When one enters the Galilean town of Capernaum today there is a sign at the gated entrance that tells the reader that this is Jesus' hometown. It was not his hometown by birth or by growing up there, but he made it his hometown in a way that Bethlehem or Nazareth never were. Capernaum is the setting for this lection. Jesus is at home.
But being at home did not eliminate the problem of Jesus' notoriety. Jesus knew how to attract a crowd in a way that none of us do. Maybe a Hollywood celebrity or a well-known sports figure has some idea what it must have been like for Jesus. Wherever he went the crowds were always there. There was no privacy, even at home, maybe especially at home. This was a constantly draining experience, and it put continuous pressure on the one who described himself as "the Son of Man."
The paralytic who is let down through the roof of the house into Jesus' presence is a dramatic and graphic sign of many things including the pressure on Jesus born out of the needs of the people. Any pastor who provides meaningful pastoral care to his congregation knows something about pastoral demands on one's time and energy. On the one hand you are grateful that people accept you as a source of care, that they respond to your ministry and appreciate what you have to offer. On the other hand there is the constant struggle to provide effective ministry without "burning out." It's encouraging to know that even Jesus struggled throughout his ministry with the same issue.
From a pastoral perspective the healing of the paralytic speaks to us of something else also. The paralyzed man was lowered into the presence of Jesus by his creative, dramatic and faithful friends. This is one of the healings that takes place in the ministry of Jesus in response to the faith, not only of the sick one, but of his friends as well. This has something important to say to us of the social context of illness and health. Sickness and health are not experienced in a vacuum.
Larry Dossey, M.D. in his writings and lectures is generating a lot of interest from a diverse group of people. I've heard him lecture; he is an excellent presenter but it's the content of his message that is most stimulating. His four most recent books are, Healing Words: the Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine (1993), Prayer is Good Medicine (1996), Be Careful What You Pray For (1997), and Reinventing Medicine (1999). All are published by Harper, San Francisco.
One of his premises is that intercessory prayer, which he says some researchers call "distant" prayer or "distant intentionality" can be shown to be, through scientific research, statistically significant. Not only is Dossey's view that the health of an individual can be positively impacted by the prayers of others, but he also contends in Be Careful What You Pray For that prayers can actually be used to do harm to others. It seems that blessing and cursing are always with us.
Whatever one might think of Dossey's work the point that I want to make here is that it's important from a pastoral perspective to recognize and appreciate the social context of health and illness. When the friends of the man who was paralyzed let him down through the roof of the house into Jesus' presence, they were actively praying for the healing of their friend. Healed he was! There is no need to debate whose faith was greater, the man who wanted to be healed or his friends. All five of them were in this together. It was a community effort, a social event. They were actively praying.
The twentieth century gave us depth psychology and psychosomatic medicine. Recognition of the unconscious at both an individual and collective level has deepened immensely our appreciation for the complexity of the human being. The discovery that mind, body and spirit are intricately related in the whole person at both a conscious and unconscious level has enabled us to understand illness and health in ways we never dreamed possible.
I still can recall vividly an experience I had decades ago. I was a young hospital chaplain at the time. I received a call from one of the psychiatrists in the hospital. He invited me to come to a floor where he was working with a middle-aged female patient known to both of us. The patient was paralyzed from the waist down. She could not stand unassisted let alone walk. There was no apparent physiological reason for the paralysis yet this woman had been hospitalized for weeks totally crippled and confined to a wheelchair.
When I arrived at the room where the psychiatrist, the patient, and a couple other staff were, the doctor invited me to observe. He then proceeded to put the patient into a hypnotic state as she sat in the wheelchair. In a few moments she was deeply "asleep." Then carefully and quietly he gave her a series of suggestions culminating with the instruction to stand up and walk. At that point without hesitation the woman rose to her feet and began to walk around the room.
This woman's illness resulting in her paralysis had more to do with the social context of her life than it did with anything else. Knowing this, the hospital's healing team was now able to address the issues in her life that needed attention so that once again she could return to health, wholeness, and her larger community. She eventually was healed because of a community effort and prayer ("distant intentionality?") in action. Jesus said to the paralytic two things. First he said, "Son, your sins are forgiven." Then he said, "I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home." Both were important aspects of the healing on that day in Capernaum.
One thing more about this text as we view it from a pastoral perspective. This story is not only a healing story, it is a controversy story. Mark tells us that some of the scribes were sitting there watching and listening to the interaction between Jesus and the paralytic. They were saying in their hearts, "Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (2:7) Immediately Jesus "perceived in his spirit" that they were thinking these thoughts and discussing among themselves these issues. He confronted them with what was going on in their hearts.
Any Christian minister would do well to try to emulate Jesus at this point. How important it is for effective ministry, if we continue to cultivate the ability to pick up on what's going on in the hearts and minds of those with whom we have to do. We know that some people are just more intuitive than others. In that sense this ability is a gift. At the same time it is possible for us to educate and train our abilities to sense or "perceive in our spirits" what's happening in the hearts of others. This not only enhances the pastoral care that one does, but it also allows the minister to deal with controversy more productively.
In addition to depth psychology and psychosomatic medicine, another phenomenon of the twentieth century has been the clinical pastoral education movement and the pastoral counseling movement. These forms of pastoral education have enabled many pastors across the denominational and theological spectrum to develop skills in identifying and addressing more effectively the questions arising in the hearts of parishioners and others. There is no substitute for good listening and accurate empathic understanding appropriately communicated. These are the kinds of skills that clinical pastoral education and pastoral counseling training develop.
Dwight W. Cumbee