More about hard issues

Meditation on the Healing of the Paralytic

     One day as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law, who had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jerusalem, were sitting there. And the power of the Lord was present for him to heal the sick. Some men came carrying a paralytic on a mat and tried to take him into the house to lay him before Jesus. When they could not find a way to do this because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and lowered him on his mat through the tiles into the middle of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.
     When Jesus saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.”
     The Pharisees and the teachers of the law began thinking to themselves, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
     Jesus knew what they were thinking and asked, “Why are you thinking these things in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…” He said to the paralyzed man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God. They were filled with awe and said, “We have seen remarkable things today.”
—Luke 5:17-26, NIV

You can also find the story of the healing of the paralytic in Matthew 9:1-8 and Mark 2:1-12.

Modern faith healers have various methods, but two features are common to the ones I have observed. The first is that they rebuke the illness or pray in the strongest possible terms, the second is that they exhort the sick person to have faith, and proclaim that their healing is contingent upon their faith. Many faith healers also instruct the sick person that it isn’t enough just to have faith to bring about the healing, it is also necessary to persist in faith in order to maintain the healing and avoid a relapse. Some even go so far as to explain that the ‘faith’ the sick person is supposed to maintain is a sort of sustained make-believe that the healing is real, despite any evidence to the contrary.

Because modern faith healers operate within the context of a technological society, they most often represent themselves as operating a spiritual technology. It makes the faith healers a lot like hair stylists. Anyone can cut hair, but only a person who has a flair for it can produce wondrous results; in the same way, modern faith healers assert that anyone can operate the spiritual principles; they only claim to have a flair for it, which they claim is a gift from God. Though most of them make heavy references to Christian imagery, the mechanism they claim to operate actually excludes God by eliminating any room for Him to exercise discretion. They sometimes even cite rules that God is obliged to obey, which remove God’s free will and constrain Him to heal in response to their request!

Just as many faith healers marginalize God by eliminating any room for divine discretion, many researchers marginalize God by excluding the religious content as filigree, by lumping religious and secular faith healing together, and by failing to distinguish among the belief systems and the degrees of orthodoxy and orthopraxis of the religious healers, relative to the belief systems they profess. If researchers were testing the model that faith healing is a petition directed at a deity who possesses will, discretion, and wisdom, they would consider the identity of the deity and the orthodoxy of the healers in their particular faith traditions as variables and they would test for them. However, they don’t. They test to see if there are impersonal spiritual principles that people can manipulate. They have nothing to say about faith healing that consists of a petition to a deity with the power of discretion.

The faith healers’ blustery liturgical fireworks stand in stark contrast to their disclaimers. The faith healers dramatically lay hands on the sick person, pray loud and fervent prayers, recover from the orgasmic intensity of the experience—and then they issue a disclaimer that the outcome depends on the sick person’s ability to play make-believe! The situation is inherently contradictory, but because of the theatrics, no one notices. The faith healer is simultaneously powerful and powerless, effective and ineffective, blustery and meek.

The faith healers are really taking out failure insurance. They are always successful, because if the illness continues or returns, it is the sick person’s fault.

Jesus stands in stark contrast to modern faith healers. The text says that Jesus observed their faith, not his faith; that is, the faith of the people who brought the paralytic to Him. Whether the paralytic had faith or not, we cannot know. The faith that Jesus saw was faith that He was able and willing. Jesus did not see a capacity for make-believe, nor an affirmation that faith healing ‘works.’ They knew that He could; they had faith that He would. Jesus’ healings were different in kind from the sort of healing that modern faith healers attempt and modern researches seek to investigate. Jesus never told anyone to keep having faith to avoid a relapse, even though on some occasions, He told people to avoid sin so that something else wouldn’t happen to them—the equivalent of a doctor telling a patient to eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep.

In Jesus’ healings, it is the petitioner, not the sick person, who has faith. This is a good thing, because sometimes in the gospels the sick person is unconscious or even dead! The only time in the gospels that a sick person’s faith matters is when the sick person and the petitioner are the same person. If we measure our favorite television faith healer with the gospels, we see that the faith healer is the petitioner, and is therefore the one who must have sufficient faith—even if they arrogate the role of Jesus to themselves.

Sick people have enough to worry about without being guilt-tripped about their illness by a religious rite that isolates them further by transferring the responsibility for their health to their capacity for make-believe.

Most often, when we read or study this story, we mentally skip over something that seems quite odd to us when we pay attention to it. Jesus’ first act was to forgive the man, not to heal him. That seems backwards. To us the most important thing about this man is that he could not walk.

