Some of us had a hard time finding Jesus through the front door. It was the crowd around him that turned us off. But then we discovered a hole in the roof, an alternate opening to Jesus.
Mark’s version of this story is found in Mark 2:1-12. It starts with Jesus “at home.” He had just completed a tour through the villages of Galilee, healing, preaching, and freeing people from their demons. Perhaps Jesus was looking forward to a few days at home to rest. However, when news got around that he was back in Capernaum, folks started dropping by.
Soon there was such a crowd inside the small Galilean house that it could hold no more—people sitting in the windows, crowded around the door, and filling the courtyard.
There are a variety of ways the “crowd” may prevent us from coming close to the source of spiritual healing, but this time it was purely physical. Up the road came a quartet of young men bringing a friend to see Jesus, but they could find no way to get through the crowd.
The friend is described as a paralytikon which is usually translated as “paralytic.” In Greek medical literature of the time the word was broader, referring to loss of strength, loss of sensation, or even loss of will. It covered what we call depression as well as physical disease.
The story does not tell us who initiated this man’s visit to Jesus. Did he want to see Jesus and enlisted his friends to carry him there? Or did his friends decide he needed to see Jesus whether he wanted to or not? Did they pick him up “willy nilly,” and was he hauled to the home in Capernaum complaining all the way?
The crowd did not thwart the determination of the four friends. Their creative solution was to lug the weak man up the outside stairs to the flat roof of the one-story house. The roof of a typical Galilean home was made of timber cross beams filled with brushwood and packed with clay. In Mark’s delightful phrase, they “unroofed the roof,” digging through the mud and clay to make an opening large enough to let the man through.
I imagine Jesus reaching up to help from below as they lowered their friend down amid a shower of dust and rubble. I imagine this because I imagine Jesus welcoming those who come in unusual ways.
When Jesus saw the faith of those four friends, the perseverance and creativity that marked their friendship, he said, “Cheer up, my son, your sins are forgiven.”
As a reader, I am surprised. I expected Jesus to say, “My son, your handicap is cured.” I was sure of two things.
First, that the “paralytic” was there because of his physical condition and not because of guilt. Second, that Jesus said there is no simple connection between unforgiven sin and physical disability. It was in John 9:3 that I read it. Yet, the first word of Jesus to the paralytic is about forgiveness.
If I am surprised, so were several other theologians sitting around Jesus at the time. Called “scribes” in Mark’s Gospel, they may need a word of introduction. Scribes were the faithful biblical scholars of the day. The patient, meticulous, and accurate work of the scribes gave us the Old Testament. If I had been there that day, I would have been sitting with the scribes, charmed by the teachings and interpretations of Jesus.
With the scribes, I also would have questions in my mind. My question would be different from the scribe’s in Mark. Perhaps they were wondering why Jesus used a form of the verb indicating that the man’s sins were already forgiven, not that they would be forgiven. Perhaps they wondered, “How does he know?”
I would wonder about the connection between forgiveness and healing. I would have noticed the way Jesus admired the faith of the four companions and wondered, “What is the connection between the faith of his community and the forgiveness of the paralytic?”
This would have been the perfect occasion for Jesus to make a connection between faith and healing or between forgiveness and healing. But the only connection made is that both are offered by Jesus. The pronouncement of forgiveness and the call to pick up his bed are two separate actions. Both sin and disability lose their power over us in the presence of Jesus.
A helpful way to get inside biblical stories is to identify with the characters in the story and reflect on what message that brings.
I could have been a scribe. There was nothing wrong with the questions the scribes were pondering. The challenge is whether we are open to answers that lead us in unexpected directions.
I could have been part of the crowd. Sometimes in my enthusiasm to protect the boundaries of my faith I end up building more walls than bridges to Christ. Sometimes I am so eager to meet my friends at worship on Sunday morning that I neglect visitors. Sometimes my church is structured in such a way that people with disabilities cannot enter.
Could I have been a friend? How unorthodox a path would I be willing to take to help someone who has been shut out of the presence of Jesus by “the crowd”? Would my faith be enough to cause healing in someone else?
But most often I find myself on the litter carried into the presence of Christ by the community of faith whose prayers, love, and support bear me up when I can’t walk. And I come away healed in spirit and body.
An ordained minister, Bob Bowman is professor emeritus of religion at Manchester University, North Manchester, Indiana.