the enemies of goodness and peace that God wants for us? Does he send a political leader whose celestial diplomacy decrees peace once and for all? That would be pretty obvious and would not work because it has never worked and never will.
Our big question today is how many summit meetings will it take before it finally works?
So how does God do it? God sends a child—a baby. The lateral thinking is so wide He does not even make the child of noble birth, which would impress the right people. The child is born in, of all places, a stable where the common wayfarer beds down his horses. And the child grows quietly, unnoticed by the world, until at last he is made ready to declare his divine ministry that has indeed saved the world—although it may take a few more generations before mankind truly learns the fact of it.
In God's lateral thinking, He didn't come by the front door—He removed the roof. It was an example to us that roofs do indeed need removing. What roofs can be removed over next year's summit meetings that the lateral thinking of mutual trust can prevail? Thousands of years of mistrust among nations, it seems, will not easily be erased by the lateral thinking of total trust. Let us pray that we are at last coming closer to that far out lateral thought. Will the message of Jesus Christ, as expressed in all the world's religions, ever be the criteria for mutual trust in place of the armed fear by which we have been forced to live for so long?
Jesus said to the paralytic, "My son, your sins are forgiven." Now that was the kind of lateral thinking that Jesus' enemies simply could not handle. They had been so used to always coming in the front door of their orthodox, traditional thinking that they couldn't stand this kind of departure from it. These were the scribes who were sitting there, "questioning in their hearts," as the story tells us. They said, "Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" And Jesus said, "Why do you question thus in your hearts? Which is easier—to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise, take up your pallet and walk?"' And then He seemed to compound their wrath by saying, "But 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, rise, take up your pallet and go home.' And he rose, and immediately took up the pallet and went out before them all; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, 'We never saw anything like this!’"
One aspect of ancient Jewish theology was that it assumed that if a man was ill, it was because he had committed some sort of sin and that therefore God was punishing him with illness. The Jews made a close connection between sin and suffering. The rabbis had a saying: "There is no sick man healed of his sickness until all his sins have been forgiven him." Any Jew would have agreed that forgiveness of sins was a prior condition of cure.
On the other hand, we believe that the producer of illness might well be our conscience for some very bad thing we may have done. It is not God who inflicts illness as punishment, but the torment of our own conscience can very well make us physically ill. How we think has a great deal to do with how we feel.
And it may be that when Jesus told the paralytic his sins were forgiven, his conscience agreed with it. Our Judeo Christian faith gives us this towering, roof removing idea.
For eons man has asked, "How do I get out from under sin, how do I stop straying?" And the Church of the early centuries put us on the wrong track by telling us we had better stop our wrong doing or we would burn in some indescribable cauldron of punishment. And you had better start doing lots of good works so God would once again love you and you could earn your Brownie points to heaven. And that was the totally misguiding principle that controlled much of mankind's faith for centuries, and still does, and thus we lived in fear—and many still do.
And then Martin Luther came along and blew the roof off that terribly restricting paralysis. He tried everything he could to earn God's love but discovered there was simply no end to the repentance, the self-condemnation, the self punishments. He could never arrive at that point where he felt he had done enough to earn God's love, to get out from under the restricting roof of His Judgment.
And then the insight came. It was as if God patted little Martin on the head and said, “Martin, Martin, what are you trying to do? I never stopped loving you; you are one of my children; I created you. A father doesn't turn his back on his children. Of course you try to eliminate the error from your life, but that is no condition upon which my love for you is built. We have a simple faith contract, Martin. You and I love each other, that's all there is to it. Now relax and start trusting me and maybe you can start loving others with greater understanding. No peace within your heart was ever won through constant fear or judgment or mistrust, just as the world will never win a permanent peace through mutual mistrust.”
And the roof that had shadowed Martin Luther's years was gone.
Just follow that to its logical conclusion and you will be acting out the phrase, "God loves you, God forgives you and you are commissioned to pass on that love and forgiveness." What better time to remove that old restrictive roof than in the days just before the Christ child comes anew into our lives. What a great time to unlock the paralysis of the soul by feasting upon Jesus' words, "my son, My daughter, your sins are forgiven."
Indeed, dear friends, the paralysis is over; the roof is removed.
Dr. Donald B. Ward