Chapter 4: God Freely Forgives (Mark 2:1-12)
Our pastor was fighting a desperate battle against a malignancy of the liver. One Sunday morning his wife came to the lectern to give the congregation a progress report. From my vantage point in the choir loft I was watching both her and the congregation. Standing in the very place from which her husband had often pronounced the forgiveness of our sins, she said bravely: "God wants Jack to get well. There can be no ifs, ands, or buts about that!" A shiver went through the congregation. This was heavy stuff! Church members, who Sunday after Sunday seemed unmoved when the pastor pronounced the forgiveness of their sins, sat straighter in their pews.
Jesus had quite the opposite experience in his home in Capernaum. There, in the face of a desperate malady, it was the pronouncement of forgiveness that sent an electric shock through the assembled:
And when Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and Jesus was preaching the word to them. And some people came, bringing to Jesus a person who was paralyzed, carried by four men. And when they could not get near Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the person lay. And having seen their faith, Jesus said to the one who was paralyzed, "My child, your sins are forgiven." Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, "Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, "Why do you question thus in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the one paralyzed, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’? But that you may know that the Human One has authority on earth to forgive sins" -- Jesus said to the one who was paralyzed -- ’ ‘I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home. "And the one who had been paralyzed arose, and immediately took up the pallet and went out before them all; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, "We never saw anything like this!" (Mark 2:1-12; An Inclusive Language Lectionary: Readings for Year B, rev. ed. 1987, p. 69)
Can you think of any circumstance, any circumstance, in which you would say to a sick friend, "My child, your sins are forgiven"? Of course not. That is the last thing we want a sick friend to hear from us. It is grim enough to suffer illness without being reminded of one’s sins. Long ago we carried up to our mental attic as outworn the notion that sin is responsible for sickness.
But what if the friend were nevertheless convinced that her illness was a punishment for her misdeeds? What if she pleaded for absolution? Still we would hesitate to say, "Your sins are forgiven." Even to imply what we do not believe might bring some kind of punishment on us. So we would bite our lips and be quiet. We would not pronounce forgiveness.
Yet Jesus did. When friends brought a paralytic for healing, .Jesus said to that unfortunate one, "My child, your sins are forgiven." The scene is so dramatic, with the friends ripping open the roof to get to Jesus, that we are diverted from the scandal. But certain theologians who were present were not so diverted. They said to themselves, "It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?"
In the understanding of these scribes, Jesus was playing with divine fire, which most surely would consume him. According to Greek mythology, Prometheus went to the heavens and brought back fire for the use of humankind. For stealing what was properly the gift of the gods to bestow, Prometheus was doomed to eternal punishment; he was chained to a rock, where an eagle tore at his liver. Jesus’ claim to forgive sins was of the same order of audacity. He was claiming a gift that is up to God alone to bestow. If that wasn’t blasphemy, it was something very close to it. Wasn’t Jesus risking God’s ire?
That question makes us squirm. We moderns are cool to blasphemy; we’ll tolerate almost any degree of human presumption. We live and let live; our credo is, "Do your own thing." But even we supercooled people wish that Jesus had not said to the paralytic: "My child, your sins are forgiven." Let Jesus speak forgiveness to prostitutes, tax collectors, or even to women caught in adultery. After all, Joseph was promised by the angel that Jesus "will save his people from their sins" (Matt. 2:21). And, of course, let Jesus cleanse the lepers and open the eyes of the blind and make the lame to walk. But please, dear God, let us not get things confused. Sin is one thing; sickness is quite something else. So we have some sympathy for the scribes, whose inner voices sounded a loud alarm.
The cure for our uneasiness -- and the key to the story -- is in Jesus’ response to the scribes. But before weighing that response, let’s speculate about how Jesus might have responded. He had several options open to him.
Jesus the Jewish Rabbi might have given the scribes a lecture on the relationship of sickness and sin. He might have pointed out to them that paralysis is a telling metaphor for sin. What better symbol for a sinner than one who is paralyzed? Is not sin a freezing of the will that keeps us from doing the good that we know God wants? And is not paralysis, like sin, mysterious? When an innocent child is stricken with polio, we ask: Why was this one chosen, who never did anyone harm? But we could just as well ask at the appearance of evil: From whence does an Adolf Hitler come? a drug lord? a serial killer? a rapist? a child-abuser? We have no more final answers for the flowering of evil than we do for the multiplying of cancer cells. Does not sin, like paralysis in its more severe forms, resist all efforts at cures? Do any of us believe that hardened criminals, amoral youths, and venal politicians can be transformed into model citizens?
