April 29 (O.S., April 16), 2018: Fourth Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Paralyzed Man. Righteous Tabitha (1st c.); Translation of the relics of Martyr Abramius of Bulgaria (1230). Virgin-martyrs Agape, Irene, and Chionia in Illyria (304). Martyrs Leonidas, Chariessa, Nice, Galina, Callista (Calisa), Nunechia, Basilissa, Theodora, and Irene of Corinth (258).
Christ is Risen!
Before Jesus heals the paralytic He asks the man a question. “Do you want to be made well?”
On one level, this would seem to be an unnecessary question. The man is at the pool of Bethesda in the hope of being made whole. There is, however, a deeper meaning to Jesus’ question.
God respects our freedom; He doesn’t impose Himself on us. While “God created us without us,” says St Augustine, “He did not will to save us without us.”
This means Hell isn’t so much a punishment for sin but a sign of God’s great respect for our freedom. Out of His great love for me, God allows me to turn my back on Him even if this results in my condemnation.
Divine love is as different as can be from mere human sentimentality that seeks to alleviate suffering by violating the freedom of the person. For God, the human person is not an object of His love but a subject.
This means that God waits patiently for our free response to Him. He Who is our Friend desires that we should freely choose to be His friend (see John 15:15). And so Jesus asks the paralytic: “Do you want to be made well?”
Just as the question reveals to us something about God–that He respects our freedom–the man’s answer reveals something about our predicament as fallen human beings. “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”
Hearing the same Gospel readings year after year can cause us to miss important points in the text. In this case, we might overlook the fact that the man’s paralysis is not absolute. He can move, if slowly and no doubt painfully.
Rather than taking his limitations into account–say by staying closer to the pool or asking for assistance–the man blames others for his inability to get to the pool. However understandable, the man doesn’t want to accept responsibility for his life.
When Jesus asks the man if he wants to be made whole, He is asking the man if he wants to be responsible for his own life. And his willingness to be responsible for himself is in important.
A paralytic, after all, can live by begging. But an able-bodied man? He must work for a living. Being made whole means that he will now have to take care of himself. No more blaming others for what his situation.
The hymnography of the Church draws a parallel between our spiritual state and the man’s paralysis. Like the paralytic, I have reasons for not accepting responsibility for my decisions. And, just like the paralytic, my reasons are, to me at least, reasonable.
They are however only excuses.
In ways subtle and not so subtle, I want to want to hold other people responsible for my situation. Like Adam, I want to blame someone else for my sins. First, I’ll blame you; ultimately, I’ll blame God (see Genesis 3:12).
At some point, becoming an adult–to say nothing of becoming a saint–requires that I stop blaming others for my decision and accept responsibility for my own life. This, psychologically, is the essence of repentance.
Spiritually, repentance means more than just accepting responsibility for my life. The repentant heart is one that sees the whole of life as a gift to be received with gratitude from the hand of an All-loving God.
In the first flush of grace, this is easy.
But as we see toward the end of today’s Gospel, obedience to God will eventually put me in conflict with others. Obedience to God means conflict with those who prefer their own will to the will of God. “And that day was the Sabbath. The Jews, therefore, said to him who was cured, It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.’”
Even if I (mostly) avoid such conflict, being responsible for my own life means accepting the fact that my life unfolds in unexpected ways. Accepting with gratitude this life with all its successes and failures, its joys and disappointments, is the beginning of wisdom.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us be wise!
Christ is Risen!