Psalms 85:9-10, 11-12, 13-14
The crux of today’s gospel is the Lord’s compassion for sinners. He demonstrates that sin is altogether distinct from infirmities which some hold to be a sign of sinfulness. Their rash judgment might be captured in the false conviction, “That’s what I (or you!) get for being a sinner.” Being sick, having cancer, suffering, disfigurements and afflictions of any kind, are certainly not a sign I am a sinner. To think so would be stupid. That position abuses the dignity of the person who is suffering and afflicted. It also confuses or fails to distinguish between sin and the effects of sin. That’s the problem the Pharisees have in today’s gospel.
Sin must always be considered in the light of God loving us and Christ saving us. God wants to be merciful and faithful. Christ will always work to cure and heal us. In moments of truth, I know I need help; I cannot get out of the snarl of sin on my own, no more than I can recover from serious illness without the help of a doctor. In that awareness, I can see that sin itself is an infirmity, an affliction – but an interior one: an infirmity of the soul. When I sense God’s loving presence and my own need for God’s help, I will be aware of his mercy and that he forgives me. God cannot do otherwise. All I need to do is ask. God is love, the love is unconditional, and forgiveness is the form God’s love takes when he relates to us in our sinfulness. When we accept it, we are healed of our interior infirmity.
Today’s gospel is a good illustration. And it is a natural for using a method of prayer St. Ignatius of Loyola calls “contemplation.” He suggests using our senses and imaginations when praying with a gospel story; that we creatively enhance it with new detail like great artists do when depicting scenes from the life of Christ. He then suggests putting ourselves into the story as an observer, participant, or even a key character. What makes the method work is to do this while honoring the sense, intent, and meaning of the story. The method draws us into a scripture passage with freshness and depth, and it makes the prayer very personal.
Let’s imagine there’s this 38 year old fellow paralyzed from the neck down. Call him Bart. As a nine-year-old, he fell over a rocky ledge while playing with his four best friends, severely injuring his spinal cord. Now an invalid adult, one of those same friends today is feeding lunch to Bart on the sunny porch where he spends most of his late mornings. Our Lord walks by and stops to chat with them. Feel the compassion Christ feels for Bart and the love of his faithful friend. They see him too. Notice the friend’s smile, but also notice the frustration in Bart’s demeanor, the loneliness in his eyes, and the peeved look on his face as, once more, he has to deal with a stranger beholding his helpless condition. He’s almost ready to complain out loud, thinking, “What do you want anyway!” Picture him as an angry man – angry at God and anyone reaching out to him. He is a lonely man, wants to be left alone, and refuses the love and care of others. That’s his sin.
Some days later, in mid-afternoon, a leader among the local Pharisees meets Jesus and invites him home. Every week the Pharisee has colleagues over for a morning’s discussion of Jewish law. Jesus knows the man, and can tell by his look of superior pride that the invitation was to see if the Lord knew the law and was as firm on the letter of it as he was. Jesus accepts the invitation. Together they walk to the Pharisee’s mansion, enter, and greet the other ten Pharisees gathered to talk about “important things” like the restrictions and obligations the law imposes. The host invites Jesus to start the conversation, and soon he has them fully attentive. Not only that, but others drift in to listen, and eventually the place is packed with observers. Feel the heat of the moment, as the Lord challenges the scriptural literalism of the Pharisees, and sense how he is winning the hearts of the other visitors who hear from him the heart and spirit of the Law.
Outside, Bart’s four boyhood friends are trying to bring Bart in to hear. They hope that the Lord will do something for Bart: bless him, or maybe even heal him with one of those miracles they have heard of. Their determination to bring him in shows their faith. But they can’t get in because of the crowd, so they quickly carry him to the side of the mansion, climb to the roof, and manage to pull Bart up on a blanket-like mat. They lift and toss away tiles from the roof to make an opening, planning to lower Bart down into the room. The noise they make distracts the crowd, and Jesus looks up. He sees what’s happening, senses what the four are up to, and smiles a rich tender smile as Bart is lowered to the floor at his feet. Jesus rests his hand on Bart’s sweaty brow and says, “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” Bart’s face relaxes. Feeling the deep healing in his soul, he now realizes that the hurt in his soul has been far more disabling than his paralysis. He thanks the Lord with tears of gratitude, and his four friends are happily amazed.
Watch the Pharisees now. Luke the Evangelist narrates, “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 I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ So he said to the paralyzed man, ‘I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.’”
Luke is making the point that forgiving sins and healing are both powers that come from God. The Pharisees tell us by their question, “Who but God alone can forgive sins,” that they are in shock that Christ would claim this power. They cannot see what’s going on wherever Jesus goes: His demonstration of compassion, his mercy, his impulse to heal, his desire to forgive – all flow through him, with him, and in him from the Father. What Jesus is, what he does here, is to demonstrate his divine power, which IS the Father’s power.
A suggestion. Using your senses and imagination, spend a little time in quiet prayer. Put yourself in what might be the next scene: Bart and his four buddies are on the porch talking about the events of the day and marveling at this man Jesus, and they are filled with an unspeakable gratitude. Jesus is there with them. Notice him responding. Allow him to speak to them, and to you. Then allow yourself to share a few words with them, and to thank him for the times he has forgiven you and healed you.
By Kevin Kersten