…Healed, Restored, Forgiven (Isaiah 43:18-25; 2 Corinthians 1:18-22; Mark 2:1-12)
The bulletin cover reminds us that the last Sunday of Epiphany points us toward Lent. It is traditionally called Transfiguration Sunday, and the Lectionary Gospel deals with that story that reveals, briefly, Jesus’ glory. This Last Sunday of Epiphany also affords us another opportunity to look at how the baby of Bethlehem we so recently welcomed is a revelation (an epiphany) of God’s nature to us in his teachings. It is important to understand that these teachings are not only so we know information about Jesus and his life, but also how discipleship to Jesus is shaped, not only in the ancient world, but in ours.
Today’s Gospel Lesson begins a series of five scenes that all combine to give us Mark’s take on discipleship in community. These stories orbit around the fact that Jesus is about mending broken lives and restoring them to a meaningful community. Jesus both healed and fellowshiped with people who the orthodox folk, who one of my friends always called “the frozen chosen,” thoroughly rejected as unworthy of God’s attention or theirs. They held that God’s people was too respectable to deal with that sort. It was like the initial reaction we had by some people to the warming centre being in a church. I would get phone calls that said, we didn’t know your church dealt with “that kind” of people. I used to say that we’re all that kind.
The five scenes in this section all flow towards radical inclusion of that kind of people by the community of Jesus. Indeed, the central scene of the section of all this points to the fact that the inclusion that Jesus brings also brings newness to peoples’ lives that is sometimes difficult to live with. It’s much easier just to fall back on tradition and do it the way we always have, not remembering that if we do what we have always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got, until what we’ve always done doesn’t work anymore, and then we’ll get less and less. Jesus warns us not to be paralyzed by living in the past, or fearful of the present or future.
It’s no accident that today’s Gospel passage, in Mark 2:1-12, has to do a man who was paralyzed. His was physical paralysis, but, as I said a minute ago, Mark intended the story not just to rehearse an incident in Jesus’ life, but to be a spiritual pattern for Jesus’ community. The story begins by telling us that, after a busy time here and there, Jesus went back to the village of Capernaum, and that “It was reported that he was at home.” We can read this quickly, as a statement that Jesus had a place to live in Capernaum and this is where the story happened, and no more. However, in ancient Mediterranean culture to be “at home” was a statement about one’s social setting, not one’s geographical setting. To be “at home,” meant that Jesus was where he “belonged” in every sense of the word. He was where people knew who and what he was. He was in the social loop of his community. Further, “It was reported that he was at home.” The common people had an efficient word-of-mouth network that kept up on what folk were claiming and the community’s judgments on these claims. This judgment was crucial in that day, since if it didn’t match what a person claimed, the community didn’t believe it, and it wasn’t so. This word of mouth network reported that Jesus was “at home.” In fact, he was so “at home” and people were so aware of his identity as a holy man and healer that they clogged the house where he was staying. The story then says:
…Some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above Jesus; and after having dug through it, they let down the man on the mat on which the paralytic lay. Jesus not only enabled the man to walk, he said “Your sins are forgiven.” It wasn’t the act of healing so much as this statement that got him in trouble with the scribes.
One of our problems in reading the Bible is that it is difficult to read it in any other way than we and our parents have been told to read it. We have been taught certain things that are very hard to undo. We are “paralyzed” in our understanding as much as this man was in his body. We talked about this for a long time at TEE, but I want to say just three things about this story. One is about healing, one is about forgiveness, one is about faith. In all three of these areas, we usually have had different understandings than Mark or his congregation did, and we need to understand how it was intended and heard and read so that we are not left paralyzed by a modern misunderstanding of it.
First, healing in our day is about fixing malfunctioning or broken parts or systems in our bodies brought about by impersonal causes such as bacteria, infection, etc. We foist this modern idea off on Jesus’ day and think that his culture had our view, but were poor or primitive at fixing broken parts. We’ve been taught to think that, because of who he was, Jesus could “fix” what was broken or malfunctioning instantly through God’s power and this was his goal. That is, as I say, foisting a modern view of healing off on a time where it would have not been understood, nor was it what the Bible writers meant.
In the Bible, healing had to do with restoring persons to relationship within their social network, where they could participate in the relationships that gave life meaning. Healers took people who were not “at home,” and restored their wholeness. That’s biblical healing, and that’s what Jesus did. In the Bible’s view, a person may be healed and still die from a malfunctioning part. The one has little to do with the other.
