Saturday, March 03, 2007

On Paralysis and Faith

Several times during the liturgical year we are presented with accounts of Jesus healing a paralytic. While it may be somewhat tedious for preachers as we struggle to produce a fresh approach to these repeated Gospel readings, it is important to try to discover what the Church wants us to learn today, for the mystery of the word of God is inexhaustible. Lent is probably the most appropriate season for reflection on the healing of paralysis and the forgiveness of sins, for on the spiritual level they are virtually one and the same thing.

In one of St Ephrem’s prayers, he laments being paralyzed by intoxication with sinful pleasures, so in this case sin and paralysis are related as cause and effect. Sin produces a kind of intoxication which results in spiritual paralysis, that is, the inability to function in a normal and healthy way, which, if left untreated, becomes a sickness unto death. Ephrem uses the image of intoxication, which renders a person’s thoughts and speech incoherent, makes him unable even to walk steadily, and finally renders him completely unconscious and hence unable to move, somewhat like a paralytic. The physical and mental state of an unconscious drunk is analogous to the spiritual state of one who is filled with sin, for the effects of sin upon the soul and spirit are like the effects of disease or severe intoxication on the body—remember that the word “intoxicated” literally means “poisoned.”

We aren’t told in the Gospel if the paralytic’s physical disability was an effect of his sin. That was a common assumption in those times, though in the case of the blind man in John’s Gospel Jesus said that the affliction was not a result of sin but was permitted so that God could be glorified through it. Perhaps that was the case here as well, but unlike the case of the blind man—in which Jesus simply healed his eyes—here the Lord first forgave the man’s sins and only then worked the miracle of bodily healing. Regardless of the cause of the physical ailment, Jesus placed the priority on removing the sin. It is not uncommon today when people are praying over others for physical healing that it is revealed that the person seeking healing must first confess his sins, or a least that some spiritual issue is at the root of his physical symptoms.

So the paralytic may have been suffering from a spiritual paralysis as well. Perhaps he was bitter because of his affliction, or angry at God, or full of self-pity and complaints. In any case, he evidently was burdened with sins, for Jesus forgave them. The Gospel tells us that it was because of the faith of the four men that carried the paralytic that Christ forgave and healed him. “When he saw their faith,” it says. This “their” cannot have included the paralytic, at least grammatically. For they (not the paralytic) removed the roof, they made an opening, they let down the pallet, then Jesus saw their faith. For us this highlights the importance of both charity and intercession. Out of love for others—especially those who may be lacking in faith or otherwise unable or unwilling to come to God—we bring them to Him in our prayer. Through our intercession we help them gain access to God’s grace and mercy, opening up the roof, as it were, and carrying them into his presence. And in his mercy the Lord will see our faith and forgive and heal them. As members of the Body of Christ we are able to influence others in this way and to help them, even before they have the good sense to go to God on their own—though ultimately everyone must personally and freely believe in Christ and follow Him if they are to be saved.

The Gospel says that Jesus saw their faith. If we were speaking about anyone else, we would assume that this means their faith was recognized in a sort of deductive process based on their actions. They went to great lengths to bring their friend to Jesus; therefore they must have faith. But Jesus does not need to reason from external events; He really saw their faith! He looked into their souls and knew precisely their relation to God and their belief in his own power to heal. Jesus’ ability to read souls is made explicit when it comes to the scribes who “questioned in their hearts” why Jesus forgave sins, considering it blasphemy. The Gospel says that Jesus immediately perceived in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves. And he publicly answered their inner doubts and accusations with a miracle that confirmed his divine authority to forgive sins.

The scribes are the real paralytics in the story. They were spiritually intoxicated—by their own pride, self-righteousness, and condemning attitude—to the point of paralysis. They were unconscious of the presence of God in their midst and thus unable to respond appropriately to his wonderful works. In so many instances in the Gospels where Jesus works wonders, all the common people are rejoicing and glorifying God, while those who regarded themselves as the learned and righteous ones ended up angry, bitter, humiliated, and went away muttering indignantly and plotting Jesus’ destruction. The crowd shouted with joy and wonder after witnessing the miracle: “We have never seen anything like this!” The scribes too never saw anything like that, and they were probably hoping they never would again, for to them it was a defeat and not a reason to rejoice.

What is the difference—besides pride—between those who benefited from God’s mercy and power and those who attacked it? It is faith. The Gospel begins by saying Jesus was “preaching the word” to the people. What does Scripture say about the word? The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says: “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit…discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” I recently discovered something in this same section of Hebrews that I hadn’t really given sufficient thought to before, and it explains why the scribes and Pharisees remained paralyzed, and why the word of God, the message that Christ was preaching, did not reach its goal in them. The same message was given to all, but, according to Hebrews, “the message which they heard did not benefit them, because it did not meet with faith in the hearers.”

That is important, not only for our understanding of this story from the Gospel, but for our own lives. We hear the word of God day after day in the Liturgy and in our own personal reading of Scripture. Does that word meet with faith when it reaches our hearts and minds? If we are not bearing fruit, if our lives aren’t changing for the better, if we have any interior resistance to the truth and power of the word of God, then it will not benefit us, for it is not meeting with faith in us who hear it. It is not sufficient merely to have a kind of vague understanding or acceptance of the Bible as a sacred text that may at times be a useful guide. We have to believe that when we read the Gospel, Jesus Christ is personally preaching to us! And when we read the letters of the New Testament, the apostles are preaching to us through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

As we read the Scriptures, Jesus sees our faith, as he saw the faith of the men who brought the paralytic to Him. He also perceives our inner questioning, grumbling, or contrary attitudes and resistance. Among whom to we want to be counted—those who receive the word with joy and glorify God, or those who question and accuse, and who thus do not benefit from the word, since it did not meet with faith in them?

So, as we continue with our Lenten spiritual efforts, let us come to Jesus for healing and forgiveness, and bring others to Him as well, through our intercession and genuine concern for the enlightenment and salvation of all. We must be aware that Jesus perceives, at all times, all that we keep within our hearts, both good and bad. So let us not be among the spiritually paralyzed but among the liberated, those who receive his word with faith, and who glorify the Lord with joy and thanksgiving.