Preaching The Lesson
I recall leading a Bible study on this passage with a large number of adults and children present. One member of the group was a woman who was a lifetime wheelchair user. Near the conclusion of the process, when people were reflecting in smaller groups, she shared with me how this story of Jesus' healing the paralytic had always made her uncomfortable, and she had been doubly uncomfortable during the Bible study itself. She brought to the story questions that had never occurred to me as someone who walks several miles a day.
The woman wanted to know whose idea it was that the paralytic needed healing. Did it originate with the paralytic or with the people who carried him there? She feared that the story implied that she would always be less than a complete human being because she used a wheelchair. She had encountered enough misplaced pity and condescension in her life to become intolerant of any story that would reinforce such attitudes.
Although it might be tempting for an exegete to dismiss the woman's concern as extraneous to Mark's text, that is not a strategy for preachers who take seriously the pastoral care of persons with observable disabilities. (I use the adjective "observable" because we all have some disability.) The Spirit of God calls us to deal not simply with biblical texts, but with how biblical stories function in people's consciousness. Sometimes a story contradicts the good news of God's love by leading us to devalue people whose limitations are no greater than our own but simply more self-evident.
How, then, are we to develop a sermon on this story that honors the full value of every human being no matter what our disabilities and that celebrates the power for wholeness that flows through Christ to all of us?
Rereading the text in light of the woman's concerns, I come to realize that a major part of the story deals with the rigidity of the religious establishment, with their doctrinal absolutes. This observation leads me to ask: has my past preaching of this story—how Jesus heals what is paralyzed in each of us—locked me into a pattern every bit as rigid as the religious authorities in the text?
I recall the resistance that first arose in me when the woman brought her concerns to me. I wanted to find an argument or theological position that would justify the Bible study. I was eager to defend the delight and learning that able bodied people of all ages had found in what we had done. I, however, abandoned that attempt because the woman was speaking to me with a grace, a conviction and wisdom that melted my resistance and defensiveness.
Looking back now at our conversation, I find myself wondering: whose role in Mark's story did the woman come closest to filling, and whose role was I filling? Perhaps she was one of the people bringing the paralytic to Jesus, and I was the paralytic. The woman in the wheel chair was bearing me to Christ. Her sense of wholeness and self-worth gave her the strength and faith needed for the task. I was the paralytic, unable to move beyond the walls of my own experience as a walking person and beyond the limits of my interpretation until she voiced her concerns to me.
Or perhaps the woman in the wheel chair was Christ, and I was one of the figures of the religious establishment. She was challenging the rigidity of homiletical traditions about healing that I had inherited and practiced as a preacher and pastor. She was daring to confront the "questions in [my heart]" (Mark 2:8).
The more I think about these things the more I appreciate that the woman was not eliminating this story from the Bible, but rather was leading me to a new understanding of it. Her insights suggest that perhaps instead of preaching this passage as a "healing" story, we might preach it as a story of reversal. The reversal is that the certainties of the authorities crumble before the audacity of Jesus. He asks an enigmatic question (Mark 2:9) that subverts their theology in the same way that the woman's questions subverted mine. This reversal of assumed dogma is itself a form of healing because it reveals that what we consider "blasphemy" may instead be the surprising and transforming work of God. Jesus leads us to acknowledge that the dogma we grip and defend is the distortion of a constricted piety.
Healing this profound comes when the whole community gathers about Christ in faith—"When Jesus saw their faith" (Mark 2:5). It is healing that depends upon our openness to those who challenge what we hold sacrosanct, be it a rule about who can forgive sins or a story from the gospels. If the church became daring enough to welcome the strenuous but liberating process of communal healing, then the world might exclaim: "We have never seen anything like this" (Mark 2:12).