The Bible’s idea of the forgiveness of sins is closely related and means restoration to wholeness. The Hebrew word for wholeness is, of course, shalom, and it was the job of healers to restore shalom, not fix bad parts, so that what they did was closer to forgiveness than fixing what didn’t work. In our story today, the reason for the conflict between Jesus and the scribes was not that he fixed broken parts of a paralyzed man, but that he claimed that his sins had been forgiven. Now, I know what many people hear when they hear “forgive sins.” The view is that there are certain violations of God’s will or law, or sometimes even errors in doctrine that we call sin. When people commit sins, if they confess them, which means saying they’re sorry, and if they go the second mile, really being sorry, then God will say, “It’s OK.” Your sin is forgiven. Here is another of those biblical phrases that has been loaded with post-biblical content and paralyzed us and we need to hear what the Bible really meant. As I said, both to forgive and to heal in the biblical world were primarily social terms about restoration. To forgive (or heal) meant to relate people to their community as a fully restored member by removing various barriers, or, as I said, to restore shalom. What is important is not the barrier (whether medical or religious), but the restoration. Acts that restore shalom are the acts of God that Jesus does. And, again, when Mark wrote these words, it was to provide a model for his faith- community which was to be a place of restoration and shalom.
Next, please note that, in Jesus’ view, the driving force behind restoring this paralyzed man to wholeness was faith. Mark tells us, “When Jesus saw their faith.” Surprisingly to us, it was not the faith of the individual in need of healing, but of the four people who brought him. This text is about community faith. We have misunderstood faith as individual intellectual willingness to believe something. Jesus had watched these four bring this man on his mat, climb up to the roof, dig through it, and set up a rig to lower him down. Faith here is what people do, not what they believe. These folk bet their lives here on God and on Jesus as the source of restoration to shalom. It is the community’s faith that brought the one in need of wholeness to Jesus by the risky business of bringing him into the community. That’s faith! Then Jesus said, “Son” (or “child”), a family word, “Your sins are forgiven. Jesus did not say, “I forgive your sins” (in the sense of restoring wholeness). He said, “Your sins are forgiven.” Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus say “I forgive your sins.” Hebrews were reticent to overuse God’s name and so often used the passive voice “Your sins are forgiven,” when they meant “God forgives your sins” (restores you to wholeness and community). God is the actor, the restorer of shalom.
The problem with the scribes was that they, too, were paralyzed. They wouldn’t allow themselves to think that Jesus, who was about including “that kind of people,” could ever be a part of God’s work. Jesus said that they probably considered fixing a broken part harder than forgiving sins. So to demonstrate that he knew what he was doing in the latter he would do the former. “Stand up and walk,” he said, and the paralyzed man did. I don’t know whether they were simply shocked or a little disappointed. At the close of the final scene in chapter 3, it says that these opponents finally understood that they couldn’t change Jesus and left to plot his death. Meanwhile, back in this story, Jesus said to the man who had been freed from paralysis: “Take your mat and go home.” Jesus reintegrated this one into the place he belonged and brought him his shalom. I think Mark is trying to say that in Jesus’ family, the community is the place where the small ones, the weak ones, the paralyzed ones, find home.
To take just a peek at the Isaiah lesson, I want to connect the beginning and the end of it to form a reminder for communities of faith like ours. God is speaking: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the ancient things. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, don’t you see it?” The poet has been discussing the centrepiece of Israel’s great old story, the exodus from Egypt. Although, it seems he then says “Forget it,” I don’t think that this text means, “Turn from the rich tradition of faith that is your inheritance for something else because it’s new.” But it does mean, “Don’t let the past limit the future.” God is up to new things, and if you’re so enamoured of the old, you’ll miss them. Toward the end of the unit, the poet also says something we have already seen in our story of Jesus. God is speaking again: “I, even I am the one who blots out your rebellions for my own sake, and I do not remember your mistakes.” God has no ulterior motive for forgiveness of sin (in the restorative sense we’ve been holding out all through this), but restores shalom (forgives) because that’s God’s nature. I think both Isaiah and Mark expect the community of faith to be conduits through which this “shaloming” happens.
Last, Paul comes up with an interesting metaphor that begins by talking about God. He wrote to the Corinthians: “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you…was not “Yes and No”; but in him it is always “Yes.” For in him every one of God’s promises is a “Yes.” In Jesus God doesn’t say no, nor even yes and no, but yes. Jesus is God’s yes to you and me. All God’s promises to be the one who restores us to the place we belong are given affirmation in Christ. Paul also found that this picture of God in Christ affected the way he related to people. The Corinthians accused Paul of being wishy-washy in his resolve to come and visit them other than to lower the boom on them (as he had, in fact, done in the past). The charge is that he said both “yes” and “no” at the same time (he talked out of both sides of his mouth, we might say). Here he says, as Jesus is God’s yes, so my word is yes. That’s not a bad practical application of either Isaiah’s poem about the God or Mark’s story of Jesus both of whom remove barriers to people’s shalom, because that’s who they are.
How might you and I think of ways we can be God’s “yes” on this corner? We do many things now. We start delivering Mobile Meals again tomorrow. What else may God be calling us to do? God doesn’t limit us to the past, and invites us forward to make a home and place of wholeness for those who are in need, especially “that kind of people,” like us. Think about it.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.