We should ask if the paralytic’s greatest need was for forgiveness or for the ability to walk. If all we have is this life, then walking is more important than forgiveness. If we believe that we have a future beyond the grave that is governed by our relationship with God, then forgiveness is more important than walking. Let us say that a man of 70 is unable to walk, and let us suppose we can foreknow that he will die at the age of 85 after being bedridden for five years for a debilitating disease. If we give that man the ability to walk, we enhance his life, but the ability to walk only benefits him for ten years. However, if his relationship with God is good order, the forgiveness will benefit him forever.

Nevertheless, we might rightly object that we cannot know such things in advance, and that the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Resurrection, not to mention the first epistle from John, teach us that material things are not only necessary and good, but also inseparable from spiritual things. It is harder to do something good than to wish a person well, thus by meeting other people’s physical needs, we avoid cultivating hypocrisy within ourselves. Therefore, we must address a person’s spiritual needs in the course of addressing their physical needs.

So we have to go back to the narrative again and ask an additional question: Did the man need to walk? I observe that in that time and place, there were no bedsteads, which means the paralytic’s bedding was not rigid. That means it would take at least four people, each grabbing a corner of the bedding, to carry the paralytic in a fashion that would not dump him on the ground. It is also possible that they made his bedding into a cot with two poles. That would reduce the number of people to two, but it would require more planning, more work, and thus just as much love. Since they carried him through a dense crowd and onto a roof, it is likely that many people were involved, because the minimum number would tire from carrying him such a distance without anyone to relieve them.

Jesus might see more value in the man’s inability to walk. The man’s paralysis shaped his personality. It required him to develop a set of social skills that he might have otherwise lacked. His paralysis also moved other people to virtue, as we can see from the fact that several people were willing to carry him to Jesus and to perform the brazen act of disassembling the roof above His head.

Even today, disabilities beget virtues. We live in a society in which the blind see with Braille, the deaf hear with closed captions, and the lame walk with wheelchairs. We even have surgical procedures to reattach retinas and embed cochlear implants. All of these technologies spring from the compassion of the able-bodied for the disabled. Some time ago, I had an opportunity to speak with a man who lost his arms and legs to a blood disease as a teenager. However, his disability perfected his personality, because it increased his reliance on Jesus Christ and it gave him the determination to get an education. At the time I spoke with him, he lived in his own apartment, drove himself in a specially equipped car to his job where he worked as an athletics coach, and supported himself on his salary. Through his life and words, he inspired many people to faith and virtue.

Perhaps in some sense and in some cases illness is more valuable than health. Illness perfects the patience and stamina of the sick person and it perfects the compassion of the caretaker. If we could banish all illnesses and all disabilities, we would have fewer occasions for virtue. As anyone who has fallen madly in love can attest, we have relationships because we have needs. Would we surrender our needs at the cost of losing our friends? I for one would rather be a paralytic with four constant companions, than to be able to walk and have no friends at all.

Jesus did it in the right order. He forgave the man’s sins, and then He gave him the ability to walk. While we recognize that only Jesus gives us healing, perhaps we should contemplate the idea that in many cases, He gives us an even greater gift by withholding it.

Jesus’ response to His critics is not what many people would like to hear. Many of us have a spirituality that would make us more comfortable if He simply announced that we all participate in the divine and that we all possess the prerogative to forgive each other’s sins. However, Jesus does not do that. Instead, He defends His personal authority to act as God without generalizing it in any way. Jesus says, “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” To understand the impact of that statement, we must remember that Jesus never uses term ‘Son of Man’ to refer to anyone other than Himself. The phrase ‘Son of Man’ in Jesus’ mouth is never generic.

The writer is teaching us a deeper truth. In that nepotistic society, the only way to possess a person’s power of attorney was to be that person’s son, and conversely, a son possessed his father’s power of attorney ex officio just by being his son. Jesus causes us, both men and women, to become sons of God in that sense when we become Christians.

Jesus, whose mother was a virgin, is the Son of God by birth, not by adoption. He is therefore God’s legal agent and thus can forgive sins. However, since there is only one God, the Father and the Son are a unity. It is proper to say that Jesus is God, an assertion we find as early as Ignatius, Justin Martyr, and the earliest Christian liturgies. Passages such as these quickly led to an articulate doctrine of the Trinity. The New Testament writers, in particular John, trace the divine triunity back to Genesis by identifying Jesus as the Word of God through whom all things were made. In Genesis 1:1‑3, God speaks the world into existence out of nothing, and the Spirit of God hovers over the water. The Speaker, the Spoken, and the Spirit are uncreated, they exist before creation, all three must be God, but God is one, therefore God is triune.

Jesus forgave the paralytic for the paralytic’s own benefit. He healed the paralytic to make a point. Jesus’ purpose in healing the paralytic was not to demonstrate His ability to heal, but to demonstrate His ability to forgive sins. The author’s purpose in telling us this story is not to educate us about faith healing, but to demonstrate Jesus’ deity.