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John Vannorsdall8 says that an initial encounter with this story provides ample opportunity for preaching: a vivid picture, a chance for humor, reflection on the role of the church in bringing people to Christ, and some speculation as to who eventually repaired the roof. (Vannorsdall's pastoral experience suggests that it might have been Jesus.)
At a second glance, Vannorsdall sees the familiar pattern of New Testament reversal. A paralyzed man is brought for healing and instead has his sins forgiven. He has not been questioned about his repentance. Jesus has remarked about faith, but it is the faith of the four friends who tear a hole in the roof through which to lower the paralyzed man that provokes his comment. The scribes think but do not pronounce the word "blasphemy." Meanwhile, the forgiven but then apparently overlooked man lies on his pallet, motionless.
Other teachings establish that Jesus does not draw lines of cause and effect between sin and disability, although he does affirm that sin and sickness are linked. If he were making a point that the paralytic's sin caused his paralysis, then the man might have been on his feet immediately. Instead Jesus is calling attention to his own right and ability to forgive sin, and it is that which provokes the hostile response.
Vannorsdall asks what difference it makes to those in the pew to have someone announce that God has forgiven their sins. Not much, he answers, unless they recognize the suffering of God, which is caused by these offenses to God and to one another. Then it makes a great difference to be forgiven by God.
When placed in the order of healings, this act of forgiveness of sin was the watershed in Jesus' journey toward the focus of Mark's gospel, the crucifixion. Healing demoniacs, fevers and leprosy had been done by holy teachers and was noticeable but acceptable. It was not acceptable for Jesus to claim power that only belonged to God, the forgiveness of sin. That willingness to forgive would cause the suffering of Jesus.
For some, this is not good news. "It is easier to live with a God who punishes than with a God who is hurt by our offenses and suffers with us." The good news is that grace rises out of desolation. Not even the suffering of God is used as a weapon against us.
Edwin McNeill Poteat,9 in Vandalism or Faith?, begins also with the hole on the roof, and the good story with a happy ending. The man was healed, the friends rewarded, Jesus was pleased, and the scribes were discredited. A good story alone, however, has not the power of the word of God, authoritative for our faith, unless it knocks our feet out from under us.
Poteat finds the meaning of the story in the willingness of those whose faith was remarked upon to destroy existing structures in order to come close to Jesus. Those who would conserve the conventions of religion remain at a distance from Jesus. Poteat asks, has there been vandalism in religion? He confesses that there are theological tinkerers who pose little danger. Instead we are to beware of those who allow the church to remain paralyzed rather than risk demolishing our traditions. Reckless, truth-seeking faith may be mistaken for vandalism, but Jesus recognized faith when he encountered it.
In an awareness of current debates about health care reform, William R. Klein10 has written a sermon reflecting upon the Mark passage and Genesis 3:1-7, in which the serpent says to Eve, "You will not die." His sermon is entitled A Theological Question About Health Care.
Klein suggests that the Genesis text deals with our refusal to accept death and other limits of our existence as creatures. We would rather be like God. Our health care crisis reveals that we will spare no expense to fight or postpone death. We also believe science will save us, without us having to care for our created bodies.
The Markan story focuses not on physical healing but the human relationship to God, in the necessity for the forgiveness of sin. Healings were apparently common, says Klein, but what was astounding was Jesus' claim to forgive sin, to restore the relationship between God and the paralytic.
Klein is careful to remind us that Jesus rejects the idea that sickness is the result of sin. Also absent in this story is an indication that the faith of the sick man had any effect upon his healing. It is possible to be forgiven and not healed (remember Paul's thorn in the flesh?) and healed without being forgiven. This story is a reminder, especially to those who have made physical healing their main priority, that a right relationship with God is far more important.
The practical applications that conclude Klein's sermon insist that we be more determined both to lead healthy lives and to refuse heroic life-preserving measures when death is inevitable. We need to ask ourselves and our families the question, "How much is enough?" We are called to love and serve God joyously, and embrace the limits God sets on our lives.
Karin Bascom Culp