Open to God’s next new thing

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
Mark 2:1-2 Healing of the paralytic
Marian Free

In the name of God who longs for us to allow ourselves to be forgiven and healed. Amen.

The Old Testament provides a litany of the failures of the people of God. From creation onwards, they have gone their own way, sometimes with terrible consequences. Underlying the account of Israel’s waywardness is the deep grief of God that the relationship he desires with his people is fractured and broken. This grief can be heard in today’s reading from Isaiah as can the extraordinary generosity of God who is determined to blot out the transgressions of the people without their having to anything to deserve such an action.

The author of Mark understands that it is Jesus’ role to heal the breach between humankind and God, to restore the balance and harmony destroyed by humankind’s willfulness. In today’s gospel Mark develops this theme, but introduces a new idea – Jesus’ action bring him into conflict with the authorized teachers and leaders of the faith.

In typical Markan fashion, the relating of the healing of the paralytic is economical. There is frustratingly little information and it is very tempting to invent detail to fill in the gaps. However, we must be careful of elaboration and try to understand that the detail is much less important than the point which Mark is trying to make. Mark is demonstrating how it is that Jesus comes into conflict with the scribes, a conflict which escalates into conflict with the scribes and Pharisees and Herodians and which will lead to Jesus’ death.

As we have already seen Mark creates a pattern in his story-telling to reinforce the point he is making and to enable the listeners more easily remember what it is he is saying. The same is true in this section of Mark’s gospel. Chapter 2 and the first six verses of Chapter 3 include five conflict stories.

Joanna Dewey has argued that the section of Mark has a concentric structure . Stories of healing appear at the beginning and end – the healing of the paralytic and the healing of the man with the withered hand. The first two units share the theme of sin and sinners (forgiveness of the paralytic and the call of Levi the tax collector) and the last two relate to what is permitted on the Sabbath (plucking grain and healing). Units two, three and four share the theme of eating (or not eating, that is, fasting) (Jesus eats with the tax collector, is asked about fasting and the disciples pluck grain).

Mark brings in allusions to what has gone before to further develop and reinforce his point, albeit with a difference. In the first section, Jesus’ teaching and healing, the calling of the disciples and the crowds that are drawn to him are used as evidence that there is a positive response to Jesus. In this section however, similar stories are used to show that the reaction to Jesus is mixed – the crowds are still amazed, but the scribes see Jesus’ as a blasphemer.
The emphasis in today’s gospel is less on the healing, though it is dramatic and amazing, and more on Jesus’ right to forgive sins which is the source of conflict.

Even though Jesus implies it is God who forgives, “Your sins are forgiven”. The scribes are surprised. Jesus has subverted the established process. It is the priest makes atonement for the sins of the whole people of Israel (Lev 4:20). Even worse, by presuming to speak for God (announcing God’s forgiveness), Jesus is claiming the same authority as God.

Of course, the point Mark is trying to make is just that. Jesus does have the same authority as God. This is not clear to the scribes, who though, apparently attracted to Jesus’ teaching, are not able to grasp this new complexity and who are unable to see in Jesus the promised Christ – God’s representative on earth. All that they can see is someone who is making pronouncements which are as absurd as they are presumptuous.

Jesus, confident in his role, refuses to be cowed. He could simply tell the man to get up and walk as would any other miracle worker. However his role is to restore order and harmony to God’s creation – to heal the breach caused by human sin. He understands the connection between disease and sin in the Jewish tradition. Healing implies that a person is forgiven, restoration to health indicates a restoration in a person’s relationship with God. So the question Jesus asks is very real: “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, “Your sins are forgiven”, or to say, “Stand up and take your mat and walk”? For Jesus the end result is the same – the person’s relationship with God is restored AND they are healed, a person is healed AND their relationship with God is restored. Jesus doesn’t just perform miracles, he gets to the root of the problem. He heals the breach between humankind and God.

The healing is evidence that Jesus does in fact have authority to forgive sins. It is not Jesus’ intention to draw attention to himself. The people get the message. They are not offended by Jesus’ presumption. They understand that while Jesus is behaving as God’s agent, Jesus is not placing himself in competition with God. Their praise is not directed at him but towards God: “They were all amazed and glorified God.”

The gospel speaks on many levels, but we do ourselves and our faith a disservice if we fail to look beyond the surface to what is really going on. The scribes have a reason to believe Jesus is blasphemous, but they have failed to grasp the larger picture. They are so used to the world as it is, that they have no vision of the world as it could be. They are so sure that they know right from wrong, that they cannot see that their rules are hurting rather than liberating people. They are so bound by the way they have always practiced their religion that they have lost sight of the forgiving God who lies behind it.

In a time of change, we need to remember that what was true for the church thirty years ago is not true for the church today. Over time we have responded to the urging of the Holy Spirit to become more compassionate and less rigid, more understanding of human frailty and less demanding of ourselves and others. An openness to God enables us to respond to changing times.
Every generation sees only a portion of all that God is. Our task is to remain open and receptive so that we do not fail to see how God is acting in our own time and place.

Marian Free

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