I love this story! Ever since childhood it has been one of my favorite Bible stories. There is so much here that I fear today’s post will be a long one!
First we see that Jesus is using Capernaum as a home base for his Galilean ministry. Remember Mark is telling the story based on Peter’s preaching. Capernaum was Peter’s home town and the place where Jesus healed his mother in law, so once again we see Jesus down among the ordinary people staying in someone’s home. We get the impression that he was having some down time, but the people surrounded him wanting more, so he continued his teaching. Notice the patience of Jesus.
The the men come bringing their paralyzed friend.
The illustrations of this story always show four men carrying their friend on a stretcher. Mark doesn’t tell us those details. Some information: The village houses were flat roofed with stairs at the side. The rooftop space was used as a kind of patio area. The construction would have been simple beams covered with perhaps palm branches with tiles laid on top. Taking the friend up onto the roof and dismantling the roof would not have been as difficult as it would be with houses we are used to.
The symbolism here is beautiful. The men carrying their friend to Jesus for healing represent the church. As leprosy was a symbol of the destructive effects of sin, so paralysis is a symbol of sin. Sin paralyzes the soul and the mind and makes us unable to respond to grace. The friends not only bring the paralyzed man, but they open through their prayers, all that separates him from Christ. Then to be healed the man has to be lowered and humbled. Same with us.
Did you notice that Jesus saw the faith of the friend who brought the paralyzed man and healed the man. Again, we see the faith of the church at work. God honors not just the individualistic faith of one person, but the faith of all of us–saints included. So in the Mass we pray, “look not on our sins, but the faith of your church.”
Notice the tenderness of Jesus. He calls the man “child”. This recalls the later story where he says, “Let the little children come to me and do not forbid them” and echoes into his words, “Unless you become like a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” I hear the little child St Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face. I hear her teaching about the little way of spiritual childhood. I see that Jesus himself became a little child to save the whole world. I see the Infant Jesus of Prague–a child and a king at once and know that I and you must become like little children. Paralyzed by sin, we are lowered to him and become like children again in order to be healed.
This is an important story. It is a turning point story. In chapter one Jesus was healing people (and no doubt forgiving them of their sins) but this is the first time Mark mentions forgiveness of sins, and Jesus forgives the man’s sins first–before he heals him. This is important because it emphasizes the priority of forgiveness in the healing action. Jesus is not just doing miracles and healing people because he is a nice guy and because he’s got the power. There is more to it than that and more to him than that.
In the midst of this beautiful, life changing encounter with Christ the Scribes are sitting there thinking dark thoughts. They have a quibble. Only God can forgive sins. Who does this guy think he is? Isn’t that just like the religiously self righteous? God is doing something marvelous in their midst and they start theologically nit picking?
This is an important details because it foreshadows the ultimate conflict. The Scribes and Pharisees are introduced as the enemy. It starts with the thoughts of their hearts and it will move on to the final battle. Furthermore, this dialogue also reveals for the first time the continuing riddle of who Jesus really is. This is a piece of brilliant writing. We are meant to share the scribe’s confusion and questioning. Who is this person? Who does he think he is?
As we share in those questions we realize another reason for the “Messianic secret”. Jesus doesn’t trumpet who he is and what his real powers are because we are meant to walk with him and ask the questions and discover for ourselves who this mysterious man of Galilee really is. We will see that his identity unfolds as the story progresses. Like every good storyteller, Mark slips us information bit by bit so we do the work and figure things out by the end.
Jesus knows what the scribes are thinking. In this story Mark reveals the power Jesus has to read men’s thoughts and know men’s hearts. Some of the saints like Padre Pio had this gift. Notice Jesus’ courage and honesty. He confronts them immediately with the problem. I think he does so with complete seriousness, but also with a twinkle in his eye. He has their number. He knows them and what they are up to. That’s why he pulls the trick question, “Which is easier, to say ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘rise, pick up your mat and walk’?”
Then he makes a strong, mysterious and majestic statement. “So that you know the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins on earth…” Let’s pick this apart. The title “Son of Man” echoes the vision of the prophet Daniel. In chapter seven he has a vision of “one like the Son of Man” who is at God’s right hand and is a supernatural person of power. Here’s Daniel 7:13-14 – I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, And He came up to the Ancient of Days And was presented before Him.14“And to Him was given dominion, Glory and a kingdom, That all the peoples, nations and men of every language Might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion Which will not pass away; And His kingdom is one Which will not be destroyed.
Whoa! Jesus is calling himself the “Son of Man”? Who said there was a Messianic secret? He gives a clear statement of his identity. Furthermore, he says he has power to “forgive sins on earth”. That sounds like he comes from somewhere other than the earth. Who is this person? You can see now why the scribes are not happy. But is this what Jesus really means? The “Son of Man” is a strangely ambiguous title. While it alludes to the prophecy in Daniel it is also a title which simply means “human” it is also a synonym for “son of Adam”. The title has the double meaning which perfectly captures therefore, who Jesus is. He is the mighty Messiah of Daniel, but he is also just an ordinary human–a Son of Adam–as St Paul will teach in Romans, the second Adam.
Therefore the mystery continues. The scribes will ponder what means in calling himself the “Son of Man”. Finally, the story ends with the people once more being astounded. Keep with this emotion. Don’t let this become stale. See the whole thing afresh and anew. Be astounded with them and share the emotion of the story.
Today’s passage ends with the call of Levi otherwise known as Matthew. Matthew was a tax collector for the Romans under the authority of Herod. As such he was despised by his fellow Jews on two counts. First, by working for the Roman authorities and the hated Herod he was a compromiser, a sell out, a traitor to his countrymen and nation. Second, the tax collectors were allowed to collect not just the required tax, but anything over and above which they thought they were able to gather. They kept the extra for their own purposes. Therefore they were despised not only for betraying their countrymen, but also for fleecing them.
The fact that Jesus calls Matthew to be one of his apostles is completely subversive. Think how you’d feel if the local priest was hob nobbing with a fat cat banker everyone suspected of being corrupt and greedy? You would accuse the priest of all sorts of terrible motives. “He’s only in it for the money…Yeh, sure. He needs somebody to bankroll his ‘mission’…I see, the big holy man wants some fat cat friends just like everybody else.”
Furthermore, all Matthew’s fat cat friends turn up for dinner at his house with Jesus. This gets the scribes going. “First he calls himself the Son of Man, and ‘forgiving sins’ then when he’s done he take some down time with the scum. What’s that all about?”
When they ask him he comes back with one of his one liners. “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” You can almost see Jesus saying this over his shoulder as he is dining with Matthew and his friends.
And so it begins. The battle is enjoined.