Reading through the story of Jesus healing the man by the pool of Bethesda, I was struck by a series of things I wanted to share with you all today, in no particular order. (But first, read the story in John 5.1-9):
First, the man doesn’t go to Jesus or ask him anything–he doesn’t even request the healing himself! Jesus just goes to him and heals him.
Jesus asks the man, “do you want to be made well?” Curiously, the man never answers the question. How human is that? We are offered healing and we instead want to complain about our lot in life or circumstances. Hell, many times, when the Gospel is asking us if we want to be made well, we don’t even know if we want to! (Yes, intellectually we do, but our stubborn ambivalence betrays our inner drives.) Sickness feels so much like home base for us. It’s familiar, comfortable, etc.
And yet, even in the man’s ambivalence and complaining and tunnel-vision about his sickness and circumstance, Jesus sees him, cuts right through it, and heals him.
Further, Jesus never says, “bam! you’re healed!” He just tells him, “take your mat and walk”; he tells him to begin acting as if he has the healing before he even notices it. Jesus healed him without consent, request, recognition, or even the man’s knowledge, and then calls him to live as if he has been healed. In so doing, the man sees he has experienced a healing he did not know until he started walking “as if”.
Healing from our own inner sickness is less something to be achieved and more something that’s already been done and needs to be believed. The Christian battle is not to make the promises of the Gospel true in our lives, but to grow in believing that what the Gospels says is already true, is in fact true.
(By the way, regarding the consent thing remember this is Jesus we’re talking about. Yes, he heals “without consent”, but it is with knowledge of this man’s deepest truest motives and needs. That is insight, we can’t really have.)
Also, the same is true for this miracle as is true for pretty much all of Jesus’ healing stories: (1) sickness is just as much (if not more) an issue of social isolation and political marginalization than biological sickness. Jesus is reconciling this man to a community and society, not just healing something biological.
(2) Miracles are more about being a “coming attraction” of the coming world where there will be no more paralysis, sickness, etc. It’s the future promise breaking into the present, not a magic trick to “prove” anything. It’s an issue of justice (making things right, as they will be), not simply power.
Remember Jesus is 33 here, but his man has been sick for 38 years (meaning he’s probably much older). He had every reason to write off Jesus for his age, and yet Jesus, though younger, was still able to call him into a fuller experience of God’s love. Think of the social dynamics there, especially at the time, in this honor culture.
It’s fascinating and poetic that the very mat on which the paralytic has spent nearly four decades of pain, he now “takes up”. He is actually carrying the sign of his sickness–at Jesus’ command. (Which, later, the Pharisees use to accuse him of breaking the Sabbath).
What does this mean? Was this the man carrying his own “baggage” which he should have let go of and left behind (again–at Jesus’ command)? Or is it a sign of his previous life he could use to share with others as proof of what Jesus did? Did Jesus just want troll the Pharisees?
Or, as I think, did he want to give the man a tangible expression of how his sickness had been conquered–what previously took hold of and controlled him, he now took hold of and submitted. It was a lived out a sermon to all.
It’s like how the Church Christianized the Halloween (a timely reference!). Gargoyles, masks, and such are all Christian twists on pagan traditions at the time. The day before we celebrate the saints that have died before us, they set aside a day to mock, laugh at, make light of, and jeer at the death and evil that had taken those saints.
So it is, perhaps, with this “taking up his mat”. Jesus wanted to let this guy almost mock that which had laid him low by carrying around the mat that used to carry him. Acting as almost a jester in the court of sickness and death, telling it and us not to take it too seriously–Jesus had comes, and Jesus had conquered, so we don’t have to be dominated by it.