They knew that he was sick, crippled, feeble — all of those words so often cast upon a person like a heavy net that makes it impossible for them to stand straight even should their legs allow it — but if that wasn’t bad enough, they also whispered that his paralysis was due to some sin in his past. The poor man was not only sick, they said, but his sickness was his own fault, a result of a flaw in his character. Every glance from a passerby accused the man of the double failure of bodily weakness and spiritual weakness. They skirted by him quickly. They crossed the road to avoid him. They turned their eyes away in the embarrassment of having to witness such infirmity because they knew that even if paralysis is not catching, sin might very well be, and they could not tolerate being in the presence of a man whose flaws had clearly brought such tragedy upon himself. When confronted with illness you can’t understand or weakness that makes you uncomfortable, it is best to stay far away, they told their children, because such people have no one to blame for their condition but themselves.
No wonder the man was paralyzed. The judgment of a village hung around his neck like a millstone.
The gospel of Mark was written in the second half of the first century, sometime around 70 CE., when people’s understanding of physiology was primitive; their knowledge of germs, bacteria, and genetics non-existent. Medical practice at the time was a mixture of herbal treatments that might be helpful and treatments that made the cure worse than the disease. One ancient Roman doctor, for example, believed so strongly in the medicinal properties of cabbage that he not only encouraged his clients to eat a lot of it — a good thing — but also bathed babies in the urine of those who had eaten a lot of cabbage in order to strengthen the baby’s constitution — probably not such a good thing. It is no wonder that life expectancy was short when perfectly healthy babies were being given baths in people’s pee. While the ancient Romans were good at removing spears from warriors and binding up arrow wounds, they were at a loss when the cause of a disability was not sicking out of a person in front of their eyes, and so they had to assume that a sick person must have somehow displeased the gods. When a father comes to Jesus distressed because his son is having episodes of what we today would diagnosis as epilepsy, the father can only assume that a demon has possessed the boy. In the gospel of John, when the disciples see a blind man, they ask Jesus whether his blindness is a result of the man’s sin, or the sin of his parents. And while a paralyzed man today could expect to undergo a battery of cat scans, MRIs, EKGs, and blood tests to determine the cause of his paralysis, in the first century, the afflicted man could only assume, as his neighbors would too, that it was his own fault. Somehow at sometime, he had made God unhappy; he had sinned and in punishment for that sin, God had struck him down.
We shake our heads at the primitive notions about the relationship between physical health and spiritual health seen in this passage in Mark. “We have advanced so far beyond that,” we say, and yet, how many of us must admit that we become a little less sympathetic toward the person with lung cancer when we find out that they were a life long smoker? We may understand the physiology of lung cancer better than the first century Galilean, but if a person has an addiction to cigarettes that causes that lung cancer, we are still just as apt to condemn the person’s sin and blame their spiritual weakness for their condition as they were in the first century. In fact, when we hear that someone is sick, we have almost a knee jerk reflex to try to figure out what a person did wrong to bring that disease upon them because if we can convince ourselves that disease is a result of bad choices or spiritual weakness, we can also convince ourselves that we can remain immune from disease by staying spiritually strong. We say with a show of sympathy, “There, but for the grace of God, go I,” but what we are really thinking is, “There but for the fact that I take my vitamins regularly, that I am smarter about my body, that I am more together about dealing with my problems, that I have stronger will power and a healthier outlook, there but for the grace of my own good sense, go I.” In our heart of hearts, we are tempted to believe that there is a connection between a person’s spiritual strength and their physical well being: the ill person should have followed a better health regimen, the alcoholic just needs to practice better self-restraint, the depressed person should just force themselves out of bed and get on with life, and the obese person just lacks will power.
And of course, if this is what we are tempted to think of others’ illnesses, then when it is we ourselves who become afflicted, we turn those judgments on ourselves. When we are the one suffering from depression or battling addictions, when we are the one in the hospital after a heart attack, we compound our physical problems with frustration and guilt over our weak inability to fix ourselves.
“Why can’t I stop feeling sad? What is wrong with me?” the person who struggles with depression wonders, adding a burden of self-loathing to the already difficult weight of living with an unstable brain chemistry. Even something as seemingly arbitrary as a cancer diagnosis can turn a person into a stew of self-judgment as they review their entire life trying to figure out what they did wrong to bring this cancer upon them.
