March 12, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today’s gospel reading is from John 5:1-3 and 5-16.
After this, there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem at the Sheep [Gate] a pool called in Hebrew Bethesda, with five porticoes. In these lay a large number of ill, blind, lame, and crippled. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been ill for a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; while I am on my way, someone else gets down there before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your mat, and walk.” Immediately the man became well, took up his mat, and walked. Now that day was a sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who was cured, “It is the sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” He answered them, “The man who made me well told me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.'” They asked him, “Who is the man who told you, ‘Take it up and walk?'” The man who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had slipped away, since there was a crowd there. After this Jesus found him in the temple area and said to him, “Look, you are well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse may happen to you.” The man went and told the Jews that Jesus was the one who had made him well. Therefore, the Jews began to persecute Jesus because he did this on a sabbath.
This is a story that seems to be lacking sufficient details for me. Apparently, I’m not the only one to think so. The missing verse 4 was an addition after the gospel was written to explain the stirring of the water according to the New American Bible notes. It read, “For [from time to time] an angel of the Lord used to come down to the pool; and the water was stirred up, so the first one to get in [after the stirring of the water] was healed of whatever disease afflicted him.”
This man had been lying by the pool for 38 years. Did he lie there all day and night? If so, did he beg for food and clothing? If not, did he have family or friends who brought him each day? If so, wouldn’t they have helped him down to the pool when the waters stirred? Even if he had no family or friends, wouldn’t he have asked for help over all those years and wouldn’t someone have responded?
Those details must not be important to my understanding. In ancient times sickness and suffering were equated with sin. And water had miraculous life-giving power. The point may be that this man had been paralyzed by his sin and had become so familiar or comfortable with it that at some point he had lost the ability to cease from sin or to overcome it. Perhaps he enjoyed the sin more than he wanted to be free of it, to be healed. Jesus’ question cuts to the heart of the problem. Did he really want to be healed; did he really want to give up his sin? The man counters with an excuse that sounds well-worn. As usual, Jesus has unerring insight. It seems that he knows that this man only needs encouragement, someone who believes in his better nature, in his ability to let go of his sin, of his victimhood. This is not an issue of faith as many of Jesus’ healings were. He didn’t even know who Jesus was. When Jesus sees him later, he reminds him that he is free and warns him not to relapse into love of his sin again or it will be even worse. Like an addict who, having given up smoking or drugs or alcohol, relapses and finds it much more difficult to give it up again.
I know what it’s like to be lame, to fall in love with sin, to reach the point where I can even excuse or rationalize it. After all, it’s just part of me; it’s who I am; it’s who God made me. It’s easier to live with it than trying to overcome it. But Jesus knows me; he knows that I am more apt to respond to encouragement than to judgment. He knows that I need someone to see and believe in my better self, my virtues, and that I can use these to overcome my weaknesses, my sin. He’s not going to vanquish my sins by himself. I have to do it. And so he asks me, “Do you want to be well?” He believes in me and he will give me the strength to overcome sin and the determination to persist if I answer, “Yes,” even when others tell me I can’t like the Jews in this story.
Once I have given up my addiction to sin, I have to turn my back on it. Many years ago I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day. For several years after quitting I unconsciously would reach into my pocket to pull out a pack; I longed for a cigarette to go with my cup or coffee or a drink. When I was stressed or nervous, I wanted a cigarette in the worst way to calm me. I knew, though, from a previous experience that if I let myself have even one cigarette, I would be hooked again. I think that’s the way some sins work, too. I think that’s what Jesus was warning the paralytic about.
If I am serious about overcoming sin, I have to look to Jesus for encouragement. I have to believe that he believes in me, in my better self, in the in-dwelling divine spirit that God has put there. That’s why a personal relationship with Jesus is so important. It is the experience of his love that empowers me to be the person God has created and wants me to be. Love is the antidote to sin.