|(St Mark 2. 1-12, NEB – Revised Common Lectionary)
Jesus… said to them: ‘Why do you harbour thoughts like these? Is it easier to say… “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up, take your bed, and walk”?’ [Vv.8-9]
At the heart of today’s Gospel are three simple injunctions that speak compellingly to us about how, in spite of immobilising afflictions, we might receive once again the liberating gift of humanity, dignity and purpose. Stand, take, and walk.
What we are contemplating here is nothing less than the restoration of God’s life in us. And this morning it may well be that we have an especially acute sense of the kind of crippling paralyses from which, if only we could meet or touch the Holy One of God, [Mark 1. 25] we might be delivered. At a global level that certainly includes the distorting mindset of threat, fear, aggression and terror in the world: a collective disablement that seeks redemption in violence. At a personal level it perhaps involves the numbing of feeling that comes from bereavement, from the wounding, inexplicable loss of someone who was part of us. (1) Physical frailties that can stunt us literally, psychologically and spiritually (often all at once) are rarely far away, of course. And, as a Christian community, uncertainty, disagreement, diminished resources and failure of vision often freeze us in our tracks – paralyse us.
Healing, therefore, is not something extraordinary that we require only in special circumstances; it is a wholeness that needs constantly to be renewed in the deepest fabric of our lives. But what kind of restoration are we talking about? How does it come about? And in what ways may we receive it? Some clues and signs of God’s redemptive power among us are to be found in St Mark’s familiar (but still shock-making) story of Jesus’ encounter with the paralysed man in Capernaum.
In order to understand the full impact of the threefold action commended by Jesus – stand, take, walk – we need first to look at how the events of this story fit in with the overall drama that the Gospel writer describes. After Jesus’ initial declaration of the manifesto of God’s new order of things at the beginning of his public ministry, Mark records how the man of Nazareth (1.24) became a magnet for all kinds of sick, dejected and excluded people. With this troublesome rabble still clinging on to him, there follows a series of head-on, definitive disputes between Jesus and the official upholders of religious law. These are catalogued in five short passages between Mark 2.1 and 3.6.
The confrontation starts with this incident involving a paralysed man. Then Jesus continues to associate favourably with all manner of outcasts and undesirables – people declared unclean, unworthy and unfit for table fellowship (2.15) by the righteous and the orthodox. He and his closest disciples go on to break the customs on fasting. As if that wasn’t bad enough they defy the restrictions of the Sabbath by plucking corn to eat when they are hungry. Finally Jesus tends a man with a withered arm, also on the Sabbath … and in the synagogue, of all places. The Sabbath rest is there for the good of humanity, not to enslave us, he declares.
In his wonderful exposition of St Mark, Ched Myers (2) describes this as Jesus’ first direct action campaign. The religious authorities have arrogated to themselves, in the name of the Law, the right to declare who is in and who is out, who will receive God’s mercy, who will be denied it, and on what conditions. By contrast, Jesus announces the open secret (3) of God’s indiscriminate, transforming love – most particularly to those who are paralysed by disease, by psychological imprisonment and by the humiliating subjugations of a religiously sanctioned system of favouritism. He delivers them from silence, from the realm of sin and from enemy occupiers (1. 32-34), releasing them towards a new destiny of companionship and hope.
All this is at stake in today’s reading. Upon his return to Capernaum Jesus is already a marked man in the eyes of the authorities. After contact with a leper, who he heals, he is rendered unclean and he goes temporarily into hiding (1.45). But the word gets out again: ‘free health care’, ‘no religious restrictions’, and the crowds are back.
Capernaum, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, was at the time of Jesus a small trading and fishing centre with about a thousand inhabitants. It was big enough to have its own synagogue and it was also the site of a customs house and a Roman garrison, since it was on the border separating Herod Antipas’ tetrarchy of Galilee from Gaulanitis, ruled by his brother Philip. Here then is a place where religious, economic and political interests coincide. (4)
We join the story with Jesus speaking. Mark immediately contrasts his popular ‘teaching’, [laleo, 2. 2,7] focussed on the needs of the people, with the ‘reasoning’ or ‘theorizing’ [dialogizomai, 2.6,8] of the scribes, concerned with a debate among an inner group of experts. Though the town was relatively prosperous, the house where Jesus is found is a typical poor person’s dwelling. It is excavated out of the earth and lined with a pitch roof, which is why the carriers of the paralytic can literally dig through it.
We never learn the paralysed man’s name. He is poor, so he is a nobody. But it is fairly likely that he was a God-fearer conscripted into some kind of manual service alongside the occupying army. The stretcher upon which he lies is a mattress or bed roll typically used by soldiers or camp followers.
Why is he brought to Jesus? Because the religious authorities will have nothing to do with him. His lack of bodily wholeness would have been attributed to his sin, or (if it was a birth defect) to inherited sin from earlier generations. He is regarded as soiled and unworthy. But he still has hope in God. Recognising his faith, Jesus immediately announces not his healing – as we might expect – but his cleanliness and his freedom from debt and obligation (as the Lord’s prayer also puts it) (5). ‘You are at this moment forgiven’, he says authoritatively (2.5). This is a straightforward demonstration that this man is not outside decent society. He is no longer enslaved as one of the ‘sinners’.