Jesus might have given the lecture. Or, Jesus the Compassionate might have shown to the crowd around the paralytic the same tenderness he would later display to famished thousands in the desert. There he was faced with people who had not eaten for several days. Out of pity, he made a meal for all of them from a few pieces of bread and fish. But first he raised a thankful face to heaven, to the One who sends rain to water the earth so that it might be fruitful and feed humankind. In his home in Capernaum Jesus might have appealed to that same generous God. When he perceived that the scribes were offended by his words to the paralytic, he might have chided them for their hardness of heart. What do mere words matter when a human being’s wholeness is at issue? What must God think of people who argue theology over the tortured body of one of God’s creatures?
In responding to the scribes, however, Jesus plays neither the role of the Rabbi nor of the Compassionate One. He does not discuss with his critics the relationship of sickness and sin, nor does he appeal to them to be merciful to a tortured fellow being. Instead he asks the scribes a rhetorical question: "Which is easier, to say to the one paralyzed, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’?" It doesn’t take a learned scribe to answer that question: It is much easier to pronounce the forgiveness of sins than to tell a paralytic to pick up a mattress and carry it away. For once forgiveness has been pronounced, who can ever say for sure that the sins were or were not forgiven? Forgiveness is an invisible gift. But if you tell another to take up a bed and walk -- and the other cannot or does not do it -- then your words are proven empty.
After asking his question, Jesus says defiantly, "But that you may know that the Human One has authority on earth to forgive sins," turns to the paralytic, and says, "Take up your pallet and go home." And the one who had been paralyzed does as Jesus commands. And all who see it are astonished. And so are we. For neither have we ever seen "anything like this." Those of us who saw the 1990 movie My Left Foot thought it marvelous that a paralyzed boy learned to write with the only part of his body over which he had control. How much more astonishing that a paralyzed man gets up and walks out of Jesus’ house!
We are not told how this happens; we are only told why. Surely the key words are "that you may know." The liberation of the paralytic points beyond itself. And to what? What is it that we are to know? Jesus tells us plainly: "That you may know that the Human One has authority on earth to forgive sins." This word is addressed both to the rebellious, unbelieving hearts of the scribes and to the naive, trusting hearts of those who brought their friend on the pallet. That word is this: Emmanuel brings forgiveness; God freely forgives sins. That is the primary meaning of the story of the paralytic.
Oh, there are secondary meanings to the story. Sickness is an apt metaphor for sin, and healing is always and everywhere a reminder of divine mercy. But in reading scripture we must be careful not to mistake secondary for primary meanings. Surely the face of God we see here in Jesus is that of the Redeemer, who frees us from the bondage of sin. God’s chief business with us is not healing, but forgiveness.
Modern sensibilities rebel. We are more taken with the image of God as the Divine Physician than as the One Who Forgives. In fact, we rather desperately want to believe that God is in the healing business. That was why there was such a stirring of hope in our congregation when the pastor’s wife said, "God wants Jack to get well." We do not want to abandon the search for the God whose primary concern for us is that we live well-adjusted, germ-free, cancer-free lives. Our pursuit of happiness and pursuit of God are scarcely distinguishable.
But humankind suffers from a sickness more profound than medical science can even describe, much less cure. It is what scripture calls sin. It is the malady to which Karl Menninger referred when he wrote a book called Whatever Became of Sin? Sin is that "universal neurosis" which Jesus came to heal. Emmanuel is Redeemer; the human face of God is that of one who freely forgives sins.
Sin and AIDS
It is difficult to listen to the story of the healing of the paralytic and not to hear echoes of contemporary debates and discussion about AIDS. AIDS is the acronym for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It is a medical condition caused by a mysterious virus (HIV), for which there is as yet no sure antidote. This virus has the effect of diminishing the capacity of the body to fight off infections. AIDS is one of those scourges that come upon humankind from time to time, like the Black Death in the fourteenth century. The native peoples whom Europeans met when they arrived on this continent had no immunity to the diseases carried by the whites. Whole villages, even whole tribes were wiped out by smallpox. AIDS has something of the character of the diseases that decimated Native American peoples - it wreaks havoc because people have no resistance to offer.
