We continue our lectio by praying with the next few verses of Mark’s Gospel…
For most of us paralysis is not an experience with which we can readily identify. Perhaps we have occasions – or it is the service we render – when we have to care for someone who lives with a paralysis which is bodily, which inhibits, which is partial or almost complete. In many ways such paralysis makes us dependent upon others, robs us of freedoms enjoyed by most other people, and can be source of further suffering, especially psychological and social. But for many, the reality of bodily paralysis is a gateway into a lived experience – the extraordinary example and witness given by so many, especially athletes, shows us that their reality is precisely that – the opportunity, as for anyone, to live their life to the full – it no longer presents itself as struggle or burden, but as essential to who they are.
The scene in the lectio divina for this week startles us in so many ways. A man completely deprived of the use of his body is carried to Jesus. And as if his own reality were not obstacle enough those who carry him must negotiate additional hurdles to get him close to Jesus. And with all that done an argument breaks out and delays his hoped-for cure even further!
To begin at the beginning. Jesus is again mobbed by a crowd who have come to listen to him. Why do I, with these others, come to Jesus? What do I seek? Have I already presumed that what I ask of him is what he waits to give me? Mark tells us that Jesus is preaching the word to the people. In the first instance, this word is himself – the Word is making himself present to the crowd; the Word has placed himself in the midst of this crowd; the Word is the one who is happy being with those who follow him about.
Whatever Christ says to us he does so first by his presence. This is a word which is without words, and a presence, sometimes hidden by apparent absence, which is always turned towards us, waiting for us to take notice. This realisation is already the beginning of Christ’s conversation with us and ours with him. All conversations begin in silence; they begin with an expectant waiting; they acknowledge the presence of another who gazes at me.
Today the particular word that Jesus preaches to me is hidden in this passage in Mark’s gospel – what and where is paralysis in my life, and do I wish it to be taken away?
The paralytic is carried by four others. Paralysis makes us unable to act fully – the Greek origin of the word indicates that a loosening is needed, that, in some way, we need to be untied or unbound, let go free. In this case, the man is utterly dependent on the help of others, even to move about. We are faced with the necessity which we have to rely upon others in many aspects of our lived lives. A feeling of dependence is one which is often foreign to our way of living today – we have a tendency to run after the goal of complete autonomy, of an absolute exercise of freedom. But freedom can never be exercised absolutely – we always touch, in some way, the lives of others by what we do and say. But to be dependent upon others? This, often, is taken as an indication of weakness.
The essence of life in Christ is that our communion – our life with one another – is characterised by interdependence – we hang upon the support of one another to be able to live fully. In some way, each of us experiences a ‘paralysis’ which makes the support of others not only welcome but necessary. Allowing others to be our support, and giving ourselves permission to be humble enough to lean on others, reveals our humanity and therefore who we are.
Enough cannot be said about those in the Gospel story who go to these lengths to bring the paralytic to Christ Jesus. Their service is a parable in itself. There is no sense that what they do is done so that they can benefit – bypass the crowds, jump the queue to meet the Master by giving this guy a hand! There is no use being made of the person – the paralytic is not a means to a selfish end. Those who behave selflessly towards us often go unnoticed. But they invite us to learn by their example to become selfless ourselves. In this way we imitate Christ perfectly – he does not count the cost by becoming a selfless sacrifice for us on the cross. He gives himself without expecting anything from us in return.
Now the story moves into a different gear again! Jesus sees the faith of those who carry the paralytic – faith expressed through their good deed and charity – and forgives the paralytic his sins! The faith lives of others can lead us to Christ for the healing that we need! This is a moment for us to call to mind those who have formed us in faith, passed on faith to us, carried us in faith, by prayer and sacrifice, when we couldn’t be bothered doing it ourselves. They have led us into Christ’s presence and we haven’t noticed.
The scribes say here that only God can forgive sins, and so, unwittingly, identify Jesus for who he is! This whole episode, in all its many parts, is a moment of revelation, and culminates in Christ’s mention of authority and the astounded praise of the people – ‘we have never seen anything like this before!’ Indeed they have not! But they have only seen the sign and not followed its direction – something of which we are all guilty at times. Reading the signs of God’s presence in our lives, buried in our experiences, in nature around us, is a pressing and constant responsibility for the serious seeker – God reveals himself to us and asks to be seen. He is not, and does not intend to be, a hidden God since revealing himself in Christ.
The ultimate paralysis is healed by Christ. There is no dichotomy here, or opposition between, the forgiveness of sins and the outward healing of the paralytic. Indeed, Jesus asks – ‘Which of these is easier?’ Of course, neither is easy, or indeed, one might say, even possible! But Jesus accomplishes both – he forgives the man’s sins, and restores him to full physical capacity.
We shouldn’t ignore Christ’s brief interaction with the scribes – they murmur in their hearts against him, and he asks – ‘Why do you have these thoughts in your hearts?’ For those of us who follow the teaching on the afflcitive thoughts – food, sex, things, anger, dejection, acedia, vainglory and pride – here is Christ encouraging us in our practice! The business of the combat with the afflictive thoughts is an essential one if we are to allow Christ to work his grace within us – and it is one which invites a new beginning in every moment. There is no moment in any day when we cannot begin again to move aside the thoughts so that our hearts are opened to Jesus healing and restoring. And he asks us, crucially, to consent to this. Here, in this little healing parable, the choice is set before us – be paralysed, like the scribes, by becoming our thought, or be restored and healed like the paralytic who recognises the brokenness of his reality and is led to Jesus.
We must be careful that we do not automatically associate the man’s physical paralysis with the sins that he has committed. The two are realities in his life, and the implication, for us, is that sin paralyses, and at a very deep level. We might think of that pivotal moment in John’s Gospel when Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead and calls him forth from the tomb. The command which he gives to all those present is ‘Unbind him, let him go free’ (John 11:44). This removal of the bands of cloth which accompanied the dead Lazarus into the darkness of the death place, his tomb, is a concrete sign that Jesus has done the work which was needed – Lazarus has been completely freed, set loose (paralysis!) from sin and death, and can live again fully, here and now.
The desire to be unbound and set free is one shared by all of us. And it is something which Jesus gifts to us – the possibility of unbinding others by the forgiveness which we offer them, and which we may be withholding, is a real living out of the grace of forgiveness which we ourselves have received. Sin paralyses – and forgiveness of sin unbinds. Accepting the forgiveness given to us, which restores us, allows us to do the same for others, even those for whom we harbour real enmity.
In all our lectio there is a moment for praise for the work which Christ the Word accomplishes in us – this man does just so now. He gets up and reclaims the life which has been given back to him. The essential invitation to all of us is to get up again. The paralysis which sin and doubt bring does not have to be a permanent way of living. And we do it as a means of thanksgiving for what we have received and of witness to others that Christ changes our reality constantly.
-Part of our continuous lectio divina on the Gospel According to Mark-