February 22, 2015
MESSAGE “Either, or Both” Rev. James Renfrew
I love this story! I think it’s one of the earliest Bible stories I ever heard. Or maybe it’s stuck with me over so many years because it stands out from the others because of one amazing detail. Just picture the scene, picture the moment: they cut a hole in the roof! You can see one artist’s version of the scene on the cover of the worship bulletin. There’s the stretcher lowered with four ropes by the four friends through a big rectangular hole in the roof. As a little boy I imagined the roof of my own house having a big hole in it like that! And then a man being lowered on a stretcher. I was amazed.
Of course, the house I lived in as a boy down near Binghamton, New York, was nothing like the house in this story that took place two thousand years ago in Israel. The houses around Jesus’ time were one story, built of mud bricks, flat roofed, covered not by shingles or tar like your house, but by thatch, branches and leaves mixed with mud. It might have been leaky, but in that part of the world it doesn’t rain very often. Also, a roof like that could allow smoke from the cooking fire to go up out of the house through the thatch without needing a chimney.
They cut a hole in the roof! Who can forget a detail like that! Jesus was visiting that town, and lots of people were eager to see him at the house where he was staying because he was known to be a healer. But too many people crowded around the door of the house so the four men couldn’t get their paralyzed friend in to see Jesus. So they went up on the roof and lowered him down, on something like a stretcher, or a flatboard, or a pallet.
It must have caused a lot of commotion, because if someone was cutting a hole in your roof, you’d know it! You’d hear the noise, heavy footsteps up above, the sounds of shovels, pickaxes or saws, and then bits and pieces of the roof dropping down onto your floor or your kitchen table as the hole appeared in the ceiling. You’d be looking up, wondering what was going on, and then you’d see a man being lowered on a flatboard. It would get everyone’s attention! It sure got Jesus’ full attention!
If the hole in the roof wasn’t amazing enough, what Jesus did next was even more amazing. With the paralyzed man on the stretcher now lying right in front of him, Jesus says, “Son, I forgive your sins”. Just a moment later the man picks up the stretcher and walks away, paralyzed no more. The NRSV describes the man as paralyzed, The Message describes him as paraplegic. Either way, it’s amazing.
Here’s a part I also find amazing. During the entire story the paralyzed man says not a single word. He doesn’t ask Jesus for help. He doesn’t offer any words of faith, belief or trust. He doesn’t say “thank you” when Jesus is done. He doesn’t promise to follow Jesus. Not a single word. Then he walks away. And we have no idea what happened to him after that.
In the Gospels, each healing story has features that differ from other healing stories. Sometimes the person asks for help. Sometimes the person expresses words of belief. Sometimes Jesus touches the person needing healing, sometimes he only says a word. Sometimes he says nothing at all, and the person is made well. I don’t worry too much about all of these differences. The explanation that makes most sense to me is that Jesus knows what each of these people needs. It’s not based on what they’ve proven, what they’ve earned, or what they deserve. It’s the need. And the need is what Jesus responds to.
In this story of the paralyzed man, there is one particular factor that seems to draw Jesus’ attention. He is especially impressed by the bold belief of those four friends.
This encourages me to no end. I often think that my faith is not enough when I consider all of my needs, the needs of my family and the needs of the world. But maybe healing doesn’t depend on the completeness of my faith, maybe what matters most is having a circle of faithful friends who will come to me when I am hurting, discouraged or lost. Friends who will speak for me, act for me, maybe even cut a hole in the roof of a house for me!
You may not feel like you have enough faith, but you can be a friend, and someone can be a friend to you. How do you get to be a friend to someone else? There are no forms to fill out, no interviews to complete, no references to provide. You spend time with other people, you get involved in their lives, and they in yours, and over time you realize that you and your friends care about each other, learn from each other and help each other. The outcome of this story is a miracle of healing, something beyond amazement, but it all begins with something as simple as friendship. Maybe friendship is a miracle too? I think so!
Not everyone approved of what Jesus had done. Pharisees, who were Jewish scholars that specialized in applying God’s law to everyday life, complained loudly. They said that only God can forgive sins, and for Jesus to presume to do that was blasphemy against God. That may seem odd to you and me – after all, can I not forgive you for something you’ve done to me; and can you not forgive me for something I’ve done to you? It seems to me that God would be happy that we try to forgive each other.
“Why are you so skeptical?”, Jesus asked the Pharisees. “Which is simpler: to say to the paraplegic, ‘I forgive your sins,’ or say, ‘Get up, take your stretcher, and start walking’? Well, just so it’s clear that I’m the Son of Man and authorized to do either, or both .
Either or both. Jesus says he can make healing happen by offering words of forgiveness, or by just telling the paralyzed man to get up and walk. It really doesn’t matter how he does it, either or both, because he is responding to the man’s great need and the faith of his friends. The paralyzed man doesn’t care, I can tell you that. He’s happy to be walking.
They cut a hole in the roof! Now what does this have to do with you? Yes, you. You, with your aches and pains, you with the sins of the world around you and in you, pulling you down or oppressively hanging over you. To me this story means that Jesus tries to do whatever it takes to reach you, to get your attention, to touch your heart, to overcome the things that drag you down, to offer you a new way forward. It’s amazing!