The AIDS virus seems most often transmitted through intimate sexual contact and through transfusions of already infected blood. Although millions of heterosexual persons in Africa have AIDS, in the West there is in the public mind a strong suspicion that AIDS is a punishment on persons for promiscuous sexual behavior or for drug abuse. The American Council of Christian Churches -- which claims to represent two million "Bible Christians" -- went on record as affirming that AIDS is God’s wrath visited on homosexuals and drug addicts (New York Times, November 19, 1989).Jerry Falwell said bluntly, "AIDS is God’s judgment on a society that does not live by His rules." And so a stigma is attached to AIDS, no matter how the condition may have been acquired. Children who acquired AIDS through blood transfusions have been hounded from public schools. An AIDS victim risks being treated as a leper was in biblical times -- considered unclean and required to keep a certain distance from others.
The public response to AIDS proves the tenacity of the notion that illness is divine punishment for wrongdoing. We should not toss away as outgrown the belief that sickness is retribution for sin. The notion survives - and with alarming vitality - among us so-called modern, rational, and scientific people.
Is God Two-Faced?
In view of the public reaction to AIDS, the account of the healing of the paralytic is startlingly relevant. We may have thought to have banished bashing the victims of illness; we may have thought it ridiculous to blame the patient instead of the pathology. Epidemics and plagues revive the belief that sickness is not accidental, rather some kind of divine judgment. In AIDS and Its Metaphors (1989) Susan Sontag says, "It seems that societies need to have one illness which becomes identified with evil, and attaches its blame to its ‘victims,’ but it is hard to be obsessed with more than one" (p. 16).
With the need to identify illness with evil goes hand-.in-hand this belief: The god who visits on us illness as a punishment for sin can revoke the punishment and heal the sinner. This god has two faces, that of the Kindly Healer and that of the Dread Avenger. If we pray hard enough and with sufficient faith, this god will turn to us the countenance of the Kindly Healer.
One of the deities of the Romans was Janus, the god of doorways and of beginnings. In sculptures Janus was pictured as two-faced -- like a doorway, which can let you i0 or let you out. Over time the expression "two-faced" lost the neutra1 meaning of in and out. It came to take on the idea of double-dealing. A two-faced acquaintance is one whom one can never trust; we cannot be sure that that face she shows to us is the same face that she shows to others. A two-faced god is one who also cannot be trusted: Sometimes the face of the Kindly Healer will be turned toward us, sometimes the face of Dread Avenger.
This two-faced god is well known in folklore and in popular religion. This is the god who has to be cajoled to heal. This is the god who just might, if sufficiently badgered or appeased, turn a smiling face toward the unfortunate. But if all prayers fail and that kindly face is not turned, then the supposition is that the afflicted deserves his fate -- or that his friends and relatives are being punished for being not sufficiently faithful.
This two-faced god is an idol -- a fabrication of the human imagination, a projection of fear and guilt. The countenance of God revealed in Jesus is not that of one with two faces: Dr. Spock for some and Sock-it-to-them for others. Rather it is the face of One who looks upon us with unwavering compassion.
True, Jesus healed the sick. But such acts point away from themselves. They point to the God who heals humankind of what the Bible calls sin. Jesus said this plainly enough in justifying his cure of the paralytic: "That you may know that the Human One has authority on earth to forgive sins. . . take up your pallet and go home." The God whom this story reveals is the one who freely forgives.
A True Witness
Our pastor, whose illness was reported in the opening paragraph of this chapter, died several months after his wife made her statement to the congregation. The malignancy won out, leaving behind a legacy of confusion. We were all numb with grief and guilt. What are the faithful to believe when a gracious and gifted leader is struck down in his prime? Did Jack work himself to death? Did we demand too much of him? Were our many prayers half-hearted? Or did we hammer too noisily upon the doors of heaven? Were we Promethean in our demands that this dear man be healed? And was his wife presumptuous when she said, "God wants Jack to get well"?
No. She was a true and faithful witness. How can we believe that the one who freely forgives does not also freely choose to champion victims of disease and disability? Are we not being two-faced if we affirm that God freely forgives, but doubt or deny that God wants us to be whole?