Jesus anticipates the horrified response of the doctors of the Law to his declaration. Their claim that only God can forgive and thus restore fellowship to an unclean or indebted person is correct and pious. But it is also hypocritical. For it is they who are interpreting the Torah to keep the people down and to maintain their own status.
At exactly this charged moment Mark introduces the description ‘Son of Man’, for Jesus; ‘the truly Human One’, as Walter Wink (6) has it, Daniel’s apocalyptic figure (7) who announces God’s judgement on a corrupt religious system.
It is now that Jesus embodies God’s liberating intentions in the threefold injunction: stand, take, walk. ‘Stand’, he says to the paralytic: you are a human being, not a victim. You are no longer dependent. ‘Take’: assume responsibility once more, pick up your stretcher. It’s your bed, but you don’t have to lie on it any more! Your dignity is restored, and the power of the system that was content to keep you there is broken. You owe nothing. So ‘walk’, go home. You have a home, you have a people to rejoin, you have a destiny as a child of God.
So the man did just that, in full view of the crowd (the ochlos, the confused masses). He stood up, he took his stretcher, he walked away from a life of physical paralysis, psychological fear, political rejection, economic indebtedness and religious uncleanness. He was restored in body, in spirit, in the community and in God. He was, as we graphically say, ‘re-deemed’. The religious authorities had deemed him ‘out’, God in the person of Jesus had refuted this and deemed him ‘in’, one of us, part of the great communion.
Unsurprisingly the scribes were furious. The word they use to describe Jesus is ‘blasphemer’ (2.7). This is the formal charge that they will eventually bring against him (14.64), and the process begins at the end of this series of confrontations when they re-appear in the guise of government investigators from Jerusalem (3.22). The people, however, recognise all this as the work of God. For the moment, anyway; they will soon be confused again.
There are a number of other things to recognise about Jesus’ action. First, it is not an ‘action’ at all, as such, but a new word. A word (in this case a phrase) that redefines everything. Just as God is depicted as calling the universe into being in Genesis, so Christ, the Word, calls people into a new being and a new community. Frailty and mortality will come to all of us eventually, but nothing can overcome the love of God expressed in this deliverance from isolation to solidarity. It is the promised inheritance of God’s shalom that is at work here. And that is the reality we too are invited to embody and proclaim, if we wish to be free. For as Louise and Mark Zwicks of the Houston Catholic Worker House of Hospitality rightly observe: “One does not free persons [simply] by detaching them from the bonds that paralyse them: one frees persons by attaching them to their destiny.” (8)
Second, the action of restoration is continuous: forgiveness, healing, dignity and all manner of re-connections happen at once. And they happen when the man takes those three simple words seriously: he realises in himself, by the grace of God, the capacity to stand, to take, to walk. Under the interpretation of the Law that Jesus was confronting it was not nearly as simple as that. It was instead necessary first to go to the authorities, secondly to be made clean by ritual and by obeisance (including repayment of debts), and only then was it possible to be made whole. And even then, you had to watch your step. The religious authorities always had their eyes on you. This was not, Jesus declared, what the will and purpose of God was about.
Third, there is an obvious parallel between Jesus’ command to this man, ‘take up your stretcher’ and the command to his more intimate followers, ‘take up your cross’. This is a reminder that God’s economy of love for the lost, the last and the least comes at a cost. The powers that divide and rule cannot tolerate this dissent from hierarchy and subjection. So just as this man stands, Jesus is to be stripped and beaten. While this man takes his freedom, Jesus is taken in servitude; and while this man walks, Jesus is nailed to a tree. For some, though not all, of those who hear Jesus call there are similar consequences too. (9)
This is not the end of Mark’s Gospel drama, however: for resurrection, God’s unexpected word of life, is the ultimate restoration. Beyond and through the paralysis of death – with its grip on our bodies, on the body politic, even on the communal Body of Christ into which we have been baptised – there is an image of humanity restored which cannot be erased. We see it in certain graced moments, like this one recorded in Mark, and also in many other people and events that we begin to notice as God’s love breaks upon us. But we never see it fully. We merely glimpse. Indeed, the image is often scarred and broken, trampled, mislaid, defaced and denied.
But by claiming for ourselves – and for the community of which we are part – those three simple words, stand, take, walk, we can begin to experience the measure upon our lives of the Holy One of God revealed in the Human One. In the face of disease, in the face of death, in the face of war, in the countless faces of injustice in our world today, there is a claim upon us that is the undeserved gift of those who have glimpsed the realm of God in the Man of Nazareth. And for those who have indeed seen this destiny, the world can never be the same again. (10)
This sermon was first preached at Wood Green Mennonite Church in London on 23 February 2003
(1)This sermon is dedicated to the memory of Bernard Misrahi.