“Maybe if I had eaten more broccoli, I wouldn’t have gotten sick,” they say convincing themselves that they have only themselves to blame for their condition.
Jesus spent much of his ministry trying to get people to stop judging one another and to stop judging themselves because he knew that the misfortunes of the world are heavy enough upon our backs without adding the weight of blame and guilt. The paralyzed man lying at Jesus’s feet had been judged by his neighbors to be a man of sin whose physical condition was a result of his moral weakness and Jesus knew that between the burden of the man’s disease and the weight of the blame laid upon him, it was no wonder that the man could not stand.
The healing of the paralytic in Mark is my favorite healing story in the gospels. Many of the other healing stories attribute a person’s healing to their faith in Jesus, which I think just feeds into our terrible tendency to blame ourselves for our condition.
“If you only had enough faith,” too many churches have told their sick congregants, “you would be healed,” which of course suggests that if they remain sick, it is their own fault. In this story, however, it is not the man’s faith that enables him to walk — Jesus says that it is the faith of his friends. The man was blessed with four friends who had enough hope and stubborn perseverance that they were able to bring this man to the place he needed to find healing. If he carried the weight of the judgment of a village upon his back, preventing him from being able to stand, his burden was lifted by the care of friends who would literally lift him up. They did more than carry him — they moved mountains for him or at least, rooftops. They schemed and planned and dared and challenged all for his sake. Though society had been ready to consign him to the dust heap, those four friends refused to accept society’s assessment. They refused to believe that he was beyond help and that the only one he had to blame for his problems was himself. While everyone else avoided his pallet, these four remained by his side. They didn’t give up; they wouldn’t give in. And when opportunity strode into their village in the person of Jesus, they lifted their friend and moved rooftops for him and got him finally into that room where healing waited. I suspect, in fact, that that paralyzed man was halfway to being healed already as he dropped to the floor at Jesus’ feet just because of the faith of those friends. What a tremendous balm to a hurting soul to know that not everyone has judged you and found you unworthy of their regard.
Martin Marty said, “In a chaotic world, friendship is the most elegant, most lasting way to be useful. We are each of us, a living testament to our friends’ compassion and tolerance, humor and wisdom, patience and grit. Friendship….is the only thing capable of showing us the enormousness of the world.” (1) While the rest of the village heaped judgement on his head and pushed the paralyzed man further into the ground, his friends cast judgment aside and opened a new world of possibility to him.
This is such an empowering word to us because what Jesus is telling us is that it doesn’t take miraculous powers or medical degrees to heal people of the burdens of guilt and self-blame. We may not be able to take away a person’s cancer or “fix” someone’s depression but through our friendship and our simple willingness to stand with them through their struggles, not judging them or blaming them but believing in their worth, we can lift them up. We may not be able to heal bodies, but we have the power to heal hearts, a miraculous power indeed, and all it takes is a moment to be someone’s friend. And if it is you who are the one who struggles, if it is you who feels weighed down by your illness, paralyzed by your physical weaknesses, unable to find the energy and willpower to stand, look up and see the faces of those here who pray with you, who believe in you and will not judge you or condemn you. Look and see the faces of those who in our prayers and through our friendship will have faith on your behalf, that you may be lifted up.
In the first half of the sixth century, the monk Dorotheus of Gaza, painted a wonderful image of the power of friendship that I have used before but bears repeating. He said, “[‘Paul said,] ‘Let everyone, in the way that they can, work for the good of all…. For the closer someone is to their neighbor, the closer they are to God.’ To help you understand what this means,” Dorotheus continued, “imagine a circle drawn on the ground [with a mark in the center…..] Imagine that the circle is the world; the center is God; and the radial lines, like spokes, are people’s different ways of life. When … people want to come closer to God and so come towards the center of the circle, as they get nearer to the middle, they get closer to one another at the same time as they approach God. The closer they get to God, the closer they get to one another; and the closer they get to one another, the closer they get to God.”
One day long long ago, Jesus looked upon the faith of four friends who saw not sin or a tragic character flaw but only a man in need, and who through their friendship brought him to a place of healing. Jesus, who had spent long weary days trying to teach people about a new world called the Kingdom of heaven that is manifesting itself right now, right here among us, looked at the faith of those four friends and said, “That’s what I’m talking about. Son, your sins are forgiven. Stand up, take your mat, and go home.”
1. Spectrum, Autumn 1999