And again he entered into Capernaum after some days; and it was noised that he was in the house. And straightway many were gathered together, insomuch that there was no room to receive them, no, not so much as about the door: and he preached the word unto them. And they come unto him, bringing one sick of the palsy, which was borne of four. And when they could not come nigh unto him for the press, they uncovered the roof where he was: and when they had broken it up, they let down the bed wherein the sick of the palsy lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said unto the sick of the palsy, Son, thy sins be forgiven thee. (Mark 2:1-5)
Mark’s tale is a triumph on many levels. First, it portrays the triumph of selfless devotion. Who would not envy a man with friends who carry their disabled companion through dusty streets and packed throngs of onlookers and supplicants to bring him long-sought relief? It is a triumph of imagination and resourcefulness. For the friends could have accepted defeat and returned another day, in another setting. But to determine upon a course of action so novel, so daring, as to break down the very roof of a house, secure ropes, and lower a friend into the Lord’s presence! It is a triumph of the Lord over his detractors, for he silences those impudent enough to protest against his right to forgive sins by what is shortly to follow. And is it not, most of all, a triumph for the paralytic, whose faith is rewarded with the healing he sought? Perhaps not.
It is unlikely that the silent protagonist in this story experienced the whole episode in quite the way we have imagined. Only those who have suffered years of physical or mental hardship can know the wearying pain, the frustrated hopes, the moments of despair and periods of depression that can accompany the prolonged search for relief. Imagine, if you will, the first rumors that reach him of the miracle worker from Nazareth, this healer of maladies. With a mixture of skepticism and desperate hope, he enlists the help of his friends to secure an interview, a moment of consideration from this Jesus. They make the tedious journey. But they cannot penetrate the thick crowds of the devout and the curious; they cannot even make their way into the spacious house where he speaks. And so his hopes fade, only to be rekindled when one of the four suggests a dramatic entry from above.
The patient awaits the Healer’s hands or words, only to hear “Thy sins are forgiven thee”
The plan is accepted and executed, the bed descends, and a murmur of grudging admiration for the stranger’s chutzpah ripples through the crowd as Jesus pauses in mid-sentence at this unexpected apparition descending by ropes and pulleys. For our patient petitioner, years of hopeless hoping now come crashing to a climax; the patient awaits the Healer’s hands or words of restoration, only to hear instead this unexpected utterance: “Thy sins are forgiven thee.”
We, the readers, know we are in the midst of a great victory for Christ and his message. We know the words are calculated to outrage the haughty and critical among the throng. But what of our poor palsied man? All he could possibly know at this moment is his own devastating disappointment, bewilderment, heartache. “This is not what I came for,” he surely said to himself. “Such was never my prayer or petition. I have come to the right physician, but he has given me a prescription unrelated to my sickness.“
As readers, we rush on to the splendid conclusion; the naysayers are vanquished, the healing words are spoken, the miracle effected, and all ends well. Except for one thing. The shock of initial disappointment must linger in the mind of the cured man. As he gathers his bed and makes his way back to his own home, accompanied by his jubilant companions, was he strangely silent? Did he reflect upon the strange sequence of events, and the two expressions from the Savior’s lips? Did he rest uneasily that night, wondering which of the two were the words he most needed to hear, the words his soul most longed for?
What we think we need to be happy and whole, is not always what God knows we need
Was it physical relief, or was it forgiveness, he most needed? Or were those just two different forms of the same thing, two different ways of bringing healing to his wounded life?
My point is not by any means that sin is generally the real source of our suffering. It may be, and often is. My point, and I think Mark’s point, is that our deepest healing seldom comes in the ways or modes that we envision. What we think we need to be happy and whole, is not always what God knows we need to be happy and whole. Solutions that seem obvious to us may be distractions from where the deepest wounds lie, from where the abundant life is to be found.